On a street in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokaster two strands of the country’s history meet, but only one seems welcome. The town – a UNESCO World Heritage site whose white-walled houses scramble up and down the hills on the edge of the Drinos valley close to the Greek border – is the birthplace of two of the country’s most famous sons.
The former dictator Enver Hoxha was born here in 1908 and during his decades in power his family home became a hagiographic monument to the man. Today it is a rather underwhelming ethnographic museum and the story of its most famous resident has been airbrushed away. The house is at one end of a twisty, cobbled street named after the novelist and poet Ismail Kadare who is far more in favour.
Albania still bears some of the scars from when Hoxha’s brutal, esoteric regime isolated it from the world. Concrete turrets still poke out of the ground in the hills near Gjirokaster as they do all over the country, hinting at the paranoia of the past. In the medieval castle that overlooks the town a US plane shot down during the Cold War is forlornly on display.
There’s another concrete turret in central Tirana, alongside a donated section of the Berlin Wall. They mark the entrance to an area called The Block, a patch of the city centre that used to be home to the communist regime’s elite and was out-of-bounds to mere mortals.
But finding traces of the past is not always so easy. Hoxha’s former residence in the Block is unmarked and part of it is has been turned into a bar. Along the railings of the old house a bookseller has set up his stall and nestled alongside books by Ismail Kadare, Danielle Steele and L Ron Hubbard are some by the dictator himself.
Another nearby part of Tirana has yet to be redeveloped. On the banks of the Lana River – which looks more like a canal – is the Pyramid. It was designed to be Hoxha’s mausoleum, an ever-lasting tribute to his rule, but events overtook those plans and his body now lies in a grave to the west of the city. The structure that is left behind is an ugly, brutalist piece of concrete and glass. It is liberally covered with graffiti and kids are free to climb up its raking walls.