Follow the star: Albania’s Communist heritage

Tourists are now coming here for a beach holiday or to visit Albania’s Roman, Hellenic, Byzantine or Ottoman landmarks [here you can hyperlink to the relevant articles when they’ve been written], but any visitor will also be curious about the legacy of Albania’s Communist past.

Albania’s tourist attractions now include, for example, the innovative Bunk’art museum on the outskirts of the capital, Tirana, which is a creatively curated exhibition about the Communist years, housed in a former nuclear bunker. It tells the story of the regime which lasted from 1945 to 1992 and which was more savage than in Yugoslavia (with whom it broke off relations in 1948), Russia (with whom relations were broken off in 1961) or China (with whom they broke in 1978) leaving the country in desperate isolation.

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The capital is also a good place to understand other elements of Albanian culture under Communism – such as in the funky Komiteti bar-museum. This is a celebration of the best of daily life under the regime and has waiters in Communist era uniforms who will be happy to explain any of the clutter of exhibits and framed memorabilia which cover walls and every surface. They’ll also serve you one of the café’s liqueurs homemade to a recipe perfected during Enver Hoxha’s regime.

One of Tirana’s landmarks, to the south east of the city, is another legacy from this period of Albania’s history. The Martyrs’ Cemetery is dominated by the enormous statue of ‘Mother Albania’ which can be seen from the city. She watches over the graves of 900 people killed during the Second World War but this was also the site where Enver Hoxha’s body was interred though it was exhumed in 1992 and reburied in the common cemetery on the other side of town. Visit the cemetery for particularly dramatic photographs of the statue.

To enjoy more of the socialist realist art of the Communist regime, visit the National Art Gallery with inspiring canvases setting out the dreams promised by the dictatorship. For a reality check, you should visit the Memorial to Communist Isolation which is a few minutes’ walk away – just off the main boulevard (opposite the Rogner Hotel). It’s a chance to see up-close and inside one of Albania’s 750 000 pill-box bunkers, built in the paranoia about the threat of foreign invasion. The memorial also includes a piece of the Berlin Wall and a pit prop from the infamous Spaç gulag where political prisoners were interned by the regime. The prison itself can be visited on a day-trip from Tirana. Deliberately inaccessible, it is set in a dramatic and unforgiving landscape and is now a protected site as part of Albania’s process of dealing with the past.

If your itinerary enables you to travel in Albania beyond Tirana then also take the opportunity to rummage for your own Communist-era souvenirs through the curio shops in the charming town of Kruja, one of Albania’s most popular tourist attractions. The cobbled streets of the market are crowded with shops selling handcrafts mixed with Communist memorabilia and modern souvenirs putting a decidedly capitalist spin on the country’s Communist history. Perhaps a plastic replica pill-box bunker embossed with the name of Albania is a vignette of how the country’s free market economy is today moving on from its past.