Video: Tirane Under Construction
“Holy crap. We’re actually in Albania, huh?” Emily’s 15 year old son Dave was taking it all in. Surely, no sooner than ten minutes after crossing the Albanian border from Montenegro (without drama), there we were about to be served a “national dish” of carp (not for the dyslexic) at a friendly, if rustic roadside restaurant—a favorite of our taxi driver, who apparently plied this route often.
A cold Kaon brewski to accompany the feast sounded good to Emily and I. Dave would have to settle for what Albanian Coca-Cola might taste like. No worries, though. He already had one hell of a story to tell the kids back at school in the fall.
Indeed, who knew what we could actually expect from this place? Nobody outside of the country knew what went on here during Enver Hoxha’s infamous tenure as leader. Even after his death in 1985 it pretty much took Albania until 1992 to sort it all out and finally open the doors…sort of.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m far from an expert in Albanian political history—or anything Albanian, for that matter. Much like is the case after a trip to India, sub-Saharan Africa or perhaps Cambodia, you leave a place like this with more questions than answers.
It’s not so much a country of chaos and commotion, however, as one that’s characterized by wonderful weirdness. That abounds in every direction, and from completely unexpected sources.
What would ostensibly classify as the city of Tirane’s main tourist landmark is essentially the site of architectural ruins from a way of life that ceased to exist long ago. That is, if 1992 classifies as “long ago” to you.
The bizarre “Pyramid” might as well be as ancient a relic as the Parthenon, while at the same time shaped exactly like the edifice at Giza that inspired it. Yet, it’s made of glass and steel—long abandoned and now largely shattered, decrepit and festooned with graffiti. Weeds grow over it and through cracks in the concrete surrounding it.
Having once been Hoxha’s glorious urban centerpiece, it more recently had been converted into a night club, which failed. That alone is as weird as it gets. But now it exists largely because nobody wants to fork over the funds to tear it down. So hey, a “historical landmark” it is, perhaps comparable to the bizarre “Monster” building in Kaliningrad. The difference in Kaliningrad, however, is that everyone apparently hopes you’ll ignore the “Monster” rather than celebrating it.
The “river” is a cement gully with a trickle running through it. Nevertheless, pick up a tourist map and it’ll be listed as yet another “must see” attraction.
I took a random picture of architecture in Tirane and a woman appeared out of nowhere (as in, not in the frame of the picture) and berated me loudly and publicly for attempting to take a picture of her.
We passed a large building called “UFO University”.
For the first and only time ever in my life, I saw an ATM machine with a guy sitting in it handing out money through the opening where the monitor had presumably once been.
I don’t know how to say “piece de resistance” in Albanian, but that came one morning as Dave and I were sitting outside on the porch at our hotel awaiting breakfast. We heard one rooster crow in the distance. Then another one closer by answered. Except upon further investigation the nearer one turned out to be a dog.
Weird, I tell you. It’s no secret that the less Emily and I know about a place, the more irresistible it is to us. We came to Albania not knowing what in the world to expect, and we were rewarded with one adventure after another.
HOW TO GET THERE:
It’s NOT easy. After considerable research, we realized that the only relatively uncomplicated option for moving southbound from adjacent Montenegro to Albania was by private car. Elvis from http://www.elitetravel-albania.com/ arranged that for us for about $200 USD. It turned out to be a very scenic drive down the Adriatic coast, through Christian and Muslim sections of rural Montenegro, into the city of Ulcinj in Albania and down to Tirane.
We had been booked on something called BelleAir to make our escape from Tirane to Athens, but as you may have been able to predict things got weird. The strangely Italian/Albanian airline went out of business shortly before we were to make good use of it, and pretty much left us in the wake of its demise. Greece’s Olympic Airlines came to the rescue, with a nonstop flight from Tirane to Athens aboard a Dash-8 with hot breakfast…go figure. We have to tell you, there wasn’t a whole lot of action at Tirane airport. This is decidedly the domain of the Wizz Airs of the world and the like.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Restaurant Baron in Tirane was an unexpected delight, but perhaps a bit away from where the action was. We’d recommend getting a hotel downtown.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY:
The good news is that Albania won’t break the bank. You’re pretty much good to go.
WHAT TO SEE ON A LAYOVER / WHAT TO SEE IN ONE DAY:
It’s unlikely that Tirane will be a layover city for you. It’s not exactly a travel hub. Nevertheless, you could easily see the main sights in the city center and have a pleasant lunch inside of about six hours, for sure.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
- Other than the delightfully weird moments, you really shouldn’t expect “Elbonia” from the Dilbert comics. For the most part, Tirane falls into line as a rather normal 21st-century eastern European city, if a relatively poorer one like, for example, Chisinau.
- No visa is necessary to visit Albania, contrary to what some people may automatically assume. These guys are pretty wide-open nowadays.
- Tirane makes for an excellent introduction to basic “adventure travel”, if you ask us. It’s a strange, relatively uncharted place for most westerners, but not a particularly dangerous one.
- If you’ve never been to Europe before, this probably won’t be one of your stops. Tirane is an excellent change of pace for frequent euro-travellers, particularly those of you who live IN Europe already.
- We’ve heard that the Adriatic towns in Albania are actually quite nice. I don’t think Dubrovnik is in any danger of being put out of business, however.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK:
- The whole place
- While travel in and out can be tricky, buses and taxis are plentiful when you’re there.
- There are relatively few English speakers.