Our Balkan adventure is fully operational now. After an epic 28.25 hour trip from St. John, New Brunswick to Toronto, then Munich, and finally Tirana, Albania we are soaking up a new country and culture. We have made the decision to travel Business Class whenever we are on extended flights. There are no words to express how good that was, with the delays in Toronto and the added 10 hour layover in Munich waiting for the next available flight. The endless flow of free alcohol and excellent food, along with quiet comfy chairs certainly takes the edge off the cost and the delays.

We were dropped off by our taxi in downtown Tirana at around midnight with a limited idea of the address of our apartment and no data on the phone as our eSim card chose this moment to malfunction and not activate (I may have pushed a wrong button). Fortunately Karen spotted a coffee shop where we were able hijack their wifi and we solved our navigation problem and were in bed by 1 am.

During the 45 years of communist rule under Enver Hoxha there were around 175,000 bunkers constructed in Albania. Most of them are small fighting bunkers, but the two largest are now museums. Bunk’Art 2 is located in the centre of Tirana and is an interesting view into the birth and growth of the Sigurimi, or secret police. The degree of control exerted over the citizens is mind boggling.

After a sleep of the dead, we started our first day in Tirana with a free walking tour. We have found these free tours to be a fantastic way of orienting ourselves to new cities and meeting new people. The tour guide, Aurora, was a native of Tirana and obviously loves her home. I think she did exceptionally well on her tips on this tour as she had to deal with a mentally disturbed individual who started threatening her. No physical harm to anyone and the situation diffused peacefully. She handled it well.

Also on the first day we went to a museum called “The House of Leaves”, or the Museum of Secret Surveillance. The reason for the name is fairly obvious when you see the building. It originally was built in 1931 as an obstetrics clinic before the German Gestapo took it over during World War 2. However after the war it became the centre of surveillance for the Secret Police in Tirana. Everything from opening mail, including all mail that was leaving the country or entering it, to listening in on any phone conversations in the country. They also had dedicated lines running from listening devices in all the hotel rooms given to foreigners in the Tirana area. It was quite a chilling experience.

After this rather sombre beginning to the day we found a great little bistro, ‘Bitter’ to have lunch. While we were chatting with the owner, Kelly from Texas, he informed us it was going to be a rocking time in town that night due to a qualifying game for the European Football Championships. Albania was playing Czech Republic in Tirana.

The square in the centre of town was transformed into a massive party centre with pre game entertainment and beer booths everywhere. We didn’t stick around for the game but we were able to follow the results in our apartment later as the city exploded every time Albania scored. They won 3-0.
The national hero of Albania is Skanderbeg and this statue in Skanderbeg Square (where the party was) is an acknowledgement of his contribution to Albanian identity. If you are a history buff there are some great videos on YouTube about him. In 25 years of fighting the Ottomans he never lost a battle with them.
Though we never made it into the National Historic Museum, (there is a limit as to what I can inflict on Karen), the exterior is very impressive. The tile work has recently been cleaned and it is quite beautiful. If you’re curious, it depicts the national clothing that was traditional through the years.

On the second day in Tirana we took the public transit out to the suburbs to check out a cable car and yet another museum.

The Dajti Express is the longest cable car in the Balkans, at 4354 metres. it takes about 18 minutes to reach the top..
You always worry a bit when you take the bus 30 minutes, then pay your money and ride the gondola up for 18 minutes, to walk over to the viewing platform to be told you can’t come out onto it because they are retiling it.
Fortunately we were able to find alternatives to enjoy the incredible views of Tirana and surrounding area. Of the 3 million Albanians in Albania, 1 million of them live in Tirana.
As we were coming down the gondola I laughed out loud at the thinking behind someone opening a paintball field immediately in front of a mosque. Something about that in todays day and age just seemed not quite right. Or it could just be me.
When we got off the gondola we walked around the block to check out the larger of the two Bunk’Art museums. Bunk’Art 1 is quite frankly, overwhelming. After passing through a tunnel you eventually come to the entrance of this massive bunker. It is 4 levels built into the side of the mountain with room to run the government and continue communicating with what is left of society in case of a nuclear or biological attack. The displays are quite detailed, but after awhile you simply become numbed to the amount of information available.

I had known Albania had been a communist country, however I had no idea the degree of isolation that had been imposed on its citizens. It truly is beyond the ability of most young people today to grasp how this could be done and that it was done for so many years. When I travelled through Yugoslavia in 1983 by train I had no idea the hell the people in the region were going through. It was a mighty reminder of how fortunate I am to have been born where I was.

This is all a bit heavy so I thought I’d include some nice images of the area leading to Bunk’Art 1’s entrance. One can never go wrong with flowers.

Having said all that, I have to say that I quite liked Tirana. The coffee culture is insane in this city. I would not be exaggerating if I said there were 8-10 proper sit down and relax coffee shops on every single block of downtown Tirana. It thinned to 1 – 2 in every block once you get out of the core. And the coffee is great. None of that nasty drip stuff, every cup is crafted and they do it well.

Quite a few street dogs wandering around, but they are not at all aggressive and they all appeared to be fairly well fed. It is always a bit sad when you see them though.

We are on the road now and looking forward to exploring more of this little nation.

If you have 3 minutes to kill, here is what the trip down Dajti Mountain on the gondola looks like.

Welcome to our travel blog. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to say, "I'm out of here?" Well we did, and in 2013 we made it a reality. We sold or gave away all of our possessions other than what fit in our luggage and we set off on an endless adventure. Part of our goal is to share our experiences with others and hopefully provide some information, motivation, or just a moments escape. The general idea was to look for a place that would be ideal to settle down in. However in the meantime it is about experiencing life in different countries amongst different cultures and learning how to understand and appreciate each other. A large part of our time is spent housesitting which provides an excellent opportunity to experience more of the "normal" neighbourhoods as opposed to the tourist locales. Though we make sure to enjoy those as well. So through plenty of photographs and a running commentary come and share with us our life on the road.

1 comment on “Tirana, Albania

  1. Another awesome blog Pete. Thanks for sharing. The gondola video made me think of my time in Croatia and Bosnia. The countryside and houses are no different.

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