Our heavily laden taxi turned off the main highway from Tirana and started to negotiate the rough, one-track road. The road wound its way around the edges of the mountains until we reached the ruins of Spaç prison, once a slave labor camp in the communist era of Albania. Two three-story buildings housed the large cells where 54 men at a time had lived and slept. They were required to work grueling shifts, filling metal wagons with copper ore and pushing the along uneven rails, some of which were under water. If they failed to fulfill their quota, they would have to do a second shift. And if they failed again, they would be put in a punishment cell. That meant sleeping half-starved in a tiny cell on a concrete floor. The temperature could fall to -0.5˚F. As the sun shone on the beautiful mountains, it was hard to imagine the torture and death that had once taken place here. It seemed more like a place for a picnic.
Albania could be called the forgotten country of Europe. The former dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for 44 years, broke with the Soviet Union after Stalin died because he thought it was going soft and deviating from the true Marxist/Leninist path. Later he also broke with China after Mao’s death for the same reason. So the country was isolated for decades. It was no threat to anyone so it played no part in international politics. Though Albania eventually gave up communism in the 1990s, the communist legacy was a rotten one. Many politicians and administrators under communism continued to have powerful jobs and even now, the Speaker of the House is a former communist minister of the interior. The gray market in bribes and blackmail has continued. The end result is that Albania is much richer than it was under communism but not as prosperous as it could be.
Crucially, the country fails the McDonald’s test. If even McDonald’s sees no point in opening up in a place, you can be sure it’s in a sorry state. Very few international companies are willing to do business in Albania. Poor governance and an almost paralyzed judicial system keep them away. Tourists might find it charming that there is no Zara, no Primark, no Costa Coffee and so on, but there are also few international companies in manufacturing, technology, mining or finance, so Albania languishes on only 35 percent of average European GDP per capita.
Yet Albania certainly has its attractions. Tirana is not pretty but the coffee culture thrives and meals are almost embarrassingly cheap. It only became the capital in 1920, so most of it was built during the communist era. The design of the buildings is therefore dull, but in the early 2000s Edi Rama, then the mayor of Tirana, now the prime minister, had the idea that they would look more cheerful painted in different colors. So, lo and behold: Tirana is a pastel-colored city. Many new blocks of offices and condos are under construction. This must surely be a sign of growing prosperity, I suggested to locals — but they were not so sure. They spoke darkly of apartments being bought by members of the drug-dealing and people-trafficking gangs and then left empty.
I traveled south to the resort town of Vlora, which has a beach front that must be at least a mile long — Albania’s own Promenade des Anglais, with restaurants ready to serve the modest number of people strolling by — then inland towards Tepelena. On our journey we passed the wide river of Vjosa, which is one of the last wild rivers of Europe and sometimes spreads as much as a mile and a quarter across. Byron came this way and called it a country ‘of the most picturesque beauty’. He also loved Albanian clothing and wore a grand Albanian costume for his portrait which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
In Tepelena, we went to see another gulag camp. This was a place to which all the residents of a village in the north had been sent, including elderly men, women and children. One communist had been murdered in that village so the whole populace was sent to the camp as punishment. The communists starved them, left them in the freezing cold and made them work. It is thought that 200 to 300 children died here. There are precious few gulag camps one can easily visit and this is one of them. It should be a World Heritage Site.
The story of communism needs heroes as well as evil dictators. An outstanding candidate in Albania is Musine Kokalari. She opposed the Communist party and was tried in one of those absurd justice-free trials at which she was supposed to plead for mercy. Instead she declared: ‘I am not a communist and this should not be a crime.’ As a result of her refusal to bend from this simple principle, she spent 18 years in prison and then 19 years in internal exile until the end of her life. She died in poverty.