Quite some time ago, I got the idea of going on holiday in Albania for the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism there. I looked up the date in Wikipedia, and booked holiday, flights, and hotel for a week, so I’d have a few days either side of the celebrations in case the main celebration wasn’t on the actual day but, perhaps, at the nearest weekend.
I was a little apprehensive, as it was to be the least westernized country I’d yet been to, and in particular I wasn’t expecting much English to be spoken, and hadn’t got very far with learning Albanian.
The flight gave me beautiful views of the Balkans (although my phone’s GPS wasn’t realistic about where I was; it put me much further out to sea than was visibly the case).
We landed on a beautiful clear day, with a view of the mountains inland from the airport.
At the airport, I drew some Lek at a cashpoint, and found the times for the bus to Tirana (they go every hour, on the hour) and to fill the time dodged the assertive taxi drivers hustling for my trade by getting a very rich hot chocolate in the airport cafe. The bus journey gave me my first glimpse into a slightly run-down, or very informal, looking country.
Arrival in Tirana
The bus from the airport set me down a couple of streets from the hotel, and I found the city bustling and a little chaotic; and the climate warmer than I had expected.
The hotel I stayed in was a small, friendly one, which I can definitely recommend. There were clearly more luxurious ones around, but I wanted to be somewhere “local” rather than in an international chain.
The first place in Tirana I saw, apart from the route from the bus stop to the hotel, was Skanderbeg Square; not really a square, but an oblong of roads with a grass wabe around the statue of Skanderbeg.
I walked on to “Blokku” (“The Block”) also known as “Ish-Blokku” (“The ex-Block”), the area which under the communist regime had been reserved for party officials and their followers. It’s now the trendy district, although it still looks a little run-down (in a rather pleasant way). It’s also said to be the main are of café culture in Tirana, although in fact there were cafés all over the central area; quite good ones, it turned out, with decaf available at all (important to me).
The Grand Park
Further on from Blokku is Parku i Madh, The Grand Park, by the artificial lake. It’s beautiful, and I returned daily, for a walk and a short run. (A few weeks later I went to Brussels, and saw the shabby park outside the royal palace, with a couple of armed soldiers patrolling through it. Presented with pictures of the two, I wouldn’t have guessed correctly which was in a major modern western capital of a wealthy country and which was in the capital of a country struggling to recover, with very little assistance, from a Stalinist regime.)
I saw a couple of other parks, too, including Parku i Rinia (The Youth Park), where books were sold from improvised stalls along the parapet-style walls along one of the edges. I noticed that the tobacco stalls also sold books: I hadn’t realized that books would be a significant part of the culture.
I’d always thought of the former “Eastern bloc” as a place of cold weather, but although that seems to bWikipediae true of the parts with a continental climate (far from the sea), Albania is definitely Mediterranean.
Looking in advance on openstreetmap, I had spotted an unfamiliar map symbol that I guessed would be some kind of railway, leading from the edge of the city out into the countryside. I turned on “map data” to find what the symbol meant, and found that it was a cable car, which I assumed would be industrial and perhaps connected with mining. It turned out to be a passenger one, though, known as the Teleferik, leading up to a hotel, restaurants and viewpoint up in the mountains. I got a taxi to the lower station, and took the cable car ride, which was spectacular, and lasted about quarter an hour. I wondered how a country without, as far as I knew, a major modern engineering tradition, had put up such a modern system; I found they had got the Austrians in, and mountain transport engineering is something that Austrians do.
At the top, as well as the modern Belvedere hotel and a restaurant, there was an abandoned larger hotel, with a big archway under the front of it. This was used for communist Young Pioneer camps, and was also designed as a potential refuge for the government in the case of invasion. The big arch, I was told, was the opening of a tunnel, which was said to lead all the way to the communist leader’s house. (I doubt this was true; it seems a bit far for that, but he was quite into emergency tunnels, so it’s possible.) I had a look around, but was chased off by some loose dogs. I’m not sure they were really feral; they looked too well-fed for that, and I suspect they were put there, perhaps by the military (who have a base nearby), to keep people out.
Before travelling, I looked online for a local hackerspace, and found OpenLabs, and made contact with them. They invited me to come round and give a talk, so I told them about my local hackerspace, and also talked about openstreetmap.
They have very little equipment there, and seem to be more into open data than code; lots of Mozilla and Wikipedia activity. To my surprise, unlike most hackerspaces, there were more female members than male, although it’s not set up as a specifically founded as a female-oriented space.
I tried some unfamiliar fruit from a street market: pomegranate (which I’d only ever had as juice before), and persimmon (which seems to be the national fruit). I only found out afterwards how I should have opened the pomegranate!
Some of the menu entries in restaurants didn’t appeal to me; “Trip of lamb internals” is clearly a classic.
The white (feta) cheese is fantastic. Pies are popular (and cheap); meat, cheese, and spinach. The local ice cream is a bit disappointing: clearly artificial colouring and flavouring. The time is probably about right for an artisan ice cream maker to start up, probably in Blokku; also perhaps time for a craft brewery?
There are some excellent cafes, some in local chains. I took a liking to the Mulliri Vjeter cafes.
I had a day trip to the historic town of Kruje, arranged by the hotel. The “castle” there is a modern re-build, containing a museum.
I took a day trip to Durrës. The bus for it starts some distance from the city centre, so I took a local bus out to there. There are two kinds of bus in Albania: ones which run to a timetable, and “furgons”, which are mostly minibuses, which run when they have enough passengers to be worth moving for. I wandered around a bit, finding a live poultry market on the street, a Roman amphitheatre (into which later Romans had built a Christian chapel, with a mosaic of saints), and a newish museum.
I looked round the National Museum; it was surprisingly Zogist.
I found that the celebrations (of the fall of communism) that I had gone in the hope of finding, had happened while I was on the plane; but there was triumphal music being played from a government building, so I took that as a token form of having caught them.
I found Albania more westernized than I had expected, but not completely. The standard of English, at least among the younger people, was the best I’ve heard from any south European country (I may have had an unrepresentative sample, as a high proportion of the people I got to chat with were from the hackerspace!)
I’m certainly going to go back — in fact, I’ve just pushed myself to complete this “report” a week before going for my second visit! Plans for this visit include attending OSCAL (Open Source Conference Albania), looking at the museum of surveillance, and visiting the National Puppet Theatre, which is in the building previous used for the puppet parliament under King Zog!