Bridging the point where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet, Albania is a small country but its reputation precedes it. Spending decades in political isolation under a particularly oppressive and hard-line communist dictatorship, Albania became characterised as a remote peculiarity within Europe. So much so, that stories of financial instability and criminality still fuel many peoples’ perceptions and few travellers go there. As I set of for my day trip around Tirana, the country’s hectic capital, all the warnings and bizarre anecdotes I’d been told were ringing in my ears. This was my first trip to Albania – could it really be as outlandish as everyone said?
At a glance:
Republic of Albania / Republika e Shqipërisë
Capital: Tirana (occasionally Tiranë in Albanian)
Currency: Albanian Lek (ALL)
Area: 28,748 km2
National Day: November 28th
National Anthem: Himni I Flamurit – Hymn to the Flag
Highest Point: Mali I Korabit – 2,764 metres (9,068 ft)
Famous for: concrete bunkers, Ottoman architecture, white felt hats
- Ismail Kadare (poet, novelist and playwright)
- Bekim Balaj (footballer)
- Entela Fureraj (better known as singer Eleni Foureira)
- Zog I (King of Albania)
- A popular Albanian folk story claims that an eagle became the guardian of a young man who had safely returned the bird’s chick, giving him such strength and skill that he was made king. This story is used to explain where the Albanian name for the country ‘Shqipëria’, meaning ‘Land of the Eagles’, came from. A black two-headed eagle has also featured on Albania’s flag since 1912.
- Albania’s tallest mountain Mali I Korabit is also the highest point of neighboring North Macedonia, making it one of only two mountain summits in Europe that is the highest point of more than one country. The other is Mont Blanc, which sits on the border of France and Italy.
- Believing invasion was imminent, communist president Enver Hoxha ordered the construction of thousands of concrete bunkers to help defend the country. Today, there are well in excess of 173,000 bunkers scattered across Albania – or roughly 5.7 bunkers per square kilometre! Never seeing military use, some have been repurposed into homes or cafes, but many thousands still stand empty.
- In 1967, Albania declared itself the world’s first atheist state. The authorities actively repressed religion, closing of all the country’s mosques and churches and anyone caught practising their beliefs risked prison. Though the ban on religious observances was lifted in December 1990, many Albanians are still secular.
- Albania debuted at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004, when Anjeza Shahini sang ‘The Image of You’ and placed 7th. This successful debut remained Albania’s highest placing entry at the contest until Kosovar singer Rona Nishliu came 5th in 2012 with ‘Suus’. Curiously, out of the 9 Eurovision finals Albania have appeared at as of 2019, they have finished 17th in four of them!
Albania’s sole official language is Albanian, which is the first language of over 98% of the population. Greek is spoken by a sizeable minority in the south of the country and there are also small communities of Macedonian and Aromanian speakers. Despite being an Indo-European language, linguists struggle to agree on the exact origins of Albanian and much of its vocabulary seems unrecognisable when compared to other European languages. While this might sound overwhelming, rest assured that finding English speakers in Albania, especially amongst younger generations, shouldn’t be a problem. This being said, any attempts in Albanian will help you win people over instantly, so here are some phrases to try out! These phrases can be used in Kosovo, North Macedonia and even pockets of southern Italy.
|Please||Ju lutem||yoo loo-tem|
|How much does this cost?||Sa kushton kjo kosto?||sa koosh-ton kyo kost-oh|
|Do you speak English?||A flisni anglisht?||ah flis-nee ang-leesht|
|I don’t understand||Nuk kuptoj||nook koop-toy|
Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza, also known as Rinas International is about 17km from the city centre. There are hourly buses from the airport into the city, though some travellers have noted it occasionally leaves ahead of the published schedule. The journey takes around 30 minutes and as there is no central bus station in Tirana, the bus stops at a small park just off of Skanderbeg Square – the perfect place to start exploring Tirana!
What to do:
Named after the Albanian national hero whose imposing equestrian statue has stood here since 1968, Skanderbeg Square is the epicentre of Tirana and has taken on many different appearances over the decades. Most recently renovated in 2017, the square now covers 40,000 square metres and is the largest pedestrian space in the Balkans. The lively square is surrounded by quite austere looking buildings including the stoic Palace of Culture, which houses both the National Opera and Ballet Theatre and Albania’s National Library, as well as the Muzeu Historik Kombëtar, or National History Museum, recognisable from the giant mosaic mural across its façade. Opening in 1981, the museum displays a range of documents and artefacts that offer a comprehensive look at Albania’s history from antiquity through to the present day. There is also a wing dedicated to the life and work of Mother Teresa. Back outside, construction on the Et’hem Bey Mosque began in the 1790s, making it one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. Admire the beautiful frescoes inside its dome, or climb up the mosque’s clock tower – at 35 metres tall, it was the tallest building in Tirana when it was completed in 1822.
The pale dome with golden accents you can see rising from the south western edge of the square belongs the Katedralja Ngjallja e Krishtit, built in 2012 to celebrate 20 years of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church. Although being so modern it lacks the gravitas of much older religious buildings, its vividly bright murals and lavish icons are still worth a detour. Across the street, the Museum of Secret Surveillance is housed in the former headquarters of the secret police. Also called the House of Leaves thanks to the climbing plants growing on the building, the museum offers a chilling insight into the far-reaching network of spies and their brutal interrogation tactics. A short walk away from the museum, across the greyish waters of the River Lana, you’ll spot the stone and glass façade of Piramida, rumoured to be the most expensive structure ever built in Albania. Originally opened as a museum dedicated to the legacy of Enver Hoxha in 1988, the 21-metre-tall building has also been a conference centre, a broadcasting hub and even a NATO base, but also spent many years empty and falling into disrepair. Surviving numerous calls to be demolished, there are currently plans to refurbish Piramida to ensure it remains an iconic part of Tirana’s skyline.
Built by the occupying Italians during the Second World War, the wide Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit or Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard stretches for just over a kilometre through the centre of Tirana. Despite the constant traffic and noise, there are a surprising number of parks and green spaces lining the thoroughfare, giving you ample opportunities to sit back, relax and people watch. Dëshmorët e Kombit is also one of the best places in Tirana to admire the diverse architectural styles that make up the city. As you wander along you’ll spot grand Italian-style mansions and grey socialist era blocks alongside more recent additions, including a pair of beige and blue buildings affectionately known as Tirana’s Twin Towers. At the far end of the boulevard, Presidenca is a rectangular grey building that once housed the Soviet Union’s embassy to Albania, but now serves as the offices of the Albanian president. Directly across the road, the glass front of the socialist era Pallati i Kongreseve is a popular exhibition space and event venue, often hosting the Festivali i Këngës music competition.
The streets directly west of Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit form Blloku, a neighbourhood once left off of city maps as it was the residential area reserved for Albania’s political elite. Indeed, armed guards used to patrol the streets to keep ordinary citizens out. Opening up to the public in the early 1990s, Blloku is now the place to be seen in Tirana, with its new apartment blocks, chic boutiques and many bars and cafes all housed in vibrant multi-coloured buildings. After the fall of the regime, Tirana’s mayor encouraged everyone to paint over the drab concrete with bright colours and the resulting kaleidoscope ranges from eye-catching to gaudy and garish – but it all adds to the neighbourhood’s cheerful atmosphere. To get a bird’s eye view of Blloku, head on over to Sky Tower Hotel, which opened in the year 2000. The top of the skyscraper houses a restaurant which offers a fantastic panoramic view over Tirana and the surrounding mountains – the perfect place to contemplate a day’s sightseeing!
Chaotic, colourful and ever-changing, Tirana sputters with an irrepressible charm. This dynamic city is fast shrugging off its frenzied past and racing to embrace its new identity. True, Albania may feel somewhat more unusual than other corners of Europe but a visit to Tirana proves one thing beyond all doubt – most everything you’ve been told about Albania is wrong and the truth is far more amazing! I can’t wait to go back!
A big thank you Jane Powell, who encouraged me to venture to Albania and even came along for the trip – thanks for making our time in Albania so memorable and so much fun!!
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