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Published: September 6th 2016
Statue Of Skanderbeg
Statue of Skanderbeg in the main square in front of the yellow town hall, with the Xhamia e Et'hem Beut mosque to the left.
As we approached the junction where all the buses to Tirana leave from, we get accosted by man offering to take us to Tirana in his car for just 200 leke more. 1.50€ more for a ride in a new-ish Mercedes to Tirana? Sounded good to us.
Or maybe that wasn't such a good idea.
There is a theory that because Albanians only had access to cars after the fall of communism 24 years ago, that they are still learning how to drive them properly. I wouldn't doubt it. Many of the drivers I have seen on Albanian roads have been crazy and unpredictable. There is no adherence to any sort of rules, it's just a dangerous free-for-all. Dawdling is a common occurrence; cars just driving really slow without pulling over and holding everyone up. Even worse, these cars would sometimes sway from side to side in their lane and sometimes onto the other lane!
Which was something that really annoyed our driver, as he seemed to be in a real hurry. Though not as scary as one ride I took in Colombia
, there were still many questionable overtaking manoeuvres.
He got us there in super-quick time however and we were dropped at a random
Communist propaganda mosaic on the outside of the National History Museum.
junction. Half an hour away from our hostel by foot, we opted to take another cab, since they are so cheap here and there were three of us.
My first impressions of Albania's capital city? Lots of ugly, "modern" architecture and drab Communist-era buildings. It is supposed to be a poor country, yet no-one seems that badly off. For example, there are very few people begging or sleeping on the streets.
Although I was tired from the dice game played the previous night
, we decided to jump onto a free walking tour of the city straight away that started at 6pm. From experience, such walking tours can be very useful and informative and I was keen to learn more about the intriguing country that is Albania.
In terms of sights, Tirana is pretty sight-light.
Sheshi Skanderbeg is the main square and heart of the city, acting as a huge hippodrome-shaped roundabout. There is a statue of the Albanian hero Skanderbeg at one end of the square.
Just off the square is the National History Museum, that I would visit in more detail later and was where the walking tour started.
On the other side of the square is the Xhamia
Old museum now abandoned is an interesting piece of architecture.
e Et'hem Beut, one of the few historic mosques not destroyed by the Communists while they were in power. Right behind it is the yellow town hall. Next to the mosque is a clock tower which provides a decent view of the city at its top.
Down the road from the Sheshi Skanderbeg is the National Art Gallery featuring "The Cloud", an installation by a Japanese artist, as well as old Communist statues of Stalin, Lenin et al.
We then come to what for the Austrians was the highlight of the city; the rather bizarre pyramid building.
Originally built in 1988 as a museum to the legacy of late Communist leader Enver Hoxha, it later became a conference centre and exhibition venue and was even a nightclub in one of its incarnations. Now it is dilapidated and abandoned as the authorities decide what to do with it.
In the meantime, with an irresponsible lack of health and safety, it is used as a playground of sorts as people walk up its steep gradient to the top. The ascent is a little scary as it is easy enough to slip and then slide all the way to the bottom if
Inside The Orthodox Church
Bright and colourful paintings inside the newly-built Orthodox church.
you have poor grip on your shoes or sweaty feet. Indeed the local kids were loving it as they climbed and then slid down the whole way on the seat of their pants, which actually looks kinda fun. Simon gave it a go however and ended up with burnt hands and feet from the friction. Best playground ever?
Our entire tour group managed to get up there to enjoy the sunset over the city.
We end the walking tour outside the brand-spanking new Orthodox church - it is pretty snazzy inside as well and comes complete with a mentally-impaired man scarily and over-zealously speaking with God.
Overall the walking tour was OK. The guy didn't have the best jokes but he was very informative and he provided insight into life here during Communist times. It really was a like a prison and the country was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Which brings me to Albania's fascinating and tumultuous history - perhaps the most fascinating and tumultuous that I have heard of.
Albanians are believe to be descendants of the Illyrian tribe who settled on this strip in the Balkans in the 2nd millennium BC.
Tirana's main square.
Albania was then occupied and ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Serbs and then Ottomans successively before the country finally claimed independence in 1912. That freedom was short-lived however as with the onset of WWI, Albania was then occupied by Greek, Serb, French, Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies before a republican government was formed in 1920...which was then overthrown by Ahmet Bey Zogu, who then declared himself King in 1928.
Just before WWII, Mussolini and the Italians then invaded and it was the Communist party who formed in 1941, that led the resistance against them, and then Nazi Germany.
Following WWII, a very brutal strain of Communism then took hold of Albania for 43 years, led by Enver Hoxha. As Communist allies the USSR and China opened up to trade with the Western world, Hoxha was disgusted by the countries' betrayal of what he deemed true Communist principles and cut off relations with both. In the 80s, Albania literally had no friends and was completely cut off from the world. No one in , no one out. No trade. Everyone was poor.
Free elections were finally held in 1992 and Albania went from being a tightly controlled Communist state to a
Inside The National History Museum
In the section about the Communist regime.
free market, free-for-all.
The National History Museum documents all of this history and to say that it is comprehensive is an understatement. Therefore it was a shame that the museum's English captions were dry and poorly translated - and the conspicuous lack of air-con in this Communist-style oven made it even harder to concentrate. There was no way that we were going to get through the whole museum in these conditions which was a shame given the amount of content in there which included shitloads of antiquities dating from Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Ottoman times, a section detailing the various fights for independence amidst the throes of WWI and WWII, a section outlining the rise and rule of the Communists, and a graphic and sad section dedicated to all those who died at the hands of the Communist regime.
That evening, we met up with Emily and Ana again, who we met on the Lake Koman ferry. We also met local girl Olta, a friend of Emily's who we peer-pressured into climbing the pyramid for the first time in her life despite her living in the city for all of her 21 years!
It was Emily's birthday so
Trendy bar/cafe/restaurant district of Tirana.
we had dinner and drinks in the modern, trendy, bar/cafe/restaurant district of Blloku.
There are already many Audis and Mercedes in Tirana anyway, but in Blloku they were out in force, including one Audi being driven by what looked like a 13 year old kid.
Apparently, the reason there are so many Mercedes in Albania is because after the fall of Communism, they were the only cars that would work with the diesel fuel that the Albanians had and they became to be seen as a reliable brand of car as well as being a status symbol. There is a joke about a German, an Italian and an Albanian who all died and went to heaven. When each are asked about how they died, the German says that he bought a Porsche and crashed it, the Italian says he bought a Ferrari and crashed it, while the Albanian says he bought a Mercedes, could no longer afford to feed himself and starved to death. Materialism is quite big here in Albania which is quite sad - but then you have to remember that they all had nothing until the fall of Communism just 24 years ago.
Anyway, among the culinary
An interior design style I found in the hostel I was staying that as well as in Radio Bar.
and alcoholic treats we enjoyed for Emily's birthday were a bacon and cheese polenta, an Albanian escalope casserole and rum shots that were immediately followed by a shot of pear juice at the Ottoman/Communist-kitsch Radio Bar. This was followed by wine and Scum back at the hostel before the girls had to leave to catch their early morning flights back home sans sleep.
While it was the end for the girls, it was the beginning of the end for me.
I had probably been moving too fast, going too hard and drinking too much since my last days in Ulcinj
, and the rest that my body and mind had been desperate for was finally forced upon me as I caught a nasty fever with aching muscles, diahorrea and my head feeling like it was trapped in a vice. For one day I was completely bedridden, for a second day I was wandering around like a zombie, and finally on the third day I sort of felt normal again although eating would still give me small stomach cramps. Good thing I had the Austrians and Joao, who we met in Ulcinj, around to keep my spirits up a little.
Bacon & Cheese Polenta
I have discovered that I really like polenta. Delicious done right. Like this.
still don't know what exactly it was, but it was very similar to when I got sick in Cusco
which at the time I put down to exhaustion and altitude sickness. However, I was at sea level here in Tirana, although I was exhausted this time around too.
I did manage one last, delicious Albanian meal before I left Tirana.
At a cute little traditional restaurant, we tried harapash
(baked cornflour, lamb innards, goat's cheese and butter), kollaface
(a casserole with lamb liver) - both dishes known as taves
- and raki mani
which is raki made from mulberries. Mindful of my stomach, I took tiny sips of the raki mani
and thought it was nice and sweet, but very strong.
One thing I have definitely noticed about Albanian cuisine is the fact that goat's cheese is in everything. EVERYTHING.
And then just like that, it was time to say goodbye to the Austrians who were off home.
I have been travelling with them for a good two weeks now and have thoroughly enjoyed their company. Intelligent, mature and very knowledgeable for their age yet still with the youthful exuberance only found in the young, it was very
Climbing The Pyramid
Our tour group climb the pyramid.
easy to forget that they were both just 19 years old. It certainly hasn't felt like I've been travelling with two teenagers, at all. Both Frido and Simon are very well-read as they knew many things that I would expect most people to know, but actually don't in reality. It was a breath of fresh air not having to explain every second thing I was talking about to them. I'll miss them.
And as well as saying goodbye to the Austrians, it was also time to say goodbye to Tirana...and hopefully, goodbye to bad health!
Shihemi me vone!
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