Despite its history and problems, Tirana today is a vibrant capital city located in a beautiful natural setting. It sits in a valley in the center of the country, surrounded on three sides by mountains.
The closest mountain is Mali i Dajtit (Mount Dajt), whose summit can be reached via cable car from the city. The mountain makes a fun excursion and a popular local picnic destination. From the top, you can see not only the entire city of Tirana but even the Adriatic Sea in the distance beyond the valley.
Down in the city, the main areas are compact and easily walkable. Two large squares anchor the downtown area, and the names of these squares are revealing, as neither bears any reference to the Communist period.
Skënderbej Square, the larger of the two, is named after the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbej. Skënderbej was a fifteenth-century nobleman who is renowned for his heroic – but ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to rebel against the rule of the Ottoman Empire over Albania. The square is surrounded by several prominent government buildings as well as the frescoed Ottoman-era Et’hem Bey mosque and the National Historical Museum with its imposing mosaic facade personifying the country’s history. A statue of Skënderbej on horseback reigns over the square, while a statue of Enver Hoxha that once stood alongside is long gone.
The other main square, just across the Lanë River, is Mother Teresa Square. Of course, in Hoxha’s time it did not bear this name but rather the name of an Italian Fascist leader. Only in 1991 was the square rededicated in honor of Mother Teresa. Albania is a predominantly Muslim country due to its long history as part of the Ottoman Empire, but there are sizable populations of Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well. Despite the fact that Mother Teresa was actually born in Macedonia, she was ethnically Albanian, and Albania has embraced her as a modern-day national hero. In part, this move helps Albania to present a more appealing image on the international stage – “Mother Teresa’s country” sounds better on the EU membership application than “former hermit Communist state”.
Although drab concrete Communist architecture can be found throughout Tirana, the city is not ugly. There are still examples beautiful Ottoman architecture that predates the twentieth century, as well as a scattering of Italian-style Neo-Renaissance buildings and enough interesting modern architecture to make a walk through the city a sightseeing experience. The city government has also led a beautification program involving painting otherwise ugly buildings with bright colors or murals. The result is a creative new facade for the city at a fraction of the cost.
My favorite area of Tirana is the square known as Pazari i Ri – “The New Market”. The market is a modernized version of a traditional open-air market, where you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat from vendors who set up for the day in covered stalls in a pedestrian square. The square itself and the surrounding neighborhood are newly-renovated and brightly painted with colorful geometric patterns. Even if you don’t need to do any grocery shopping, the side streets around the market are filled with restaurants specializing in traditional Albanian dishes. The restaurant I settled on was filled with locals and didn’t have a menu in English. I went with the approach of giving the owner a puzzled look and then ordering whatever she pointed to on the menu. The result was a delicious fresh salad and a clay bowl filled with piping hot tavë dheu – a cheesy liver casserole!
Despite the fact that Albania remains one of the most underdeveloped countries in Europe, I was surprised by how the city seems to have progressed without getting caught in the past. It’s not a dull post-Communist city filled with nothing but nostalgia and crumbling concrete apartment blocks, but rather a lively, colorful city filled with interesting sights, great food, and friendly people.
Tirana was only my first glimpse of Albania. The rest of my visit included stops in the historic cities of Berat and Krujë, as well as the stunning Albanian Alps and Lake Koman in the north of the country. Check out my other linked posts for the rest of the story!