I was visiting my cousin in Tirana, Albania two weeks ago and to tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to expect. I was looking forward to visiting my cousin who has dedicated his life to God’s work for the past eighteen years in Albania. He often joked about being the only Guyanese in Albania but visiting Albania I recognized that he is one of the only black people in Albania. Despite being under the spotlight of local gazes, I got the sense that people thought it was pretty cool that I was there taking pictures, asking questions about statues and genuinely enjoying their country.
Albania is an eastern European country located on the Balkan Peninsula – bordered by Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Greece to the south. After decades under Stalinist rule and after the collapse of communism in 1992, Albania is a country in recovery and reconciliation with itself. It’s easy to judge a country and its citizens by the surface; however the challenge is to see beyond the grim descriptions of Albania and experience the country and its people through your own eyes.
Tirana, the capital city, at first glance feels unwelding with chaotic traffic circles and construction everywhere. Take a closer look and you’ll see the pride of the nation demonstrated in the Skanderberg Square. Skanderbeg Square commemorates the 15th-century resistance against the Ottomans with a triumphant statue of Skanderberg, Albania’s national hero. The Skandegrberg monument is prominent in the square and seemingly revels to the revolutionaries depicted in a mural across the square on the facade of the National Historical Museum. The National Historical Museum is home to the trilogy of Albania’s history from Late Paleolithic period to post Communism is depicted in room after room.
Colorful government buildings painted in yellow and red border the southern end of the square. Local residents joke about the government getting the paint on sale resulting in freshly painted brilliant yellow and red government buildings throughout the capital. The vibrant yellow and red color of the buildings enhance the natural beauty of Et’hem Bey Mosque and the Clock tower built by in 1822 by Haxhi Et’hem Bey, a Bejtexhinj poet.
Remnants of Albania’s communist past combine with fresh street art and avant-garde sculptures and structures enriching open public spaces. Bunk’Art is a group that has been turning Albania’s old bunkers into museums and art installations. Passing through the rooms of one of the bunker museums takes you through a time in history that some Albania’s do not want to forget. Phrases like “Losing the past means losing the future” pepper the walls of former prison cells. The bunker museum was bustling with young Albanians the day I visited and I felt a sense of Albanian renewal in the air. All over the city there were signs of this renewal – painted boxes, graffiti walls, and charming nature sculptures. There was even an art installation parked in front of one museum that looked like a matchstick mound which the security guard described as a place to contemplate – or so was the english translation given to me. He was a jolly guy even though I couldn’t exchange more than,” Hello” and “Yes, American”. He responded with an applause to American. Albanians love Americans so much so they have a road named after George W. Bush.
From the metropolis of Tirana, I traveled to the port city of Durres that sits along the Adriatic Sea with water links to Italy, Greece and ports south into the Mediterranean Sea. Here in Durres, I continued to see the rich history of Albania. The city is home to one of the largest amphitheatres, Durres Amphitheatre, surrounded by ancient Roman walls. A short walk away from the amphitheatre, you’ll find The Great Mosque of Durres, a remnant from the Ottoman Empire.
Modern day Durres is a typical seaside town with seasonal hotels, restaurants and amusement attractions littered along the beach. In the off-season, the beaches turn into a promenade where locals come to stroll with the families and pay a few Lek (Albanian currency) to weigh themselves on a vendor’s scale. I was fortune to visit Durres on a lovely day so I joined the procession along the beachfront, enjoyed some local coffee, and sampled some fresh olives from the market. Locals love hangin out in cafes which I can only analogize to limein’ in the Caribbean.
Albania is a nation with rich history and a population of proud people reconciling their history by facing it head on while ushering in a new generation of vibrancy. While the country is in need of economic development, the population is full of energy, proud and ready for change. Despite the negative images depicted in western media of Albania, it is a jewel of a country. Go visit and see what it has to offer you.