As the Butrint history shows, many foreigners have tried to get their hands on Albania. In addition to the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Venetians, Ottomans, and Italians, the Serbians have also tried to annex Albania as well as the Germans in WWII. After the war, the dictator Hoxha aligned himself with Russia, got into conflict with them, then aligned himself with China and modeled many of his policies after those of Mao’s regime. Intellectuals were sent to the country, kids put in position of power, and communism reigned. Apparently Hoxha had a falling out with Mao too (no surprise there), so the country was very isolated under his regime for many years. Paranoid (perhaps rightly so, after all those invasions), Hoxha had over 700 bunkers built to stave off foreigners. They are so sturdy they even withstand a tank being driving over them. In fact, Hoxha had the engineer prove his trust in his product by making him stand in one of his own bunkers while a tank ran over it. Now that’s putting your life in your work!
On the bus ride out to Gjirokaster (Hoxha’s birthplace), we passed hundreds of these bunkers tucked under snowcapped mountains like Rosie’s rivets. While the natural landscape in Albania is quite spectacular, the views are decidedly disrupted by all of the garbage and rubble surrounding it. Bob, a Irish friend of ours that we met in Saranda, explained that after the banks collapsed and 70% or more of the Albanians lost their money in pyramid schemes in the 1990s, they now don’t trust banks (maybe a lesson here for all of us?) and instead choose to invest their money in building projects. They build a little at a time as they have the money. Unfortunately the result is random destruction of the environment with heaps of building material and rubble, with little to show for it, as far as the eye can see.
The town of Gjirokaster itself, the older part anyway, is quite beautiful, filled with slate stone houses, cobblestone streets, and topped with a castle and fortress originally designed to keep an eye out for Ottoman invaders. The castle is filled with old artillery and pictures of past world wars, involving women and children fighters as well. What a war weary country this is. Anyone who has ever played Risk knows how important strategically this part of the world can be! However, with the way Europeans are buying up real estate here, it seems to be a country full of promise as well.