TIRANA, Albania — The first Albanians I saw were the soldiers in their olive uniforms lining both sides of the runway. They stood in the high grass, scattered every hundred yards or so, their backs to a seven-foot-high wire fence, their machine guns held at a 45-degree angle across their chests. Our small Alitalia plane landed a few miles outside of Tirana, Albania's capital city. There were 16 of us on the plane and I was the only American.
We taxied past a small military base and when the propellers stopped, the airport was silent. The single terminal was about the size of a McDonald's, and we passed more soldiers, each with a red star on his cap and either a machine gun in his hands or a pistol on his belt.
Eight decades ago my grandparents sailed from Albania to America, and 12 years after my first visa application, I was finally allowed into Albania--both as a journalist and to meet relatives.
For three weeks I traveled through the most isolated of the European Stalin-inspired Communist nations and met dissidents, loyalists and the dreaded Albanian secret police, called Sigurimi. I also saw the grinding poverty of this Balkan country between Yugoslavia and Greece on the eastern coast of the Adriatic.
Yet Albania's mountainous countryside is remarkable, the trip is modestly priced, by European standards, and since its borders have been essentially closed for half a century, a trip to Albania is one of the most exotic stops on the continent.
It was on the late-afternoon drive from the airport in an 18-year-old government-owned Volvo that I first came to view Albania as a Third World nation.
The roads were choked with peasant farmers walking home. They toted hoes over their shoulders, or swatted flocks of goats, sheep or cows to the side of the road. In the fields, plows were still being pulled by oxen and horses. And there is so little vehicle traffic that Albanian pedestrians have no instinct for cars, so our driver had to toot his horn every 10 seconds to alert them that a car was coming.
In 20 minutes we arrived at Tirana, a city with a mix of aging two-story, red-tiled buildings and newer concrete slab apartments, usually no more than six stories tall. One of the narrow streets emptied into the vast modern Skanderbeg Square, where an old mosque fronts one corner adjacent to the modern Palace of Culture, which is next to the Museum of National History and overlooks a large fountain.
Two statues important to Albania's history dominate the square. One is of an Albanian warrior named Skanderbeg who drove out the Turks in the 15th Century. The other is a bronze likeness of Enver Hoxha, Albania's first Communist dictator who chased the Nazis out of Albania in 1944. The statue of Hoxha, who died five years ago, stares out over the square, arms behind his back.
The hum of rush hour begins at 5:30 a.m. in Tirana--most jobs start at 7 a.m.--and the square is thick with pedestrians, buses, bicycles and motorcycles. Yet throughout the day, you can hear birds, roosters, sheep and the clop of hoofs as occasional horse-drawn carts roll by.
Even in Albania's bigger cities, life operates at a quiet, country-like pace. The usual city sounds are absent: There are no booming stereos, no drag-racing cars, no airplanes or helicopters.
I was quartered in the 15-story Hotel Tirana, the city's tallest building and one of two foreign tourist hotels. Rooms cost $30 to $45 a night, and you can leave your American Express card at home. The hotel accepts traveler's checks or cash. When you change money at the hotel, you are given crisp new Albanian leks, seven to the dollar although the black market rate is 40 leks to the dollar.
Tourist needs are filled inexpensively.
Three weeks' laundry was a mere $39. And the hotel gift shop was well-stocked with what in Albania are luxuries: Marlboros, Scotch whiskey, Italian toothpaste. I bought an Albanian folk rug for $84. When shipping it to the United States proved impossible, I folded the six-by-nine-foot rug into my suitcase.
Traveling in Albania means suffering through a news blackout. There is no International Herald Tribune for sale, and phoning out isn't easy. The entire country has a single, one-inch-thick phone book, so it came as no surprise that I waited three days to get a telephone line to the United States.
While I chatted with my wife on a phone at the front desk, the receptionist consulted his watch and a dozen people stopped to stare at the person speaking English. After I hung up, the receptionist announced that I'd been on the phone four minutes and charged me $1.40 a minute.
Food ranged from fair to fairly good. Hotel menus were loaded with veal and lamb dishes, which tended to be good. Pan-cooked farm cheese was quite fine, as were the bread and salads served with Albanian olive oil.