Sun bloc - Issue 7 - Magazine | Monocle

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Across the Adriatic from the “heel” of the Italian boot lies the pine-covered Greek island of Corfu, which beckons thousands of northern Europeans to its beaches every year. A 25-minute ferry ride to the east across the bay of Sarandë lies the southern tip of Albania. It might as well be another planet.

The beaches are vast and white – and empty. High cliffs plunge to the sea, cradling turquoise bays between rocky outcrops. Don’t look for any beach umbrellas. You’ll have to bring your own. It goes on like this for 362 kilometres until you hit Montenegro in the north. And, as it turns out, most of the beach is for sale.

“It’s the last beach in Europe,” says Paul Bradbury, a British developer. Bradbury is standing on a crescent of sand called Lalezit Bay, a 40-minute drive from the capital city of Tirana. Lalezit lies just north of the coastal town of Durrës, where it seems most of Tirana’s 800,000 residents go to frolic at weekends. It’s a breeze-block eyesore, but it ends just out of town, and by the time you get to Lalezit Bay, it’s almost empty.

Bradbury and his partner Neil Lewis are about to take an option on a parcel of land that runs to 430,000 square metre at a price of €35 a square metre. “In Croatia, you would pay five or six times as much if you could even find a piece of land that big and manage to get the ownership papers,” he enthuses.

Over the past seven years, Albania’s Balkan neighbours Croatia, Montenegro and Bulgaria have seen property prices explode. It’s not hard to see why: the beaches of France and Italy are pricey and jam-packed. The high-rises along Spain’s Costa Brava stand as an example of how to screw up a property boom – although it’s unlikely the Balkans will be raising the standards of international architecture any time soon.

The Balkans emerged from the communist deep-freeze as the perfect antidote: unspoilt and cheap. The new breed of Balkan punters came from northern Europe. Some were looking for a second home on an undeveloped bit of sand, others a short-term investment as prices rapidly increased. Before each boom, buyers had to erase the negative images that had kept of the Balkans: the people were backward and lawless, some kind of ethnic volcano could erupt at any moment. But greed and sun-starvation can have magical effects on thinking.

They came, they bought. Or rather, they stayed at home and bought online, as a feeding frenzy took hold. Three years ago, beachfront apartments on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Riviera that sold for €775 a sq m are now selling for €1300 a sq m – a 20 per cent annual increase.

Bradbury moved down to the Croatian island of Hvar four years ago to make his fortune in the boom there. Since then, his estate agency has sold stone houses in the villages and modern villas in Hvar’s port towns.

Bradbury has been the agent in the sale of one stone house three separate times as each English buyer flipped the property for a fast profit. With each sale, the price doubled, ending up at around €180,000. The Croatian market may keep rising but it’s getting tired and bargains are long gone.

Albania is a lot further behind and the bogeymen loom even larger but its beaches are finer and virtually untouched. There are disadvantages. With a per capita income of €2,570, just ahead of Surinam, the country is poor. The thousands of stolen Mercedes that end up in Albania have some of Europe’s worst roads to contend with. Power cuts are frequent. Apartment ads still boast “electricity seven days a week”. Albania has always been far removed from the reality of the rest of world.

It was illegal to own a car before 1990. In the mountainous north, a medieval code called the Kanun still regulates the dos and don’ts of vengeance killing in isolated villages.

“Albania has this reputation of a country run by drug lords and mafia bandits and it’s totally undeserved,” says Philip Bay, regional director for property developer Colliers International. Colliers is currently developing two office towers in Tirana and an office park near the new Mother Teresa airport. “Albania is the gem of the Balkans and it’s going to end up as the most succesful country in the region,” says Bay, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically. But then he does have property to shift.

This kind of optimism is only just beginning to show in property prices and, so far, 80 per cent of the foreign investment is coming from Albanians themselves, two-thirds of whom live outside Albania. “These people are not stupid; they know what’s going on, and they’re incredibly loyal to Albania,” says Bay.

Other buyers won’t be far behind. “We’re just in the first stages here,” says Philippa Roberts, marketing manager at UK estate agent Barrasford & Bird Worldwide. Barrasford & Bird is selling apartments in a beach complex called Soleal, due to be completed some time in 2008. Prices start at £19,000 (€28,000). There are no restrictions on foreign ownership and banks will generally finance 70 per cent of the purchase price.

Four years ago, Barrasford & Bird was hawking apartments in the Bulgarian resort town of Sveti Vlas for around €22,000 to €29,000. Today, Roberts says that those apartments go for £80,000 (€117,000) to £90,000 (€132,000). “We’re predicting the same kind of thing for Albania,” insists Roberts. In fact, no Albanian beach is completely free of buildings.

Along the coast there are 700,000 concrete pillboxes built by the communist ruler Enver Hoxha to repel the invasion he saw coming right up until he died in 1985. They’re still there, giant monuments to a cult of paranoia. But the mood in Albania has changed. One pillbox on Lalezit Bay now wears a splash of paint and the cheery sign, “Welcome to my fuck bunker.”

Ironically, property investors can count themselves lucky that Albania spent much of the past century in Hoxha’s bizarre bubble. Under Hoxha, beaches were basically confiscated by the government. They are now being returned to their previous owners, a process that by law must be completed by the end of 2008. As a result, land is often available in huge chunks. And once restitution to the original owner has been made, titles are clean. That’s a refreshing contrast to Croatia, where the headache of getting clear title to a property often kills an otherwise tempting deal.

Other elements of Hoxha’s legacy continue to bedevil Albania. “The problem after Hoxha was that we had what you could call a managed revolution – it’s a democratic government but a lot of the same people are still here,” says Denis Kalenja, an engaging 32-year-old US-trained investment banker. Kalenja came home last year to head Albinvest, the government agency charged with promoting foreign investment. He’s part of what he calls a “brain gain” of smart young Albanians who want to drag the country out of Hoxha’s quagmire.

“I have to say that there’s corruption now and there always will be. I’ve seen the same plot of land sold three different times to three different people. The matrix is strong and it resists change,” says Kalenja, referring to the film. “But we’ve got a few Neos, and I like to think I’m one of them.”

Tirana’s in the midst of a building boom of its own. Mayor Edi Rama was a painter in Paris, and he’s made the entire city his canvas. Violet, yellow and green – Rama’s favorite colours – apartment blocks are springing up everywhere to house a population expected to double in the next six or seven years.

Some of these new apartments are selling online before completion, for €500 to €1,000 a square metre. The British in particular, always on the lookout for property bargains, smell blood. “I’ve got 50 people in the UK already on a holding list for a new three-storey apartment building in Tirana,”claims Anjola Aliaj, a lawyer with property developer Balkimmo. “There’s a contract that allows them to reserve the apartment for €1,500 while they look into the particulars of the deal, but they don’t even read the contract. They just send their 30 per cent deposit to buy, sight unseen. I think they’re crazy.”

Hoxha: the surreal dictator

Almost everything about Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist strongman, is shrouded by the bizarre. Did he come to power following liberation from the Nazis on November 28 or November 29, 1944? In Albania, the date is still a matter of heated ideological dispute between the left and right. No one, however, disagrees that Hoxha (pronounced Hoo-ja) was a very strange man. Under Hoxha, house numbers were illegal. So were private cars. The telephone service was virtually non-existent.

Hoxha’s overriding political principle was Anti-Revisionism, which meant no deviating from Joseph Stalin’s rigid orthodoxies. It caused Hoxha to break first with the Soviet Union, following Stalin’s death, and align himself with Mao’s hard line. Mao’s death led to a break with China. After that, Albania lived alone in stagnation and dreadful poverty. Not surprisingly, much of the population had one imperative, which was to get out of Hoxha’s lunatic asylum. Which they did, by the millions. Hoxha spent his last years in a wheelchair, his increasingly mushy brain troubled by recurrent dreams of the return of Albania’s long-dead King Zog. He died peacefully in 1985 at the age of 76.

The sky’s the limit

In June 2007, George Bush’s plane touched down at Tirana International Airport. After a €50m modernisation programme, including a strangely chic slanted-roof passenger terminal, designed by Malaysian architect Hin Tan, this is the face Albania wants to show the world. And in this case, the face is foreign. Since 2005, Mother Teresa, as the airport is affectionately known, has been run by Tirana Airport Partners, a private consortium of German and US investors. Given Albania’s traditionally paranoid response to anything non-Albanian, this is all good. Last year, British Airways landed there for the first time. For the first six months of 2007, passenger traffic rose 22 per cent and cargo traffic by 37 per cent.

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