‘No nay, no no,’ said the White Rabbit, ‘don’t drink the potion! It will make you shrink in size. Follow me, hee hee, follow me this way, it’s much more fun. Let me take you to this amazing place, follow me. Follow me!’

Alice hesitated, but quickly gave in and followed the White Rabbit down the tunnel, swayed by his enthusiasm and curious for discovery. ‘What can there be? What will I see?’ she asked herself, fidgeting with excitement.

Running as fast as her new school shoes would allow her, she pursued him desperately, but he hopped and he skipped very fast indeed, too fast for poor Alice. Before she could call out for him to slow down, he disappeared out of sight. There was very little light in the tunnel, and although not cold, Alice felt a slight shiver run up her spine. Wishing she had taken the potion after all, she reached into her dress pockets to warm her hands and… WHOOSH!

When Alice woke up, of the White Rabbit there was no sign, although she did not notice this, so surprised was she by the sight that greeted her eyes. She was in a city, that much was obvious, but the kind of city Alice had never been to before, or even seen, or heard of. Everywhere, a riot of colours, geometric patterns, whirls and whorls of all shapes and sizes overwhelmed her confused sense of sight. ‘What a crazy place this is!’ she thought.

Every building she looked at (and she looked at many) was painted a different shade of pink or orange or green or blue or yellow or red or any wonderful combination of primary and secondary colours. Here and there, two-dimensional coloured cubes bounced gayly in the midday sun. The whole place radiated warmth and energy, where none there ought to have been, so desolate and poor was this part of the world.

‘What is this place, where am I?’ Alice asked herself.

Welcome to Tirana, Albania:

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Prehipstoric Street Art

Emerging in 1999 after 45 years of grim communist isolation, the good citizens of the Albanian capital must have shared Alice’s confusion as they struggled to come to terms with their new and surreal environment and relative freedom. Finding themselves staring into the dazzling headlights of democracy like a wheelchair-bound deer with two flat tyres, they promptly elected a charismatic former national basketballer with a diploma in fine arts from a prestigious Paris school as their new mayor. As one does.

Within weeks of being elected, former 1m97 point guard Edi Rama had slam-dunked the ultimate cosmetic make-over in a wave of instant change that rapidly swept over his city. Pothole-ravaged streets were repaved and derelict buildings bulldozed; the environment regained an urban footing as 4,000 trees were planted along the central avenues; but most visibly of all, the majority of Tirana’s architectural drabness was dramatically transformed by an army of painters on a psychedelic mission to create an ocean of colour on the world’s largest blank canvas.

No other vassal of the former Soviet Union had undergone such a radical and sudden political, structural and psychological change since the collapse of Stalin’s totalitarian ideology. Yet all this was unknown to the western world, or at least to me. Rama even achieved the incredible feat of being voted World Mayor of the Year in 2004 and one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of 2005.

This being Albania, Rama has already survived two attempts on his life since his election 10 years ago, and his most vocal opponent has vowed to repaint the city in lustrous shades of grey if or when he is invited to power. Still running the city, today’s mayor of Tirana is currently campaigning to become the country’s Socialist Party leader and is a strong contender for Prime Minister in this year’s elections. Europe’s 2nd poorest country and its 40% unemployed populace can dream of better times ahead.

But this is not about politics, progress or even hope. I feel like the Cheshire Cat in Wonderland, so wide is my grin, so unexpected is this heart-warming kaleidoscope skyline. This is the purest form of satisfaction that travel can offer: the powerful surprise of discovery that surpasses even the most breathtaking beauty.

That my last evening in this architectural crack alley is spent in a 16-floor high revolving bar that draws my gaze over the crazy stripes and pastel hues for one last time at sunset – and in the company of some equally appreciative travellers – is fitting. It truly is.

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The Sky Tower in Tirana – good people and bad raki

Of Alice there is no sign however, maybe she has fallen down one of the few remaining potholes after one too many shots of raki

[Author’s note, 11 years on: first manifestation of an appreciation for street art & painting. Also remember greatly enjoying putting together the Alice in Wonderland prologue…]

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