Albania was formerly the most secluded pocket in Europe thanks to four decades of rule by an ultra-communist autocrat: Enver Hoxha. Hoxha was a staunch old school communist who fell out with all the other communist countries to remain in self-chosen, paranoid isolation for decades. He was convinced that he had enemies beyond every inch of Albania's border, he banned foreign travel for Albanians and all contacts with the outside world until 1991.
The remainder of the 1990s were not too easy, with lots of anarchic chaos, looting and organised crime taking over. Since then Albania has become a parliamentary democracy, and infrastructure and security have improved a lot. It is now no longer a problem visiting it as a tourist.
Tirana is mostly drab residential blocks of flats and chaotic traffic that is often at a standstill. Most of the touristy stuff can be done in one day, and you can get a certain kick out of walking through "Blloku" – the part of Tirana that used to be completely out of bounds to ordinary Albanians, since it served as the residential area for the ruling elite during the communist era and was heavily guarded. Now it's become a prestigious entertainment district – a trendy playground for Tirana's well-heeled young and affluent crowds.
The highlight was hearing from the locals about the times when the country was completely isolated (between 1970s to 1990s). In those days, the economy was bad, food was rationed and foreign TV channels were banned. Albanian TV used to screen documentaries about homeless people in the USA to show Albanians how bad life was across the Atlantic. Then change slowly percolated. When bananas first arrived in 1991, they were refused because people did not trust them. Or the first time someone brought a chewing gum, groups would form and they would take turns in chewing it, then they would wrap the gum and save it for the next day.
After a fallout with Moscow in the 1960s, the paranoid Hoxha was convinced the USSR would attack Albania, so he decided to build bunkers so that all citizens could defend the country. Approximately 700.000 bunkers were built all over Albania. The 'enemies' never attacked, so not only it was a huge waste of money, but since it would cost the country even more money to remove them, they've simply left the futile bunkers to rot. There are some in Tirana, and I came across a few in the countryside, bulging like big grey mushrooms.
Shkodra is the fourth largest city in Albania. It's dusty and the traffic is maniacally chaotic. Though there are some signs of a facelift, some streets and buildings have been renovated, a promenade has opened and there are lots of cafes to enjoy. Most people speak Italian in addition to Albanian.