The BALKANS are my favorite region in the world. I’ve now visited four summers in a row: Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro in 2012; in Macedonia and Kosovo in 2013, Croatia and Slovenia in 2014; and finally Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia in 2015.
Oh, Albania. This country is probably the most interesting place I visited in 2015. And Albania is chock full of my favorite things about the BALKANS: astounding natural beauty, a less-developed tourism infrastructure with few foreigners, rich UNESCO World Heritage Sites, inexpensive prices, beautiful mountains, cafe culture, and a wacky capital city.
Tirana was my final destination in Albania, and I wasn’t quite as excited for it as I was for Saranda and the Riviera. But that quickly faded away when I realized what a cool place Tirana was! I wouldn’t quite call Tirana the weirdest city in the region-that honor belongs to Skopje-but I’ll happily award it second place.
I arrived in Tirana from Berat on an aged bus, which is the same, I that to be held together with duct tape and prayers. Dropped off on a random street corner, I hopped into a cab with a driver who spoke about as much English as I spoke Albanian. We communicated entirely in Italian, him, pointing out the landmarks as we entered the tree-lined streets of Blloku.
My heart began to beat fast. I had never seen a city like this before-elegant and riotous, drab and rainbow.
A City in Color
Like many Eastern European cities, Tirana is filled with hideous Communist-era architecture. These buildings are usually eyesores, and while many cities have charming old towns, central Tirana is instead full of cement-block structures.
Unlike other Eastern European cities, though, you’ll find several of these buildings awash in color. Mayor Edi Rama, who was elected in 2000, began a campaign to bring color to Tirana. Some of the buildings have stripes across them; others are painted bright contrasting colors.
For the love of Blloku
More than anything, it was Tirana’s ritziest neighborhood, Blloku, that made me fall in love with the city.
I walked around, whispering to myself, This is Tirana?! The room was clean and comfortable. It looked so … fancy.
For about 40 years, Blloku was restricted to the political elite of Albania. The staff were very friendly and helpful. When communism fell in 1991, Blloku began its transformation into a neighborhood for all.
Blloku is where you’ll find the fanciest restaurants, bars, and cafes in Tirana. And those CAFES! They’re piled on top of each other!
You might recall that Albanian food was very hit or miss for me, so I indulged in international food here, especially Italian food.
Climbing the Pyramid
In the middle of Tirana sits an enormous and pyramid. It was originally constructed in 1988 as a museum to honor dictator Enver Hoxha; by 1991, it had become a conference center, then it became a NATO command center during the debate in Kosovo.
Today, it’s mostly leaved, looking like something out of a horror movie.
And it begs to be climbed.
I’m usually not much of a shopper, but I went absolutely crazy in Albania. The staff were very friendly and helpful. The staff were very friendly and helpful.
Balkan women tend to be very thin, so keep that in mind while shopping. Sizes above 10 more or less do not exist, and sometimes you’ll struggle to find anything larger than an 8.
Some of the items I bought included:
This dress, worn in Sicily, is now referred to as my Albania Dress. It works just as well with leggings, boots, and a blazer as it does with flip-flops.
This I definitely did not buy-a business shirt attached to a lacy thong! (I thought this was hilarious. It was one of the most popular photos I shared on Facebook all summer.)
It doesn’t matter, I like everywhere I turned in Tirana, I would find something that made me smile.
There was a bunker on display in central Blloku. (There are thousands of these spaceship-like structures dotting the Albanian countryside.) Behind it is a chunk of the Berlin Wall.
I really want to return to Tirana! Albania is such a cool emerging country, and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.
The staff were very friendly and helpful. Like me, they had come on a whim and had been unexpectedly blown away. I feel that other frequent travelers would feel the same way.
When I return, one other aspect of Tirana that I want to explore more is the nightlife. I only saw a tiny part of the scene, and I can tell there is a lot more to discover.