When I pictured post-communist Tirana, in my mind, I imagined a town full of worn-out grey buildings. Which Tirana had not that long ago, until a new and energetic mayor came into power in 2000 and had the idea to paint the grey old buildings in bright colours, to help lift the spirits of Tirana’s residents. Initially skeptical, the project had the desired effect and Tirana now has the appearance and the spirit of a vibrant city. Even the main square in town, Skanderbeg Square, is a nice green space surrounded by colourful buildings.
To see the colourful city from up high, we headed to the revolving Sky Bar for a drink. It was a great way to see this bright city surrounded by mountains.
After the Sky Bar, we headed into the Blloku area of town and soon found ourselves surrounded by the young and trendy types of Tirana. During the communist years, normal residents weren’t allowed in Blloku, as the area was for the exclusive use of the ruling party members. How times change, as now the area is full of hip bars and restaurants and is the place to be seen.
There are still a few reminders around town from Tirana’s communist past. The most bizarre is The Pyramid, designed by Enver Hoxha’s daughter (Hoxha was the communist leader of the country for over 40 years). The building was once a museum dedicated to Hoxha but is now abandoned, which seems fitting.
We were very interested in understanding more about Albania’s history and so headed to the National History Museum. It’s easy to spot in the main square with its fantastic mural above the entrance. The mural shows various Albanian freedom fighters and it’s interesting a female is the centerpiece of the work.
The museum covers a large part of Albanian history and ends with a room which walks you through the countries communist past. Frustratingly, it was the only part of the museum with no English information, which was such a shame as the displays looked so interesting and seemed to cover the period in a lot of detail. Hopefully they sort this out soon for future visitors.
A visit to Mount Dajti
A mountain escape from the city is just an hour away. We were told the mountains were at least 5 degrees cooler than in town, so on a day that was predicted to be in the high 30’s, we headed up the mountain.
The ride up to the mountain is quite fun. You take a bus to one of Tirana’s outer suburbs, and then hop on a cable car which takes 15 minutes to get you to the top. Taking you over apartment buildings, farms and then forests until you reach the top.
The weather on the mountain was very different from Tirana. Cooler and shrouded in fog, that came in waves up the valley and over the mountains.
There are hikes you can do in the area but we came up here to have lunch at one of the restaurants along the mountain road. Walking along the path to the restaurant through the green woodlands, we could only occasionally see the views back out across Tirana.
It was also here, high up in the mountains, that we saw the biggest concentration of the famous Albanian concrete bunkers. The bunkers were built by the communist government between 1950 and 1985, at significant cost to the country at a time when the people barely had enough food to eat.
Now symbols of a paranoid regime, built to help defend the country should it come under attack, you can find these tank-proof domes everywhere in Albania. A sad but resilient reminder of the countries past.
Tirana was a lively and colourful city, which looks to have a continuing bright future ahead.
When to visit Tirana: We visited Tirana at the end of July, 2014
How to get to Tirana: We took the bus from Berat, which took 3 hours. Tirana has no central bus station, and so where you arrive in the city depends on your starting destination (and or the patience of your driver if there is a lot of traffic).
Food & Drink recommendations for Tirana: The Brauhaus Brewery had some good beers, brewed in-house, but the food was average. Samples of the different beers were free and very good value!
Around town we also found plenty of awesome bakeries with tasty bureks, and even more excellent patisseries which yet again delayed the start of our diet.
Where to stay in Tirana: We stayed at Freddys Hostel, which was actually more like a hotel, for the same price as a hostel. It was close to the main square, restaurants and buses in/out of Tirana. A great place to stay, Freddy and his team are very helpful and welcoming.