Exploring Tirana, Albania


Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, Professional Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

Kotor was lovely, albeit quick, and I’m now on a bus on my way to Tirana, Albania. I met a lovely couple at a cafe in Mostar who said they loved Tirana. I’m looking forward to lower prices, and discovering more about this part of the world.

Thankfully, this bus ride is uneventful, although we drive along some windy roads, high above the sea (the views are beautiful) and a couple of times, I notice there’s no side rail, and try to avert my gaze and think happy thoughts. As we get closer to Albania, the landscape becomes flat, and I’m happy to see some cows. The bus ends up momentarily delayed by a flock of sheep on the highway, and I have a chuckle. When we get off the bus it’s pandemonium. I’ve been warned about Albanian driving. We’re not even at a proper bus station, more like the back of some random warehouse. I have no idea how to find a cab. The bus driver sees me, starts speaking to a man, and somehow, I end up with a taxi driver to my hotel. He’s nice enough, and although the ride isn’t expensive, I have no idea if I paid too much.

My hotel is fine, though strange. It’s on a street behind a street, with only one way traffic, so a bit hard to find. My room has doors onto a kind of terrace, but, strangely, it’s accessible by anyone, and the view is a kind of depressing group of apartment buildings with laundry littered on their balconies. I decide to take a shower and go out for a walk.

For the first time in a while, I’m not feeling this city. This hasn’t happened a lot on my travels, but when it does, I’m always a bit discombobulated. I don’t feel inspired to explore, but do my best, and I decide to do a free walking tour the next day to see what I can learn. That turns out to be a good thing.

I don’t meet anyone on the walking tour, which is a shame, but I get the lay of Tirana and learn some interesting things. The history of Albania is Greek, then the Roman Empire, and then the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, they declared their independence. I think of the Ottoman Empire as much older, but apparently, Albania was part of it until 1913! The population of Albania is three million, but there are 9 million Albanians around the world. They emigrate a lot. Schip is the local language and I pick up a few words. “Faliminderit” means “thank you.” “Varja” means “f- it.” “Po” means “yes,” and “Yo” means “no.”

Unlike my previous experiences, Albania did not have the same past as former Yugoslav countries. In fact, from 1945 – 1991, Albania was part of the communist regime. No one could move from one city to another without permission. They couldn’t leave their own country, or they risked their own death, and the assasination of any family members left behind. Our tour guide is in is 30s or 40s and tells us about his grandfather growing up in the communist regime, and then, in 1991, when they suddenly came out of it, being very uncomfortable with the comforts the rest of us have all become accustomed to. I can’t quite fathom this and there are bunkers all over Albania. Now, they made art out of them.

For Albania, they went from completely isolated to completely connected. It was a shocking experience for them, and corruption remains a huge problem. While isolated, they didn’t know they were missing anything because they had no contact with the outside world. If you escaped to freedom, three generations of your family would suffer. Nearly 3,000 people were sent to death, 60,000 in prison, and 7,000 disappeared without a trace.

In 1991, masses of people moved to Tirana because of jobs and investments. 1 million of the 3 million total live there. They have huge earthquakes, but construction is booming as are talk buildings. (!!) City hall wants to build 10 towers for international companies to rent, such as Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott. They average a big earthquake every 15 years. 2019 was the most recent one.

Albania was accepted into the EU in August of 2022. 30 years ago they were a closed country without many cars. Once they opened up the country, driving became organized chaos. I was told they do have to pass a driver’s test, but my guess is, all they have to do is prove they can touch the gas to pass. (more on that in my next post.)

While on the free walking tour, we pass a huge celebration. It looks like the mayor has come out, it’s very official and there’s a huge crowd. It turns out an Albanian boxer won a European Championship the previous night. Apparently, Albanians don’t win a lot, so when they do, there’s a giant celebration.

While in Tirana, besides the free walking tour (and there is a lot more education about Albania and Communism included and I highly recommend a walking tour) I do a few other things.

Bunk’Art 1 and 2

There are 175,000 bunkers throughout Albania. Most are a small hold for a few people. But, there are two large underground bunkers to see in Tirana. One is in the center of the city, the other one is on the outskirts, by the cable car. The city center one is smaller. The larger one feels like it keeps going and going, and there is room after room describing what happened during Communism in Albania. After a while, it’s a lot of unhappy history to take in, so make sure you’re hydrated and full before you enter.

Dajti Ekspres – Cable Car

Near Bunk’Art 1 is the Tirana cable car that will take you to it’s highest point. The ride is fairly long and at points, a little scary if it’s windy. The view at the top is beautiful, but the rest of the experience, on foot, is a bit strange. There is a main building with a cafe and restroom, and a hotel. There are some strange activities if you walk behind the cable car, and then you can walk quite a ways. There’s some sort of adventure park, but given the dilapidated state of most of the nearby buildings, I didn’t go. I decided to try one of the restaurants, thinking they were close by, but ended up walking about a half hour. Some of the hotels have a shuttle bus to the cable car, so you’d be better off planning lunch in advance and taking the shuttle, at least one way. I can’t say the food was spectacular, but I did enjoy a lovely view while I ate it.

The House Of Leaves

This is a museum that describes the intense surveillance in use in Albania during the communist period. You’ll see the equipment and hear stories from people who lived through the experience. Definitely worth a visit.

Churches And Mosques

In the center of Tirana are several interesting churches and mosques, including one with a giant statue of Mother Teresa and a beautiful ceiling, a mosque that has been under construction for years, but promises to be quite an experience when it opens!

Great Food

An experience I enjoyed so much that I went twice, was eating at Era Blloku. I tried the traditional Tave kosi (which sells out fast) and another lamb dish. They were wonderful. Service is very nice, and prices are reasonable. Expect a wait almost any time you try to dine there.

I tried the museum in the main square, but it was a bit hard to follow as not everything is explained in English. It was, nonetheless, an interesting walk through time and history. One thing I did enjoy in Tirana were the streets full of restaurants and bars and cafes near the Pyramid of Tirana.

Though the city of Tirana was not my favorite, the people were lovely. I worked from a cafe one day, and four women interrupted their conversation to talk to me, make me feel welcome and tell me about their country. While in Albania, I realize I won’t have enough time to get to Turkey, so I’ve booked a boat from Durres to Bari, in Italy. Before departing, I take two trips around Albania, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

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