Tirana’s Hidden Gems

 

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I knew my time in Albania would go too quickly, but that’s life. To be honest, I nearly always feel like my travels in a place go too quickly, whether it’s been 2 days or 2 weeks. I landed in Albania on Sunday afternoon, and checked into my AirBnB (amazing!) with this equally fabulous view of the New Bazaar Area. It’s basically a public square with cafes, bars, restaurants and a standing farmer’s market. It’s cool during the day, but really comes to life at night, and my balcony overlooked all the action.

I spent my first whole day in Albania taking a trip to Berat, which I will cover in a separate post. I reserved Tuesday for seeing the sights of Tirana. Like many cities in the Balkans, Tirana offers a free, guided walking tour of the city. It is totally worth it. The guides are locals, and the perspective they provide was amazing. It was a mix of history, culture, top sights and really just good conversation with an Albanian.

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The tour starts in Skanderbeg Square, the main plaza in Tirana (pictured above). The square was expanded in the past couple years, and it is now a pedestrian-friendly area. The square is bordered by the national opera theater (undergoing renovation), the national bank, the national history museum, a mosque and some other government buildings. You can also see the large Albanian flag, all red with a large, black double-headed eagle. The flag is the family flag of the general for whom the square is named — Skanderbeg, who held off the Ottomans invasion of Albania for 25 years.

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The clocktower, above, was built in the 1820s by wealthy Tirana families. It’s a combination of the Ottoman and western styles, and you can climb the stairs to the top for a small fee.

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Wandering past the square, we encountered a bevy of government buildings done in a very continental style. Tirana’s architecture isn’t terribly historic. Much of the city was constructed after 1912, and large swaths of building are Communist-era concrete blocks.

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In front of the national art gallery is a fairly new public installation art created by an Asian artist and designed to represent clouds — though you can’t see it from this photo. It’s also a venue where they show films and have public talks.

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More of “the clouds” below. Nope, still not seeing it.

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Tucked behind the national art gallery are some interesting old statues. You can see Stalin, below, who was apparently a hero of Albania’s longtime Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941-1985, and he was largely responsible for Albania’s complete isolation from the rest of the world until Communism fell in 1991.

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Despite all of the gorgeous mosques and churches in Tirana, our guide said Albania is a largely secular country. Although the population is — in his estimate — about 40 percent Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox and 20 percent Catholic, he really believes fewer than 10 percent are actively practicing. In part, that is because Hoxha forbid religion in Albania when he took power.

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The city has an amazing outdoor cafe scene, and Tirana doesn’t really come to life until about 7 p.m. or so on these long summer nights.

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The Tirana Castle, below, isn’t nearly as impressive as the Berat Castle, but you can stay inside at one of the guest houses, if that’s your thing.

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Despite being largely secular, the country is constructing a new mosque in the city center. But, it’s being funded by Turkey. We didn’t get into the political reasons as to why Erdogan would want to finance a mosque in Tirana, but you probably have some ideas.

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A walking tour of Tirana wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Cathedral of St. Paul, below, with it’s statute of Mother Teresa outside.

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Mother Teresa is of Balkan descent, being born somewhere between Albania and Macedonia. Interestingly, our tour guide knew nothing of her or her works until after the fall of Communism.

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The stained glass at the cathedral is amazing. I wish we could have seen it in the daylight, with the sun streaming through it.

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One of the many bunkers present in throughout Albania for military use.

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A memorial to Albanians who died in the mines during Communism.

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The dictator, Enver Hoxha, built this villa in one of the wealthiest parts of Tirana, where only diplomats and high-ranking Communist officials were allowed to live. Now, the neighborhood, Blloku, is where the hip restaurants and clubs are located. The best part: There’s a KFC, Albania’s first (and only so far) American chain right across the street!

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BoundfortheBalkans

American expat. University professor. World traveller. Dog lover. Eating and drinking my way through the Balkans for 7 weeks.

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