Tirana is certainly an offbeat destination and I reckon not many people know about Albania. Albania is known for formerly being a communist dictatorship run by madman, Enver Hoxha.
Unfortunately Albania has a reputation for organised crime like as referenced in the Liam Neeson film, Taken. I can tell you now that during my time in Tirana, I felt safer than when I was in other more popular European destinations such as Rome.
I took the bus to Tirana from Ohrid and crossing the border was insanely simple. All I needed to do was give my passport to the bus driver and I got it back five minutes later without it even being stamped. After about an hour I had arrived in Tirana and with my walk to the hostel I had experienced the brutal Albanian summer heat. Once I left my backpack at the hostel, I went over to the first place I wanted to see in the city.
The House of Leaves
The House of Leaves or Museum of Secret Surveillance is in the former building of the Albanian intelligence service. It tells you everything about what it was like to live in a totalitarian regime with constant surveillance. Albania’s regime had the risk of being taken away if you were perceived to be a threat to the state. The price is 700 lek which is just under a fiver. You are not allowed to take pictures inside which is understandable.
Nearby is also a very fascinating museum which is called Bunk’art 2. This place used to be one of Enver Hoxha’s nuclear bunkers and it has been partially preserved as it would look from back in the day. There are also has some art installations which illustrate the terror of the regime. It’s only about £3 for admission so it’s definitely worth visiting.
Later on in the evening, I went for a walk around Skanderbeg Square. The surrounding area and the square seems like a very lively place at night. I stopped and ate some grilled meat and had ice cream after which didn’t even cost me a fiver. The square had a very beautiful mosque known as the Et’hem Bey Mosque. This mosque was finished in the 1800s and reopened in 1991 after the fall of the communist regime.
The main religions in Albania are Islam and Christianity, due to Enver Hoxha’s suppression of religion, Albania doesn’t seem like a hugely conservative place. It seems to me that you can buy beer freely and you don’t have to dress modestly. Skanderbeg Square is like the main square in the city and has the Palace of Culture which was sadly under construction during my visit, it has a very laid-back atmosphere and I did not see a single person trying to scam me.
The next day I decided to visit Bunk’art which is a little bit outside of the main part of the city, unsure about which public transport to take, I decided to just walk which took me an hour. Walking through Tirana allowed me to see what vibe the streets had and it did not feel dangerous at all. Once I arrived at the bunker, I had to walk through a tunnel and I saw a mannequin dressed as a soldier.
This bunker is much bigger than the other one and has rooms that feel completely preserved. It also tells you a lot about what it was like to live under communism and the admission is around £3 which is a bargain for what it is. I found it heavily fascinating and I was one of the very few tourists there.
Nearby to Bunk’art is the Dajti Express which is a cable car which takes you on top of a mountain, the journey felt like it took a full 20 minutes and I was the only one in the cable car. I wouldn’t recommend if you have a fear of heights. The return ticket costs £8 and it’s worth it for the views you get, however there isn’t too much to see once you get to the top.
I had a gyro for lunch and it’s worth mentioning that one of the frustrating things about Albania is that most places don’t take card. That means plenty of trips to the ATM to get cash. I then had a walk around the city, I walked past the Pyramid of Tirana which had been under construction. This pyramid was opened just before the fall of the communist regime and served as a museum to show the legacy of Enver Hoxha. I’m not entirely sure what they’ll do with the building as it’s being refurbished for another purpose.
Ironically, across from a KFC, you can look at the former residence of Enver Hoxha, surprisingly he didn’t live in a huge mansion like other communist dictators, however the house is completely closed off to the public. Something crazy that you will notice about Albania is that Mercedes cars are popular here, despite being one of the poorest countries in Europe, it feels like 5 out of every 10 cars you see on the street are Mercedes.
Later on, I tried some Albanian food at a restaurant called Oda which was recommended to me by a friend, I had some lamb which was good value for money and if you’re feeling brave enough, you can even eat the head of a lamb.
What I can say about Tirana is that it is a city that’s worth visiting, I recommend it if you’re interested in discovering the history of the communist regime and it’s a very affordable destination. However I can’t exactly recommend visiting in the summer as you’ll boil to death from the heat.
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