Day 22: Tirana, Albania

by - August 24, 2011

The overnight bus (hopefully our last) was probably the worst of the lot.  The battered Macedonian bus had some major faults with it, the worst of which was the fact that the engine growled loudly in the low gears.  The route from Skopje to Tirana is almost entirely through terrifying mountain passes, so it was very rare that we got out of the low gears and therefore we didn’t get much sleep.  The bus arrived in Tirana, the capital, at 4.30 am and we made our way to the hostel in the dark.  What the city is missing in street lighting it makes up in potholes but we luckily made our way to “Freddy’s Hostel” where they let us in to sleep through to midday.

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana
We had only set aside a day in Tirana and by the time that we got going this had shrunk down to half a day.  The  city is dominated by communist concrete architecture but it is interesting to see the historical parts that weren’t flattened, as well as the capital of a nation that has only just opened up to tourists.  We started at Skanderbeg Square, named after the Albanian national hero who fought the Turks.  His name means ‘Lord Alexander’ in Turkish as he named himself after Alexander the Great.  The statue of Skanderbeg was the only thing that hadn’t been removed in the square when we visited as there was major construction work taking place.  One side of the square has some rather attractive Italian style buildings which are used by the government and we had lunch at an Italian restaurant opposite.  The maps show that the city is divided in half by a river, but this is quite an overstatement as the river cannot be more than a metre in width.  On the south bank of the river is 'the pyramid’.  This was supposed to be the mausoleum of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator, as well as a museum glorifying his life.  Now that the communists are gone it has fallen into a state of disrepair and while Lonely Planet says it is still used for conferences, it seems unlikely from the amount of graffiti and damage on the exterior.

'The Pyramid’, Tirana
The main boulevard through the city passes through Skanderbeg Square, across the river past the pyramid and then to the buildings of the communist government including the current prime minister’s residence and congress building.  Both of these are fairly ugly concrete buildings and the ugliest of all surround Mother Theresa square in the south of the city - a memorial that pales in comparison with the one in Skopje.  On our way back to the river we passed one of the most visible remainders of the communist regime - the Hoxha Bunkers.  After the relationship between Albania and the USSR, particularly after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Enver Hoxha decided to construct an enormous array of bunker pillboxes.  As many as 700,000 were built at twice the cost and using three times the concrete as the French Maginot Line.  The engineer who designed them was asked by Hoxha to prove their strength by standing in one while it was fired at by a tank and the remarkable strength of the bunkers has proved to be a huge problem in modern day Albania.  Weighing in at around 5 tonnes each and located in parks, squares, beaches, gardens and pretty much everywhere else, it would require an enormous amount of time and effort to remove them.  As a result they have just been left, though there are stories of people spending months taking them apart with sledgehammers in their gardens.  The one that we saw was opposite the prime minister’s residence and had only been partially destroyed.

The remains of a Hoxha Bunker, central Tirana

Ellie inside Ethem Bey Mosque
After seeing the bunker we headed to the Blloku district, an area where only the main players in the communist party were allowed to visit.  The opulence of the buildings and houses, particularly that of Hoxha himself, shows just who the winners were from Albanian communism.  Unfortunately the only areas of the city that weren’t flattened are those that the party deemed to be of 'national cultural importance’, so on our way back to the hotel we stopped off at the Ethem Bey Mosque.  The mosque is pretty tiny as they go, but has an amazing painted roof and as it is positioned on Skanderbeg Square, it is a pleasant break from the larger government buildings.  The last remnants of pre-communist Tirana that we were able to see were the old clocktower, an old Ottoman bridge and the pretty dilapidated remains of a roman era fortress.  The locals haven’t let their city be totally ruined by communist architecture though, if that is the feeling that comes across from reading this blog.  They have done what they can, by painting the drab grey concrete in a real array of colours so that while the architecture itself is pretty dire, the city does actually have quite a lively and vibrant feel.  It was definitely worth visiting for a day on our way to the more scenic parts of Albania.

Brightening the mood

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