Hello and ‘Mirëpritur në’ Albania! This is the start of my adventure through the South West part of the Balkans, which will be starting here in the city of Tirana in Albania.
Albania was a nation that had been guarded into isolation from much of the international community by their socialist leadership which lasted up until 1991, when following the revolt of the anti-communist population inside of the nation, the move into a new order away from the restraints of communism began.
The nation’s capital, Tirana, still bears the architecture of its many pasts, with buildings still in existence from the colourful era of the Ottoman rule, and then also structures carrying styles of the Fascist and Soviet-eras too, which can be seen in Skanderbeg Square, with its Palace of Culture and National History Museum.
My visit to Albania would be spent in the afore-mentioned capital city of Tirana, and this led to my arrival taking place at Nënë Tereza Airport (Mother Teresa Airport). Ideally when landing at the airport, it is a good idea to have already pre-booked a taxi (atex.al) into the centre of the city. This option is not overly expensive (around €10) and is already paid for by you online. Also this will save having to barter a price with the driver in a somewhat kind of ‘Albaniaglish’ between the two of you.
At the gate I met my driver, who gave me a bloody good handshake, so I felt like he could handle a vehicle and I could trust him on the road. He had a great big smile too, but….could not speak a word of English, and I only knew how to say a few things in Albanian, so as you can imagine the journey was a quiet one. Just intermittent smiles at each other via the rear-view mirror.
The place I would be sleeping during my short stay in Tirana would be the ‘Star Hotel’ (booking.com) which for location purposes, was outstanding as it was adjacent to the central square of the city, Skanderbeg Square. This made it very easy to find and was a comfortable walking distance to everything I wanted to see or visit. Also very clean accommodation.
Due to arriving late-ish on in the evening, I wandered around locally to my accommodation and went to explore around Skanderbeg Square (Sheshi Skënderbej). Firstly when arriving at the square, it is hard not to notice the ‘Tirana International Hotel’ with it being 15 floors tall and the tallest building in the vicinity, but then onto the square the more impressive and grand Stalinist pastel coloured buildings of the ‘Palace of Culture’ which houses the ‘National Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Albania’, and the ‘National Museum of History’ are standing here. The ‘National Museum of History’ has a fantastic colourful facade, depicting figures from Albania’s history, from ancient times to modern times.
When you reach the opposite side of the square you will come to a statue of a very heroic looking fella riding on a horse, this being the man the square is named after, a national hero, George Castriot, aka Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg, always signed himself as the ‘Lord of Albania’ and was also the man to lead the rebellion against the Ottoman Empire back in the 15th Century in the lands that both today are known as Albania and Macedonia.
To one side of the Skanderbeg Statue, which replaced a statue of Joseph Stalin, you will also notice the very beautifully frescoed 18th Century Mosque, the ‘Et’hem Bey Mosque’. This Islamic place of worship was closed down under the communist rule of the nation, but then along with the revolution of the country in 1991, the Mosque re-opened without any Official Authoritarian interference. When on closer inspection, the frescoes are of waterfalls, bridges and trees, which apparently are rare to see in the art if Islam, or so I was told by a local Albanian.
Behind the Mosque as you nip down the alleyway, you’ll approach a clock tower, the ‘Kulla e Sahatit’ which had been completed by Et’hem Bey Mollaj, the man responsible for the Mosque we have just passed. Strangely though, Et’hem was actually a poet!?
Before going back to my accommodation for the night, for a good sleep in preparation for the next day of exploring Tirana, I visited a coffee shop just north of the square. On the Bulevardi Zogu I, I had a really good standard coffee in what I came to realise was a chain cafe, called ‘Mon Cheri’. The staff were extremely friendly and did laugh at my Albanian, but it always helps to put a little effort in!
Tirana was off to a beautiful start….
NEXT – Tirana, Balkan Adventure Part II