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Time for Tirana


Albania’s friendly capital deserves ample time to explore and absorb.

Subtle. Interesting. Quirky. Albania’s capital city in the Southern Balkans emerged in the early 1990s from four decades of oppressive authoritarian rule. Today’s city is alive with interesting sights, friendly people, fresh foods, and a unique energy.

 

If you find yourself on a warm Saturday evening in mid-spring among a predominantly younger, energetic yet casual crowd in Tirana, Albania, dabbing French fries into a small puddle of mustard at a Mr. Chicken restaurant in the trendy Blloku neighborhood, do not let your mind wonder whether your life (or even your evening) has taken a drastically wrong turn. This is the place to be (if not for the less than memorable food, then for the scene).

Tirana, Albania in the southern Balkans, is one of the first stops on our latest journey. After a few quick days in bustling Athens, we’ve arrived in this emerging and quirky capital – and it’s just what we had hoped for. 

First impressions

On the Saturday we arrived, two festivals were going on at the main squares on opposite ends of the main street: A “ColorFest” at the Mother Theresa Square, seemingly geared towards teens and college-aged students, with music and lots of folks sporting pained faces. Walking among the crowds, I feel like I am 15 again, strolling through “Early California Days” at St. John Vianney Church (obscure Hacienda Heights reference). I half expect to see Paul Zuniga here smoking a cloves cigarette, or Loverboy coming out next on stage. 

About a straight mile away on the opposite square, there’s a motorbike festival that seems more geared for the midlife sect, though there is a full complement of families, little kids, the very elderly all on the square – a multi-generation mélange out strolling, biking, mingling, strutting about to be seen, or to see what’s going on; everyone navigating the bikes and speaking loudly over the revving engines, as well as the rock music blasting from stage speakers, prelude to a live concert later in the evening. 

This is Skanderbeg Square, one of the largest public squares we’ve encountered, the long rectangular buildings on two sides (one, the museum with a giant mural) clear echoes of the Communist era in Albania, while the giant equestrian statue of Skanderbeg, the national hero, now featured prominently and replacing the bronze Joseph Stalin that once stood in the same spot.  On this night, also, a great juxtaposition of an old clock tower, and 600-year old mosque at one end of the square with a 25-foot inflatable Jack Daniels bottle in the foreground, all just part of the festival décor. 

As the band set up, the DJ played mostly classic rock: The Who’s “Baba O Reilly” pounding loud and clear, so of course we had to stop and hold up the fist microphone and sing together, “It’s only teenage wasteland…” (followed by the air drum solo…) 

Being in Tirana makes me sentimental about the late 1970s or early 1980s, listening religiously to L.A.’s classic rock stations KLOS and KMET. In the square we hear Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” some AC/DC, Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” some classic Stones and Beatles mixed in, Tom Petty, ZZ Top, etc.   

Emerging with energy, quirkiness and pragmatism

The vibe we catch in this city is one of abundant but tempered optimism. It’s a sort of “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Pepsi commercial hopefulness mixed in with a shot of “Our leaders are and have for so long been corrupt that there may be no ultimate way out” realism. 

In the early 1990s, folks here emerged from 45-plus years of extremely oppressive authoritarian, Communist rule in a distinctly Albania-style as executed by dictator Enver Hoxha, who led from 1944 until his death in 1985. Albania essentially became an island of Communism, having at various times aligned with Stalin, Tito and Mao, only to declare eventually that they, Albania, were the only true practitioners of the genuine red ideology and decided to go at it alone. This led to extreme isolation, with no one allowed to leave the country and almost none of the outside world seeping in. It was a severe police state with surveillance and spying on citizens, prison camps, persecution of political opponents (and those merely suspected). Before this trip, we knew nothing of Hoxha. Learning about his regime is another stark reminder of how easily whole nations can fall under the grip of dictators, and how absolutely precious the freedoms we have in the U.S. are. 

**Also some additional interesting history: In the late 1930s, Mussolini invaded Albania, trying to take it over as part of a new Italian Empire. He initially succeeded, but in a flurry of a few years, Albanian nationalists managed to push back, so the Nazis came and restored some order, a coalition of Albanian communists and nationalists managed to push out the Nazis, and then, in 1944, the Nazis pulled out of Albania, the U.S., Britain and Russia recognized a new government in Albany (on the U.S.’s condition that democratic elections would be held), but the ensuing elections were a sham and Hoxha and his communist party suddenly were at the helm. For the next 46 years.

Following Albania’s long oppression which lasted until 1991, they went through several fits and starts in the transition to capitalism, including a terrible Ponzi-scheme scandal and various instances of government corruption that wiped a lot of people out of their savings, not to mention the chaos from the nearby fighting of the Balkan War in the 1990s. 

The 20th century was not an easy one for Albania, but things seem to be looking brighter in this century.

People of the eagle

There are only about 3 million people in Albania. There are more Albanians living outside of the country than inside. Sixty percent of those living in Albania identify as Muslim, but only about 10 percent are practicing. It is more of a cultural heritage and identity, the residue of centuries of being part of the Ottoman Empire. 

Our first full day in Tirana, Albania we did a walking tour. We saw mosques (including an enormous and picturesque new one they are building across from their parliament building, but we didn’t hear the call to prayer. We saw perhaps only two or three women with their heads covered. We saw many bars and several casinos. 

Our guide tells us Albanians take pride in their religious tolerance. It’s also noteworthy that in 1967 the Communists officially banned all religions and the state became officially atheist, so there is a whole generation-plus that has really never lived in a place where religion could be practiced.

What the Communist party wanted everyone to believe: Albany is the best and most organized country in the world. Reality: There was extreme poverty, extreme isolation, extreme backwardness. 

Imagine growing up in the 1970s and not knowing what was going on outside your own borders.  TV (for those who had it) was limited to four hours of state-provided propaganda per day. No access to outside art, music, films, news. Imagine growing up knowing about only what your dear leaders thought you should know. People were not allowed to leave the country. If you did, the Party would punish not only your immediate family left behind, but third and fourth cousins left behind. 

“Under communism,” our walking tour guide says, “the country was very clean. Because we had nothing to throw away.” 

“There was full employment, yes,” he adds, “But that’s because the government assigned five people to do the work of one. We had a saying: ‘We’ll pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.’”

The people barely had enough to live on.  Every home had the same modest furniture and decor. 

They are still figuring out how to fully tell the story of their time under Communism here. “We need another 30 years, another generation,” our guide explains, “Because otherwise if we open up all the files, we will see that many people we know were involved and it could cause more harm than good.” 

There are so many colorful buildings in the city.  Many of the old, drab Communist structures are now bright pink or orange. The current prime minister is the former mayor of Tirana and a painter by trade. He wanted to make people smile when they looked at the buildings, and he felt bright colors would do that. 

There is a leafy pedestrian street that is decorated with musical notes.

Bunker mentality no more

Did I mention that Hoxha was paranoid and during his time they built close to 100,000 concrete bunkers to protect people in case of a nuclear attack? The bunkers are sprinkled throughout the country. We saw one on our city walking tour, then visited an enormous underground bunker complex the next day called Bunk’Art that is now a museum. 

But Tirana and Albania now is….

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