The city of Tirana takes Abra Dunsby by surprise with its youthful energy, excellent food and complex history.
Take the hipster bars and stark Communist buildings of Berlin, throw in the charming chaos and reckless drivers of Naples, then add a sprinkling of Ottoman mosques – mix it all together and you’ve got something that resembles the city of Tirana.
Albania’s capital might not be on many tourists’ wish lists currently, but I fell for its quirks on a recent Western Balkans trip with Intrepid Travel.
“Tirana is an amazing city to explore with a fascinating history,” says Andrew Turner, head of industry sales for Intrepid. “It’s still a fairly underrated tourist destination, so clients have plenty of opportunities to make the most of the real-life, authentic experiences to be had.”
The city has seen its fair share of hardship, enduring 40 years of Communist totalitarianism under dictator Enver Hoxha, leaving Albania one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Unsurprisingly, Tirana is keen to reinvent itself. It’s evident in the brutalist architecture, which, under artist-cum-prime minister Edi Rama’s instruction, has recently been pepped up with bright paints.
The city’s Blloku area was once off limits to everyone except Hoxha and his party members. It’s now the trendiest, most expensive part of town, filled with clubs, rakia bars and cafes.
The food is another surprise. There’s honey-drenched baklava and flaky burek (cheese pie), and lots of great coffee.
Albania’s proximity to Italy has brought a Mediterranean flavour to its dishes. “Everything is organic here – farmers can’t afford the pesticides,” explains our guide Ivan when I comment on the food quality. It’s very affordable too – a pint of local beer costs the equivalent of less than a pound.
The city is small, so a weekend here is enough to see the main sights. Tell clients to begin in Skanderbeg Square, which has recently been pedestrianised. The piazza is home to the National Museum of Albania, which was built in Communist times and features a vast mosaic depicting Albania’s history.
The Pyramid – once voted Europe’s ugliest building – is another bizarre attraction. It was built as a museum by Hoxha’s daughter to honour her father after his death, but his unpopularity meant it soon closed down.
The derelict concrete mass is compelling, a stark reminder of the brutality of Hoxha’s regime. In the evenings, Tirana’s youth now clamber up its slopes to watch the sunset.
Ensure clients hop in a taxi to Bunk’Art, a museum on the edge of town that reveals another facet of Albania’s history.
During his rule, an increasingly isolated Hoxha feared nuclear attack, and ordered more than 700,000 bunkers to be built. A vast bunker built for Hoxha and the political elite, Bunk’Art has been converted into a museum charting Hoxha’s rule of paranoia and oppression.
Despite Tirana’s past, the capital’s forward-looking attitude is admirable, and there’s an energy in the air.
I was won over by its warts-and-all wackiness, food and friendly locals. The tourist brigade is yet to descend upon Tirana. Send your clients before the secret gets out.