Albania: It Isn’t Kansas Anymore
Albania is still a whole world apart from most of Europe. After isolating itself under a Communist regime for several decades, the country is still very much catching up with the rest of the world. No other moment quite describes our experience in the country more than our journey to Tirana.
In Montenegro, we boarded a nice, comfortable long distance bus which we took all the way to the border. Unexpectedly, once crossing into Albania we were transferred into a van at the nearest gas station. looking at the van, it appeared that either only had room for all of our bags or the people on the bus. Somehow, we all fit everything into this rusting and quite aged vehicle, appearing to be on its last wheel. Seats were broken, a gas can sat on the floor next to the front seat, and the driver proceeded to siphon gas from the bus and into the van. From here, it would be a bumpy two hour ride to the capital, Tirana.
A World Apart
Northern Albania is defined by mountains, farms, and the villages that are scattered around them. Here, small family run farms are the norm, and people are still working the land by hand as you have to pinch yourself in order to be reminded that this is still twenty first century Europe. As we go, we randomly spot the small domes of the old nuclear bunkers that dot the fields next to the roadway which were built throughout the country during its period of isolation . A country a world away from its nearby neighbors.
As we passed trough larger towns, the street markets, rows of shops selling the same items right next to each other, along with the overall vibe kept reminding me of a third tier city in China. Perhaps the most bizarre observation made during our journey through these towns however, was the number of Mercedes driving about and parked along the road. It seemed that for every car without the iconic logo, there were four that did. It provided quite a contrast with these still very much developing towns as a backdrop.
Our time in Albania would be short, as we would only stay in the capital for four days before getting on a plane to Jordan. Despite our short visit, we were able to get a pretty good feel for Albania, its people, and culture.
Tirana: The Pulse of a Nation
Tirana has a different feel than most European capitals as its layout shadows the Albania of the past. Large open squares border just as large boulevards while much of the architecture is of the Brutalist style. While some older buildings remain intact, many were destroyed with the push of atheism during the nation’s bout with Communism, leaving few for the traveler to explore. As a result, Tirana is more of a place to feel and experience rather than to see. Despite this, the city has made efforts to brighten itself up as many of the buildings you see throughout town are painted brightly in all sorts of colors. It is one of the many signs that the people of this country are looking forward, away from darker times in the past. Looking to forget about its recent and painful past, most Albanians are rolling ahead into the future at full speed. There is lots of optimism in this country where strangers help strangers, and everyone is working on creating a brighter and more hopeful identity for the country.
The Friendliest People in Europe
One of the first things you will notice in Albania is how friendly the people are who live there (if you haven’t caught on already… this has been a trend for our travels in the Balkans). Upon arriving in town, we were helped by no less than for people on our way to our airbnb. People literally went out of their way to help out the two backpackers, looking as confused as ever about Albanian bus schedules and addresses (trust me, they are confusing for outsiders). At our Airbnb, we were greeted by our hosts mother who treated us like family, joked around with us in her limited English and even offered us rajkia for our stay. It is rare to have such a warm welcome in other parts of the world, but in Albania, it’s a daily occurrence. Out of all the places in Europe we have been to, Albania takes number one went it comes to hospitality (Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very close second).
While getting around using public transportation is 100% confusing, it wasn’t actually that hard to use due to the helping hand most locals would lend us. As long as you know where you want to go, there will be people to help point you in the right direction. After boarding our first bus, an attendant immediately went over to us to see where we were going and to ensure we knew where to get off. After a communication breakdown, he found someone that could speak English that was happy to help us out. This was the common experience we had every time we looked for a bus. People, without even asking, would be there to help us along to make sure we got to where we wanted to go. We were very grateful for this, otherwise it would have been impossible to use the bus system.
What to do in Tirana
As mentioned previously, this is more of a feel city than a see city but there are several things you should do while in town.
The most popular attraction for tourists is the chance to get down into one of the nuclear bunkers that you spot throughout Albania. There are two bunker museums in Tirana which were built for high ranking government officials in the event of a nuclear war. Now museums, the bunkers are laid out as they would have been during a nuclear crisis and offers interesting insights to the time period.
If you want to dive further into Albanian history and culture, the National History Museum located on the main square is a good place to start. The square itself is an interesting place to people watch and check out some of the oldest buildings in Tirana, a old mosque and clock tower. Walking down the main boulevard from here will bring you to several works of public art and eventually to Albania’s most iconic building, The Pyramid.
The Pyramid, now in a state of deep decay, has been pretty much abandoned by the city and its people. Built originally as a museum for Communist leader Enver Hoxha, the collapse of the Communist regime in the 1990s prevented the building from being used for its original purpose. Now, Albanians don’t really known what to do with the structure. Some call to tear it down due to the dark times it represents, while others want to restore the building in order to preserve its history. For tourists, its one of the many oddities that you will find while on your travels in Albania.
Albania: Worth a Second Look
While we didn’t get to see much in Albania due to the fact that cold winter months and the seasonal lull in tourism makes it difficult or impossible to get to some of the places we wanted to go, the country left us with a desire to return someday. The high peaks of the Accursed mountains, and Albania’s uncrowded beaches have yet to be discovered by mass tourism. As independent travelers, this is more than enough reason to explore this country deeper (in the correct season) but the warm hearts of Albanians themselves give us even more reason to come back.