The famous setting of Ismail Kadare’s classic novel ‘The General Of The Dead Army’, Tirana’s Grand Hotel Dajti has many stories to tell. Sat between fir trees and the Dajti mountain it has seen intrigue, spies, dictators and love stories.
Once the most luxurious hotel in the Balkans, it is now derelict. Once dance music drifted through marble halls and chandeliers, now there is only traffic noise, mould and broken plaster.
In 2002, Dajti was declared a “monument of culture” but it was left unguarded, vandalized and looted. The Bank of Albania bought it in 2010 with a plan to restore it – but nothing happened. It is now in a sorry state, but you can see something of the former glamor in the beautiful Italian film, Hotel Dajti which is the romantic and nostalgic story of an illusionist who falls in love while working at the Dajti Hotel.
Some quick snapshots to bring the hotel to life:
In 1943, under occupation, the German and Italian military enjoyed the Dajti, every Thursday Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance movies were shown. Rival factions frequented the hotel (Zogist, Ballista, Nac.Clirimtare) and former guest Jusuf Vrioni said: “The hotel was a giant beehive of activity. They arrived bearing machine-guns that they placed cocked on the tables, their hands never far from the triggers. It was a very oriental atmosphere, but also had something of the back room of a Western saloon about it.’
In 1944 Albania freed herself from Fascism. A victory march ended at the Dajti balcony, as Enver Hoxha declared “Long live free Albania.” On the balcony were British, Soviet, American and Yugoslav envoys.
But Hoxha began a brutal dictatorship and the Dajti marked the divide between his propaganda and reality. In 1945 visiting journalist Harry Hodkinson noted the country was starving yet the Dajti menu: “makes wartime Ritz cuisine look like a corner house. Hordeuvres as big as a table, ohrid trout, lamb cutlets, steak, asparagus, eggs, cream cakes and fruit.”
The public image of the Dajti was fed to tourists and visiting delegations but the beautiful rooms that hosted balls, political delegations and tourists were bugged. Inside were agents and informants. The staff uniforms of blue and gold were worn by terrified workers and Sigurimi spies. The head waiter Dasho Kapaj said “being part of the team put you more at risk than being abroad.” He said the Sigurimi were everywhere and staff were suspected of being Sigurimi – he was so afraid that once when left a $5 dollar tip he rushed to flush it away down the toilet rather than be caught with it.
In 1971, Dajti’s fir trees looked down on Drito Agolli the head of the Albanian Writers League who confided in a friend outside under the fir trees: “We dare not write or believe what we want! We are killed by censorship, dictatorship!”
In 1973 Mikal was arrested by the Sigurimi, and told 13 witnesses had swore he was an ‘enemy of the state.’ His crime? Ten years earlier in the Dajti he had been caught on camera watching a Swedish Air Hostess dance in the bar to rock music.
In 1982 the loyal hotel barber who had shaved the Politburo for 30 years was put on a show trial as an ‘enemy of the people’. He later admitted he was forced to confess and give false evidence.
In the 1980s journalists were stopped by Albanians outside the Dajti trying to communicate the reality of this dictatorship to the outside world. However by 1990 the son of Hoxha was at the Dajti hotel for the opening of the Albanian telegraphic service, he was booed by the crowd shouting ‘Nic, Nic’ a reference to deposed dictator Nicolas Ceausescu. It has been the site of Art installations but it now derelict.
What will happen next is unknown. Perhaps she will reclaim her former glory, or just crumble away.