Friday, September 23, 2011
I was warned about Tirana. The two English-speakers I met while traveling from Montenegro to Albania told me that it was dangerous. They said that other Europeans considered Tirana a no-go zone, and that the only people stupid enough to visit were Americans and Australians that hadn’t gotten word about Albania’s bad reputation.
I knew that Tirana wasn’t a popular leisure travel destination, but I hadn’t heard anything about my life being in danger by traveling there. The words of my fellow passengers had me a tiny bit nervous, but I wasn’t about to turn around.
Getting to Tirana on my Balkans trip was a grueling eight-hour process. I first had a two-hour bus ride from Budva to the border at Ulcinj. Then there was a two-and-a-half hour wait for my next bus, which took an hour and a half to get from Ulcinj to Shkodra in Albania. From there I hopped in a gypsy cab with five others from my bus. Two hours later we arrived in Tirana and were told to walk five minutes to reach the city center.
My first impression of Tirana was that it looked similar to other major cities in the region. There was a mix of historical buildings and communist eyesores, shops selling freshly baked bread and pastries, and cafes with big red Coca-Cola umbrellas outside.
My group trudged through the drizzle to get to the city center, stopping at an ATM to take out cash along the way. After awhile, I split off to get a taxi to the hotel I had booked. Unfortunately, no driver wanted to take me there for less than I would have paid for the same ride in London.
I had no idea where I was, and couldn’t find the name of the street on my map (later I found out that it was because the street name had changed several years ago). Knowing I was somewhere near the city center and that I didn’t have much time to see Tirana before dark, I walked into a bar/hotel across the street, negotiated a price for one of the three rooms, set my bag down, and went off to explore Tirana. I was certain my laptop would be stolen when I got back.
My first task in Tirana was to find out where buses departed for Macedonia. I was traveling to Lake Ohrid the next day, and needed to know where to catch my ride. After a crazy march up and down one of the main streets during which I came across people displaying a huge range of willingness to help a foreign girl, I finally found the tiny office of the bus company to which my hotel owner had given me bad directions.
It was on the first floor of a nondescript building with only a small sign outside. The proprietor yelled at my when I told him I had a hard time finding it. It was a bit unsettling. I bought my ticket as quickly as I could, and set off in the direction of the main square.
Before I got there, I came across a large open-air cafe in front of a building that called itself a university. There was a crepe stand out front, and I ordered a Greek crepe with chicken, olives, and feta. It tasted good, and at just over 1 British pound, it was a deal.
After devouring my dinner, I made my way to the square. I had read about how Tirana had been tearing up its streets over the past decade to make room for new buildings and overhaul the city’s urban landscape in an effort to get rid of some of the reminders of its communist past. Nothing prepared me for the scene in Skanderbeg Square, though.
Tirana’s main square was torn up to the point that it looked more like a construction site than the heart of a European capital city. The area in front of the opera house was fenced off and reduced to rubble. The space by the National Museum of History looked no better. The center of the square, with its statue of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, was equally bad save for one patch of new grass.
Between the bad directions from my hotel owner, the strange location of the bus company, and the torn-up main square, I was beginning to think I had finally met a city I didn’t like. Was there anything redeeming about Tirana?
I waded through the muddy gravel path that cut between two construction sites and found myself flanked by a beautiful historic mosque on one side and a clock tower on the other. The former was called the Et’ham Bey Mosque, and had been spared destruction during the communist period due to its historical significance. It started Tirana on the path to redemption.
From there I walked by several government buildings that looked like they had been recently restored. Just beyond them I saw a pedestrian street with colorful art on the pavement and trees lining both sides. I took a detour down it, and found myself walking by spacious cafes and the historic ruins of a fortress of Justinian.
A bit further down there was more art, this time in the form of large colorful butterflies. Across the street the path continued, culminating at the Lana River, which ran through Tirana.
Over the river were communist-era buildings that locals had painted in bright colors as a symbolic act of defiance against the former regime. The cheerfulness of the art and color stood out against the dreariness of the weather and further redeemed the city.
I retraced my steps and continued down the wide boulevard that led from the main square down to the university. To my right was a big park with a fountain and several modern buildings with shops and cafes. To my left was the pyramid.
What was the pyramid? I had the same question. It was pretty much the ugliest building I had ever seen, and the fact that it was boarded up suggested that the locals felt the same way. It turned out that it was the byproduct of the marriage of communism and nepotism. Designed by former dictator Enver Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law in 1988, it was so unique in its atrociousness that I almost liked it.
Further down the street I turned off to explore the Blloku area. The former haunt of the communist elite, the neighborhood had been reconceptualized as a trendy area packed with cafes. Tables and chairs spilled out onto the sidewalks and into the streets, and young people filled the interiors. It was my favorite part of Tirana, and it definitively tipped the scales towards full redemption.
After walking around Blloku for awhile, I headed back to the square. It was dark by the time I arrived, and I didn’t want to be out too late on my own. I headed back to my hotel, discovered that my laptop was still there, and sat down to email friends and family that I was still alive in Albania.
When I left Tirana the next morning, the only thing I regretted was that I didn’t have more time there. The quirky city with its massive construction projects,wild mix of colorful communist buildings, and serious cafe culture was one of the most unique places I had ever visited. I hoped to travel to Tirana again someday to get a closer look. And next time I wouldn’t need to be warned.