Ruins of Butrint
Ruins of Butrint

Ilia Grillo: What it's like to be a local guide in Albania

From Oliver Gilkes

Many Andante guests have met the local guides who work as our colleagues on tours far and wide. These are the people who generally work in the background, arranging and organising, trying to ensure that the site will be open, and the hotel is expecting us and regaling interested members of our groups with current views and opinions. It has been my pleasure to work with a number of wonderful people, all of whom I now count as friends, who have done much to enliven and assist our travels in far-away places.

For a number of year I have worked with Ilia Grillo in Albania, a professor of English, who has a lot of experience in guiding; because he was also a guide ‘before’ as the Albanians say, that is to say before the fall of communism in 1992. Thus he has a unique perspective on his country and its root and branch changes in the last 20 years. I was curious, and asked him to tell us what it was like to be a guide then working with the restricted groups who were permitted across the border with suitably short hair and unflared trousers:

‘My name is Ilia Grillo. I was born in Vlora, a town in the south west of Albania. It is actually the second biggest port in Albania after Durres. My house where I was brought up was only 50 meters from the sea, so I am a person who is not afraid of the sea. On the contrary I love it.

When I was born the country was still ruled by the communists. After I finished 8 years of elementary school I went to Tirana to study languages. I graduated in 1975 (diploma in 1976). The Party had a policy of sending out new graduates to the rural areas to educate village children, and I was one of the young teachers who was sent to the north to spread education to the most remote areas of Albania and thus contribute for the construction of socialism.

I had studied English for 8 years but I had never spoken to any English speaking people but our teachers. English was like Latin to us, learnt through textbooks and conversation with our professors. We could not approach the foreigners visiting Albania as tourists, as this would cause problems to ourselves and our families. No one in Albania was allowed to talk to foreigners without being authorised to do so and the security police would take a lively interest in anyone doing so.

In 1982 I was given the chance to guide foreign guests in Albania for the first time. It was a great privilege which meant that I had in a way become a reliable person, sound and trustworthy and not to be swayed by the blandishments of the capitalists. Sure, the people who had recommended me as a guide had an influence in Albanian life at that time.

We were chosen above all for our abilities with foreign languages. We had some general knowledge on Albania and we were supposed to read books for greater background on history and customs and learn more while actually guiding. There was no special education or course to become a guide. Anyhow a new guide was not on the microphone until he/she had got some experience from the more experienced ones. If they were both experienced then they both had to take turns. Worth mentioning here is that guiding was and still is a part time job because tourism is seasonal. In those days it was organised as a state industry as private companies were illegal in Albania. The state company was called “Albturist”, a now privatised firm that still exists. It operated the schedule of foreign visits and of course a chain of tourist hotels. Every big town had one of these, and even though they have now been privatised they are still referred to, in that conservative Albanian way, as the ‘Turizm’ whatever their new name! These were separate from the resorts and ‘houses of rest’ built for the workers.

Before these were built there were smaller, older hotels. The Dajti in Tirana had been built by the Italians in the 1940s, and still had all its old art deco fittings. At Saranda there was a small hotel called the Butrinti, while at Durres was the enormous Adriatik complex that had been made for the Russians in the 1950s. The new hotels built in the 1980s were all new concrete buildings, designed to the modern socialist plan. In fact they were not very modern but they were clean. Apart from Tirana International, only a few hotels had en-suite facilities. People had often to share them, on every floor there were common toilets and showers and sometimes you could see the tourists queuing to have a shower, very egalitarian. Nobody could speak about TVs in those days, and in Albania generally we only had the single state channel.

Nowadays the hotels are much better than they used to be. The old state hotels were privatised and they have gradually been refurbished. In some places lack of competition has made the new owners lazy getting used to earning easy money. For example Tomorri hotel in Berat, under socialism it was famed for its deserts and was the place where you could try the ’Monte Bianco’ pudding, it is the only hotel with a large capacity in the town. Relatively big groups have no other choice and the hotel is only slowly investing in modernisation, though now every room has a really rather good bathroom! Lack of such facilities happens only in remote areas where there are not so many tourists or where you can only come across adventure tourists.

The first foreigners I guided in Albania were Danish. This explains the fact that I am kind of inclined towards the Danish people although I found it very difficult to learn Danish by myself and I can’t speak it even today. They were good friends of Albania, friends of the Party, but still we were always told to be careful with them. We were told we should never be quite open to them, even though they were fellow communists they were suspect. This was told us by agents of the Sigurimi, Secret Police, and not by representatives of the Party. It was a big question mark for us.

Later I started guiding ordinary tourists. I mean those who came to Albania for tourism. They were not necessarily friends of the Party. So we had to be more careful with them. We, in a way, had to keep an eye on them and find out if they had to come to Albania simply to visit it or make propaganda against the system. Journalists were banned from visiting, though several did under other guises.

The truth is that there had to be two guides for one group. That was allegedly to manage the group better and help them enjoy the holiday, taking care for food, accommodation and other needs. The more experienced was always on the microphone while the other could have individual conversations with those who were interested in special topics. Many were the tourists who approached the second guide, in a way to find out extra information which was not mentioned in the so called lectures. We were never told to keep an eye on each other but still, it stopped us from being very open with the tourists. By and large we got on well together. Only once in my experience did anything worrying happen to me. Another guide overheard me when I told one of the guests who the daughter-in-law of Enver Hoxha was. She considered it a state secret! I was really scared. I thought I would end up in prison or at least lose my job as a guide. In fact nothing happened to me thanks to the fact that the authorities did not consider it at all important. You must understand that every Albanian had a state file, a ‘biografi’ where all the plus and minus points were noted down. This was very important for things like promotion or sending your children to university.

The economic situation in Albania, especially until 1990, was very poor. People had very little to eat and meat, cheese, milk, eggs, butter etc. were very scarce. We passed by a butcher’s shop and everybody could read the word ‘mish’ which is the Albanian for meat. There was no meat to be seen in the shop and so we had to lie to the tourists, tell them that it had all been bought and that a new supply was on the next day as we knew that the next day we would be in another town. A family of 5-6 people lived in a room and a kitchen. The bed room was for the parents and the kitchen served as a living room, bedroom and a dining room too. Sometimes the bathrooms were also partly adapted and used as kitchens!! But we still had to tell the tourists that we lived in very good conditions.

The paradox is that the tourists were very nice and friendly people. They respected us and with many of them we became friends. But although we could receive letters which were surely sent to the headquarters of Albturist and checked before we ever received them, we could not write back. We were afraid to do so.

Sure, as it often happens with foreign visitors, they also tried to tip us. We were not entitled to accept. It was a great risk. Anyhow we first received small gifts, such as pens and pencils, chewing gums, cigarettes, books and sometimes even second hand clothes. We often shared them with people from the office, in a way showing them that we were open with the authorities of what we received. In 1990 I can tell you that we also, secretly, accepted foreign currency, too. We had to be very careful so that the authorities did not know that we were accepting money.

We were not actually paid for our job, being on secondment from other posts. We considered it a great honour to be given that responsibility. We were privileged to have the chance to speak the language we had studied. So the greatest privilege was when we guided English (British) groups. This experience helped us to improve our conversation skills. Our knowledge in English increased a lot.

Nowadays it is quite different. The number of tourists has increased massively. In those days we received about 30000 tourists a year and now there are more than 600 000. Tourists can just come to Albania and they don’t need a visa to enter. In those days they had to apply in advance to get an entrance visa to Albania. Only a few tour operators were permitted to offer tours, I remember in the UK one was Regent Holidays in Bristol and Jules Verne in London. They undertook all the visa applications at that time. Now of course many groups come and I work with Andante Travels several times a year, very different to the normal groups, they are always interesting and see a lot of archaeological sites that other tours miss out. 

Visitors could come only in groups and they were not entitled to leave the group. I remember one occasion when two tourists in one of my groups got bored with the coach and decided to take the public bus instead! They were missing and I had to track down where they had gone, phone Albturist in Tirana, and all the authorities. It could have been very serious for us. Of course the tourists had no clue of the chaos they were causing.‘

Ilia Grillo

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Ilia Grillo: What it's like to be a local guide in Albania was published on 11 May 2020