I spent most of my day in Tirana yesterday. I am always exhilarated by Tirana’s old and new: towering buildings made from the latest materials juxtaposed with 30s era Italianate Vilas that stand semi-abandoned next to Soviet era buildings. So much history in such little amount of time. All crowned by the velvety misty blue hues of the Dajti mountain range.
But Tirana exhilarates me mostly because it is a vibrant city of youthful people. Most of its population is young. Many of them professionals: eager, friendly, trendy, hip, up-to-date on latest in tech and latest in world affairs…….well maybe the latter is becoming rather rare as many are plunging into their personal tech world, not unlike youth elsewhere.
On one street alone I encounter bars, boutique-like shops, old vilas, some restored, some decrepit. A few meters away a tower, and another one being built. There are garden bars/cafes, basement ones, street-level ones and terrace ones. There is no architectural uniformity. It is all still very fluid, still trying to figure itself out from 45 years of oppressive isolationist Stalinism. Nothing has yet settled. Nothing is yet fixed. And this elasticity, I suspect, also adds to its vibrancy and liveliness, and idiosyncratic charm. The juxtaposition of a peach-colored columned neo-classical vila with a row of gray-colored block buildings lends for curious sighs of curiosity. It can, in the right areas, feel like a labyrinth of many different layers. In the Block area – former Stalinist regime head honchos’ secured enclave – it feels like it once did in the Village in NYC.
Then there’s the cafe culture. So many places to choose from, indoors or out, to have a nice coffee or drink. Nightclubs too dot the city. And the best part? Prices are fantastic compared to other European countries and you get more for your money. Different restaurants offer different menus. It’s all up to your culinary tastes. There’s traditional highland cuisine consisting of bread (a staple), meat, a kind of stew, a fried yogurt specialty with chicken etc. There’s also a wide-range of seafood choices. There’s pizza. There’s Mediterranean food. A combination of all of these, and also fast food for when you’re on the run.
Coffee and a smoke under orange trees at “Vila 7.”
Sights and Places:
Tirana has a major center that can’t be missed. A sort of a plaza where the main attraction is a giant regal sculpture of National Hero Gjergj Kastrioti Scanderbeg on horseback, whereabout all traffic revolves around the manicured grassy circle encircling it. This is Scanderbeg Square. All around it you have the Opera and Ballet House, The National Museum, Library, and a few of the ministries seemingly at once line-dancing around (An Albanian tradition) and protecting its King.
A walk away from the center and into the main arteries will also reveal historical treasures that still bridge the past and present, the East and West. Going further into local neighborhoods, one gets a real taste of local and daily life, but also of the hodgepodge architectural boom.
The other bestest best part? It is only 40 minutes away by bus from Durres’ beaches, which are now empty and clean and perfect for a dinner facing the sun setting over the Adriatic.
Durres sunset over Adriatic sea.
The Pope’s Visit:
Boulevard of Martyrs lined with religious martyrs killed by the Communist regime.
This Sunday, Tirana (and all of Albania) is expecting Pope Francis’ visit and by what I’ve seen, billboards with different quotes by the Pontiff have been put up lining nearly every street and highway. The city’s main boulevard has been grandly decorated with rows of photos of past Albanian clerics: great scholars, patriots, nationalists, pacifists and overall great men who’ve played major roles in the formation of the country and its identity; Many of them unjustly imprisoned and killed by the Communist regime which made all religions illegal in Albania in 1968. How apt then that the name of this street is The Boulevard of Martyrs! The Pope will be speaking and holding mass in Mother Teresa (Another renowned Albanian) Square.
It is noteworthy to mention that Albanians belong to 3 faiths: Islam, Eastern Orthodox and Catholicism. And all three, being that Albanians are and have been historically very lax and tolerant on matters of religion, coexist perfectly peacefully in this very energetic yet quintessentially Mediterranean country. Tolerance, vibrancy, hospitality, kindness and beauty.
Preparations for the Papal visit. Welcome to Albania !