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Under Communism, this was a grey concrete apartment block. Today, it is brightly painted (© michel Setboun/Corbis via Getty Images)

The music throbs. Dressed all in white, their instruments also a gleaming white, the pianist, guitarist, cellist and drummer belt out a catchy tune at full volume. Tall slender girls, beautifully dressed and made taller still by their sky-high stiletto heels, glide among the smart male guests. Groups of elegant men and women chat animatedly. Waiters discreetly hover, bearing trays of wine and delicious-looking delicacies. A grand party is in full swing beneath the tall columns and glittering chandeliers of a fine hotel. Is this Monaco? New York? Rome? Well no, actually. It is Tirana, capital of Albania, until 25 years ago one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. Cut off from the West and dominated by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was universally regarded with horror and fear. A state-sized prison camp, where travel was forbidden, food and clothing were in short supply, and torture, imprisonment and death greeted the slightest protest. Friendless apart from Mao’s China, the very mention of the words “Tirana” and “Albania” could cause a shudder. “Am I in the same place?” I ask myself.

Even as my plane approached I could see the “greater Tirana” spread out beneath me was not as I expected. Motorways, traffic jams, tall buildings, advertising hoardings; the urban sprawl characteristic of every major Western city was readily apparent. Communist Albania had been characterised by the complete absence of private cars and consumer products. Clearly, all this had changed. Whisked through the modern airport terminal building, I was disappointed that despite my request the immigration officer refused to stamp my passport. I had hoped at least to acquire a double-headed Albanian eagle stamp as evidence of my visit; but no, this is no longer necessary. Twenty-five years ago  visitors to Albania, assuming they were ever able to obtain a visa in the first place, had to walk across one of only three recognised border crossings, much the same as between British Hong Kong and Mao’s Red China. But these days, EU citizens move freely in and out of Hoxha’s former hell-hole. Admittedly I have the good fortune to be the guest of Mirela, an Albanian-born and naturalised Italian lady whose native tongue, local connections and organisational skills mean I have only to follow and observe my surroundings. But even if I were alone, I would have no difficulty. Signs are all in English, and smart taxis are drawn up awaiting arriving passengers, as are airport cafés, tourist offices and money-changing bureaux. A 50-euro note produced several thousand lek, the local currency.

A black Mercedes and driver appeared and we were whisked along the highway through the gathering evening dusk towards the city. We might just as easily have been entering Düsseldorf or Dresden. Familiar brand names adorned the skyscraper buildings. Traffic lights, buses, shops, restaurants, and people all gave the appearance of a thriving Western capital. With no sign of drabness and depression, the city seemed to exude prosperity.
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February 4th, 2018
3:02 AM
Refused an entry stamp by a typical public servant. If it had been somebody in commerce who realised he/she depended upon the goodwill of customers, it would have been "How many?". But no, your typical public servant has neither the imagination nor flair for doing such a small task for a tourist who would then possibly talk the place up and who knows, encourage more tourists, foreign exchange and wealth. Nope, the opening sentence sums up public servants (sic), they who have no concept of making their own country better but serving themselves.

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