Particularly different from all other European capitals, Tirana, the capital and most populous city of Albania, which was once considered to be the world’s most closed nation, is a delight for travelers looking for a destination off the beaten path. A jungle of concrete where McDonald’s restaurants are nowhere to be found.
Our visit to Tirana was rather short. I can say we were practically just passing by. We had planned on visiting the cities of Shkoder and Tirana in Albania, and then head to Macedonia, the neighboring country, however, we ended up spending more time in Shkoder than I had imagined and by the time we arrived in Tirana, we realized that we had just a few spare hours to discover the city before dark.
Driving in the city center was a chaotic experience. Fortunately, finding a place to park wasn’t such a hard task as I had first imagined. I’d like to tell you exactly where we parked, but I don’t think I would be able to find it again, even if I wanted to. Tirana’s indeed a large city, with way too many streets, cars, bicycles and people.
Skanderbeg Square is the main plaza, located in the heart of the city. At the moment we visited it was closed. Construction works were happening all over the square, making it impossible to visit. Despite the fences I managed to get a few pictures of the Skanderbeg Monument, the statue of the Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg on his horse.
On the square’s surroundings, more landmarks can be found. The Town Hall, the 19th Century Clock Tower, the unique Et’hem Bey Mosque, the National History Museum, the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Albania and several ministries.
Built in the first quarter of the 19th Century, the Et’hem Bey Mosque is an outstanding piece of architecture, which was closed for many years during the Albanian communist era. Its highlight are the frescoes painted on the main facade, depicting trees, rivers and other still life elements seldom found in Islamic Art.
Bicycles could be seen everywhere and there were bicycle stations from where you could pick one. That was something I didn’t expect from a Balkan capital city, specially from Tirana. The city even has its own bike sharing program, Ecovolis, which was launched in 2011. Foreigners can rent a bicycle from different stations spread across the city and from what I’ve heard, it’s quite cheap.
As we walked the city center we came across some really interesting statues and constructions. On the back of some random building we found some old and broken statues of former communist leaders as we were on our way to one of Tirana’s most famous pedestrian streets, Rruga Murat Toptani, where not only cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops can be found, but also the city’s brand new Toptani Shopping Center, which had been inaugurated just three months before our visit to the capital.
Reja “The Cloud”, was one of the interesting constructions we found in the city center, which I had never heard of. Designed by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, this large cloud, which you can climb for free, is located right in front of the National Gallery of Art. It is used as a place to chill, but during the summer it is also used as an open air cinema.
South of the cloud is located Tirana’s most famous landmark, the Enver Hoxha pyramid, a former museum built in honor of the Communist leader who ruled Albania for four decades. In 1999 during the Kosovo War this concrete pyramid, was used as a NATO base and since 2001 it has been used as a broadcasting center by Albanian TV channel Top Channel. Despite the fact that many people had fought to destroy it, it has recently been announced that it will be refurbished instead of demolished.
I had read online that some people have climbed the pyramid and I tried to do it as well, but it started raining exactly at the time of my first and only attempt. When I had first seen videos of people climbing it, it didn’t seem such a difficult task, but it turned out to be. Wearing Converse shoes to climb a large concrete pyramid on a rainy day? Definitely not a good idea, I had to climb down when I reached half-way to the top.
Just in front of the Pyramid, there’s another interesting piece of art, the Peace Bell, standing on a pedestrian bridge over a fountain. In the year of 1997, during the Albanian Civil War, children from the city of Shkoder, in northern Albania, gathered over twenty thousand bullet cartridges which were then melted and transformed into this bell.
The highlight of our visit to Tirana was the moment we entered Bunk’Art 2 an anti-atomic bunker which was transformed into an interactive art experience. Exploring this bunker costs 1,000 Lek but it’s definitely a must-see when visiting the capital. Bunk’Art 2 presents the history of Albania during the communist era which lasted for many decades.
Inside this large underground bunker I learnt a lot about Albania during the 20th Century, including the creation of Sigurimi, Albanian’s state police, and I read sad stories from people who were victims of the system. It doesn’t surprise me that there are more Albanians living outside the country than inside. If I had lived during those times, when Albania was pictured as one of the world’s most closed nations, I would have done my best to escape the country.
On our way back to the car we passed by the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, the largest and most modern church in the entire country. It was inaugurated in 2012 and combined with its tall bell tower, it is definitely a very beautiful piece of architecture.
Once again, it was time to hit the road. Macedonia was the next and last target on our itinerary across the Balkans.
Stay tuned for the next part of The Ultimate Balkan Road Trip