The grubby charm of Albania's dash for 'la dolce vita'

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The evening is just beginning at the Bar Berlusconi in central Tirana. True to its name, the cafe looks like the stage set of an Italian daytime television soap opera - attempting to be glamourous but without the budget to pull it off.

It has Wild West swinging saloon doors made of formica, a pebbled terrace and soft lighting on the outside tables. A musician with long greased- back hair has just struck up a version of "Yesterday" on his electronic keyboard. An intimidatingly tall waitress, whose plunging neckline reminds me also of Italian television shows strides over to take orders.

"A bottle of wine, please."

"I'm sorry, we don't have wine here."

A bit of a setback, but then this is Albania. "Well, how about some beers?"

"I'll check, but I think the beer just ran out."

"Okay, I'll go for coffee."

"Too late for coffee, the machine's turned off."

Nightlife in the Albanian capital is haphazard, which is forgivable when you think that five years ago the only fun to be had was surreptitiously twisting the television aerial towards Italy and praying the secret police didn't catch you at it.

These days, Tirana buzzes with cafes, restaurants, pizzerias, snack bars, piano lounges and discotheques, most of them built on pavements with prefab materials and plastered with Marlboro and Coca-Cola adverts. These so- called kiosks are a bit rough, but make a bright change from the crumbling apartment blocks and filthy pavements.

Despite a reputation for drabness and poverty, a newly consumer-conscious Albania has gone crazy for its own version of la dolce vita. Anyone with money is to be found at the kiosks, drinking coffees, beers and slugs of punch. Calling it nightlife would be a misnomer, as the fun begins in the morning. Try calling an office after 9am, and the chances are the telephone will ring for hours.

A beer costs a dollar. Not much to a foreign visitor but the equivalent of half a day's pay or more for a senior official.

Albanians know more than one way to make a living, though, and the kiosks are always packed.

The Bar Berlusconi is one of the posher establishments, owned by an Albanian who identifies passionately with the consumer culture touted by the Italian television tycoon and former prime minister. The banners of AC Milan, his hero's football team, hang behind the bar, while one window features a poster for Mr Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia.

"We had the Italian foreign minister in here once," he boasts. Or the foreign trade minister. He's not sure.

The night presses on, and it is time for food. A snack bar built where Lenin's statue used to stand is closing, so we opt for a pizzeria built round an oak adorned with two stuffed foxes. It looks unappetising, but the pizza isn't bad.

Midnight approaches and it is time to dance. By now, many streets are dark and you have to watch out for open manholes.

The Albania Club is in a basement. "Hey," says 20-year-old Idi. "Do you think we're going to score tonight? There are usually some great chicks here." Albanian men are notGod's gift to feminism.

Inside, about 15 teenagers are bopping to music like any other Euro-teenagers. This is not Stringfellow's, though, and the clothes are ragged. The height of Tirana fashion is Benetton, but few can afford it.

At 2am, the disco closes and we emerge to see a handful of gypsies sweeping the streets. The trash sticks obstinately to the asphalt as the gypsies' oldbrooms raise clouds of black dust. The dustcarts, a clutch of rusty 1950s Chinese tractors, will be along in the morning.

We stop for one last drink at the Charlie Chaplin all-night piano bar, where the piano is padlocked and has not worked for years. Instead we are treated to a Bulgarian version of George Michael's "Careless Whisper" to help down our Turkish coffees. We pile into a dilapidated red car, and after a few more potholes we are home.