Beethoven the Albanian builder

Four and a half months of travel and I think I’ve seen the lot when it comes to accommodation. From rooms in exquisite settings to others where $10 a night was about $5 over the odds. But, hey, it’s all part of this NONY backpacking idea. Rough with the smooth and all that.
However, my arrival at the apartment in the Albanian coastal town of Vlore topped the lot. My host generously picked me up and drove me to the digs. The main picture above is the sight that greeted me. My Albanian language skills didn’t include “where are the walls, the roof, the rooms, the……” You get the drift.
Fortunately one level of apartments had been completed. The owner explained that his family had run out of money so the rest of the building was a shell. I sympathised.


Untouched in five years

Then I noticed the building next door. A hotel was under construction. Except, I’m informed, nothing had happened for five years. The owner had run out of money without even one level completed. There was a theme developing here.
Vlore is unfortunately a bit of a concrete jungle. Lots of new apartment blocks. Many finished but short on residents, dozens incomplete. The same goes for private houses. Shell after shell after shell. It’s like Beethoven had given up music, was working on a thousand different building projects then……..poof. Dead. Gone. Leaving behind an Unfinished Sea City.

The reason for Vlore’s mess? After decades of dictatorship the country had slowly opened up. Then the people really got the taste for capitalism. Investment opportunities sprang up offering astronomical returns. Anything from 19% a year to 100% PER MONTH. You and I know these ‘opportunities’ as pyramid schemes. Their inevitable collapse cost people their life savings and led to widespread civil unrest.
Ten years on the country had recovered pretty well. Banks were privatised, the economy grew rapidly and money from Albanian émigré poured in.


Beautiful views but abandoned

In Vlore the newly confident people borrowed money to invest in buildings they thought would soon be full of tourists. Others began building dream homes as bad times turned to good. Unfortunately the GFC hit and the shrinking world economy meant money dried up.

I wandered around the foothills of Vlore. There were some lovely homes with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. Sadly there were also more shells in the hills than on the beach.

Tirana, the capital, has a different building issue. It has a worldwide reputation for being utterly drab and grey. The city was undeniably full of ugly, decaying, communist era apartment blocks.
That was until 2000 when along came the new mayor Edi Rama, a former artist. He launched a programme to subsidise paint so buildings could be given a cheap facelift. There were no limits on design but monotony was definitely off the agenda. Many apartment blocks are now riots of vibrant colours in amazing styles. The result is mind-blowing.
Admittedly some of the work is a little frenzied but compared to the previous drab, grey, it is a cheap way of doing up the place. Critics point out that the decay is still there and that it has simply been painted over. But there’s no denying the amazing impact. Many areas are a frenzy of vivid colours and designs.


Edi now has a bigger stage. A few months ago he was elected Albania’s prime minister. Unfortunately, he’s just discovered a huge hole in the country’s finances. The outgoing government was corrupt and closely tied in with the mafia. According to documents published by Wikileaks, the US saw them as “Law breakers turned law makers.” The artist formerly known as the Mayor of Tirana won’t be able to just paint over the cracks this time.

A collage by Tal Bright, Flickr

A collage by Tal Bright, Flickr

Categories: Albania, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Beethoven the Albanian builder

  1. Guy

    I don’t know much about journalism, but I like to think that I know when something has been well written.
    I think (for what it’s worth) that you have a real talent. You seem to bring places alive in the way Alan Whicker could – and I’d look forward to reading your next piece, even if you weren’t a mate.
    Well done mate.

    • That’s very kind of you. Much appreciated. I think Whicker will be turning in his newly minted grave at the comparison (the great man only died last month).
      It also guarantees I will buy the first round when I see you. Cheers.

  2. Satomi

    Oh, and I noticed that a funeral parlor (or agent?) was in amongst the colorful cheerful windows…how fantastic! X

  3. Satomi

    Wow…rainbow building…give paint brushes to my lovely kindy-kids, they’d love painting those walls! What about those spontaneous room extensions on the verandas…hope the country is earthquake proof! Ps…Deb, I’m happy to lend my children to paint your house for more genuin artistic touch. Xx

  4. deb Chappell

    Mmmm ….given me some ideas to brighten up our house here at the Springs. Do you think it might take off ….. as you know all the houses pretty much look all the same, so this could be a turning point….perhaps you will see the results when you return. I will certainly give you credit!! xx deb

    • Never thought of Tirana and Peregian Springs together before. One has strong links with Stalinist dictatorships the other…….you can guess where I’m going.
      Buy Steve a few cans of paint in different colours and get him up the ladder. With his hook and slice the design would be memorable. x

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