“Mëngjes?” I stutter. The old man at “Freddy’s hostel” looks at me, surprised.
“Breakfast? No, we don’t do that here, but you can get a cup of coffee if you want…” At least that’s what I think he says. Between my non-existent Albanian and his non-existent English, it’s anybody’s guess…
I am in Tirana, the capital of Albania. When I got off the bus from the airport last night, the main square was heaving with quads. Second-hand buses fought for a space with third-hand Mercedes. Pedestrians tried to avert both, while avoiding the potholes that “decorate” the streets and pavements. Yes, Tirana promised to be “something else”!
After my “breakfast” at Freddy’s, I head towards Skanderbeg square. The Albanian flag ruffles in the wind, next to a statue of the country’s national hero: Skanderbeg himself. The nearby Palace of Culture has obviously seen better days. Looking down from the Clock Tower the whole square looks like a massive building site.
I make my way to the “National History Museum“. The comments in English are a bit random, but I still manage to get a good overview of the numerous invaders of Albania. The section about its dictatorial past is unfortunately closed off.
It looks as if Albania doesn’t want to be reminded of that time in history; a bit further on stands the “Pyramid” , a huge building that was supposed to provide a museum for Hoxha’s legacy (Hoxha was Albania’s leader and dictator for more than 40 years) . Nowadays it seems mainly used as a parking lot and meet-up point.
I stumble upon a statue of Stalin and one that hails the “communist workers” in the abandoned back garden of the Art museum.
The best proof that Tirana is reinventing itself is probably the Blloku area. Once the area where only leaders of the communist party were allowed in, it is nowadays the most modern part of Tirana with trendy bars, coffee shops and restaurants. If you are looking for nightlife, this is the place to be!
And what to say about the colourful façades along the Lana river? Edi Rama, the former mayor of Tirana, is also an artist and in order to lift the spirits of the downtrodden city, he decided to paint the dull and grey façades in bright colours and bold designs!
Half an hour’s walk and I find myself in a very different part of the city. The Pazari i Ri or Central Market is situated in one of the oldest area of Tirana. Elderly Albanian women sell fruit, olives, vegetables and cheese. I pass vendors repairing bicycles and people carrying the carcass of a sheep, … all very authentic and very different from Blloku!
Back on Skanderbeg square, I enter the Et’Hem Bey mosque. A guy asks me to follow him towards the beautiful fresques. I assume he will ask me for money, but instead he gives me his biggest smile!
I have to admit, Tirana isn’t, what you would call, an attractive and beautiful city, but I love the chaos, the contrast and its history, so I decide to stay another day to fully take in its diversity! In the evening I meet up with Albert, a local and a friend of a friend, who is going to show me some of Tirana’s nightlife. The next morning it was obvious that I should have resisted. I am off for a 7 hour bus ride to Berat with one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever experienced…