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The wall of shame . A list of the executed “political prisoners” inside the “House of Leaves” which for 47 years was Home of the Albanian State Secret Police. There’s over 30,000 names on the wall.

I have a new stated objective for the remainder of my time in Albania. Make a male Albanian smile. The effort thus far has been concentrated and commendable but the scorecard clearly shows work to be done (sounds a little like my Primary School maths report)

Albanians smiled at : 752

Albanians who have smiled back : 0

In fairness the ladies who serve coffee at my favourite cafe each morning do stretch to a grin.

Street fashion on Skanderbeg Square.

I took a free walking tour with 37 of my closest friends today. It was a veritable UN of tourists. Our guide was magnificent and was an oracle of all things Albania. These free tours are offered in all the Balkan states so if you’re so inclined it’s a great way to discover what’s what.

Here’s a smattering of what I can recall that I learned

: the rocks that make up the tiles in the Skanderberg Square come from every town in Albania as do the surrounding plants. The idea clearly being that the square should represent all of Albania.

: until about a year ago the sqaure was a grass roundabout and congested with traffic

: there are more Albanians (7 million) living outside the country than in it (3 million)

: one of the biggest concentrations of Albanians is in Sicily

: Mother Theresa was born in Macedonia to Albanian parents

: The Albanians are proud of their religious tolerance with all religions living harmoniously alongside each other. That includes Christians and Muslims.

: there is a form of Islam they follow here that takes reference from the Koran. However it is such a liberal interpretation that you can eat pork, drink alcohol etc. The only thing you definitely cannot do is eat rabbit. Yup, rabbit. Go figure.

: This religious tolerance so impressed Pope Frank that he made Albania his first European country port of call when he took up residence as Pope.

: the centuries old clock tower overlooking the sqaure has been destroyed every time there’s being a war and rebuilt as a show of defiance and an example of the Albanians indestructibilty. It’s a 92 step climb to the top .

:Halil Hoxa who ruled from 1944 to 1985 was so paranoid of invasion he had 700,000 ( that’s not a typo.. 700 thousand) bunkers built to repel the invading forces that never arrived. Some as per below have been turned into alternate use facilities.

: During the communist era a family of four would amongst other provisions only be allocated 2 kg of meat for an entire month.

: Albanian leaders considered themselves the only really true communist state. After initially befriending Yugoslavia they accused the Yugoslavian government of not being true communists and took up sleeping with Russia who in turn they accused the same. That left them with China. It explains why today there are quite a few Albanian intellects who speak fluent Mandarin. It was the only country they were allowed to visit.

: Punishment was collective. Annoy the state and be thrown in prison you were unlikely to ever come out. Your extended family right down to distant cousins would also have “privileges” withdrawn.

: a brand new mosque that is a mini version of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul is being built on the front door step of Parliament. Funnily enough it’s construction is being sponsored by ...... Turkey.

: in order to be a political party you must command at least 5% of the vote. There are 5 political parties and the current government is socialist.

: the communist elite lived in a small section of Tirana known as Blloku (the block). Today that area is home to the best restaurants, bars, clubs in Tirana and is the epicentre of Tiranian social life.

: Tirana had a castle. Once. A long brick wall is all that remains.

: there’s a main street named after George Bush after he popped in for a half day visit following US intervention in the Balkans War. On his way out to the airport he made an impromptu visit to a cafe in a small town. Upon his departure the owners roped off the table and chair he sat at and have left them untouched since.

: KFC is the first and thus far only foreign food outlet to invest in Albania. Ironically their flagship shop is in Blloku and directly across the street from what was the residence of Halil Hoxa. As the guide said “Capitalism looking straight at Communism”. Given the attractive retro nature of Hoxas house and the large grounds it is in Versus a neon lit KFC shop I can’t say capitalism wins on this occasion. There is no McDonalds nor Starbucks.

Next time you’re thinking life is tough, try pushing a cart around Tirana collecting scrap metal.

The “House of Leaves”. Once home to the State Police and where political prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Once a maternity clinic the irony didn’t pass me by. Initially built as a residence dealing with birth it became a home to death.

Inside the House of Leaves - just a small collection of radios used to eavesdrop on Albanian citizens.

Tiranian Street scene. Oh to sit and listen to what they chat about. I am betting they’d collectively and individually have a few stories to tell.

Pedestrian only street leading to George Bush Avenue.

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