Three weeks ago, my teacher mentioned in one class the Pyramid Schemes that were fraudulent investments sparking a rebellion in Albania in 1997. I believe that I knew this country much more than most people as I travelled to the Balkans before. But I didn’t know so many things until I visited for the first time last week. Hearing stories from locals is priceless and their hospitality is exceptional which fuels my experiences much more so let me tell you about my visit to Tirana!
I arrived to Albania from Podgorica as I took a £10 flight from London with Ryanair. The transfer from Podgorica to Tirana is quite hectic. The first step is Podgorica-Ulcinj: it takes around 2 hours to get there a bit long but the bus is comfortable and costs 6 euros. After almost an hour break at Ulcinj bus station (which has free wifi by the way), I take my second bus for the Ulcinji-Shkoder way. It takes around 2.5 hours including a fairly long stop while crossing borders. The bus driver collects all passports at the start of the trip which costs around 5 euros. Once on the other side, I have a quick stopover in Shkoder, I walk around and enjoy the city on a sunny day. I also have my first Albanian meal there. I was a bit nervous being in a new country but that goes away very quickly.
After my lunch in Shkoder, I take another mini-bus for Tirana which costs less than 4 euros. The trip takes almost 3 hours and I was very tired once I arrive to Tirana. But it was time to explore.
I was amazed by the nice Christmas decorations in the city centre. I was happy to be finally there. I stayed at Villa with Star, a very nice and cute villa run by Albanian Trip a travel agency based in Tirana. I slept comfortably well there and it has a great strategic location 5 minutes walk to the main square. The room, as you can see on the picture, was big and had everything I needed from towels to heating. Moreover, the wifi works perfectly fine and all amenities available. And just a minute away plenty of places to eat and a Carrefour Market just on the other side of the street.
Even though my stay at Villa with Star was great, the agency did not deliver other things that were planned for my stay in Albania: a day trip to Berat, so that was quite a big disappointment and on top of that I did not receive any communication that it will not take place anymore, I would have made my way on my own otherwise. But on my last day, I received an apology from Elton who is the founder of Albanian Trip and he took me on a small bike tour of Tirana’s city centre.
One of our stop during the bike ride was a very beautiful Sunni mosque on Skanderbeg Square, it’s called Et’Hem Bey Mosque where I was warmly greeted by the man taking care of it. He tried to be nice and speak my language so he says “Salam” (which means Hello and Peace in Arabic). He also confirmed to me that “Islam is not a religion of violence”.
I also noticed that most people I met seem to agree on something… Albanians do not care about religion. Indeed, it looks like most people are Muslims and Christians but in reality most of them are Atheist or Non-religious Muslims/Christians. I was amazed by that as it seems like religion do not create any division therefore they celebrate all holidays and they have mix marriages and stuff like that.
Although, it seems like the reason for that is because the Communist leaders did not allow practice of religions which I think is good and bad. Good because it avoids those religious problems that divide people, bad because part of their cultural identity has been taken away by the regime. However, mosques and churches are still being built every other day now.
I also heard from Elton and other locals about Tirana’s communist past. The county isolated itself despite being in Europe near Yugoslavia, Western Europe and Turkey. Such isolations could be heard from people saying that they did not have the right to simply have a chewing-gum or chocolate. But oppression was as extreme as the regime did not allow basic freedoms. In the area of Blloku of Tirana, I found two bunkers which were the strongest symbol of communism isolation. Bunkers were massively built as a way for protection in case of war but those 700,000 bunkers were almost completely useless.
Some blast from the past is also The Pyramid or known also as “Enver Hoxha Museum” (the dictator behind Albania’s communist regime), this extremely ugly building from the past is still present to remind people and visitors of a part of Albania’s history. Although the building looks so ugly, I started to see some beauty in it later and I hear there is a debate over plans of its destructions, I think it would be a shame if they destroy it!
I was also curious to ask people about Albanians in Kosovo and how the conflict affects their relations with Serbia. I got some surprising answers. Some people told me that they love Serbs and they have nothing against them. Moreover, they say that it is a political game that should not interfere in relations between the people. I have also been told that Albanians are not united in the sense that they feel they are different from Albanians in Montenegro and Albanians in Kosovo despite being from the same ethnical and cultural backgrounds. I was very surprised to hear that! But that is one person’s view, I wish I met more people and even stayed longer and seen much more of the country.
One of my highlights was the Sky Bar, spinning on a 360 degrees view over Tirana. The view is absolutely stunning that I went there two days in a row to just enjoy sunset and see the city moving from above. I felt in a special place and the experience was brand new for me. I was hypnotised by the atmosphere of Tirana, a feeling I look forward to experience again!
Disclaimer: I accepted a complimentary stay with Albanian Trip to provide my honest and personal opinion about my own experience on this article.