Tirana, Albania did not evoke any images in my mind. I’d never met anyone who’d been there and knew nothing about it. Tirana was simply the jumping off point for a trip to Albania, the next step in a journey through the Balkans which has spanned multiple glorious summers. My discovery of the Balkans had started with a random pick on the bucket list using up expiring miles three summers prior. Going alphabetically, we had landed on D for Dubrovnik. But that’s another story.
So here I was back in the Balkans. Unlike the more northern countries which I visited in late spring when the temperatures are really pleasant, August in Albania is HOT.
Landing at 9PM, I was blanketed in 90F heat straight off the plane. While I tend to turn in around 10PM, this is Tirana is alive. Given the heat, the workday is from morning till mid afternoon, followed by a siesta when the city is simply dead. And then at 7PM, when temperatures become more bearable, everyone emerges and pours onto the streets and terraces. Tirana vibrates with energy, when people meet friends for a drink and a cigarette on the multitude of outdoor terraces the city is rich. Dinner is usually a 10 o’clock to midnight affair here. Not really my cup of tea. I turn into a zombie long before that.
Strolls through Tirana morphed into walks down memory lane for me. I lived in China in the 90s, when China was just emerging from communism into a weird brand of cautious capitalism. Tirana looked, smelled and felt the same. Majestic avenues are shaded by old sycamore trees, under which tiny old ladies beg, or try to sell you one book, a few ears of roasted corn, or little newspaper cones with sunflower seeds in them. The remnants of communism still very present in both the old and the gray architecture.
Tirana has a gigantic main square for all the past communist parades, towered over by a mosaic of all the people happily joining the communist movement. It’s desolate in the afternoon heat. The happy communist movement possibly reflecting something that never was.
A Tale of Two Cities
But Tirana is very much a tale of two cities. For on the same avenues communism lives in the old and the architecture, one can glimpse more Audis and BMWs than in the richest European cities, the young dressed to the latest fashion, and there are trendy cafes and restaurants everywhere.
Old communist buildings are flanked by ultra modern bars, nightclubs flanked by mosques, the muezzin trying to drown out the techno vibe, the youth dancing on the ideological graves of the generation just preceding them.
I am shocked at the lack of old buildings one normally finds in European capitals. It seems Tirana has quite a history of being wiped out, whether it is by conquering empires or earthquakes. Heavily damaged by the Nazis in the war, they emerged straight into the strictest most unforgiving brand of communism one can imagine under a leader called Enver Hohxa.
While I was familiar with Communism from visits behind the iron curtain in my teens and my life in China, this was a few steps further down the ladder to hell. Cousins betrayed cousins, neighbors betrayed neighbors, it was all a game of survival of the fittest with the secret police and a dictator holding the country in an iron grip that sucked the lifeblood out of even the most optimistic. Religion was forbidden; Hohxa declared this country as the first Atheist state on earth. And while many managed to slip through the iron curtain from Eastern Europe, Albania was locked off entirely from the outside world until the early 1990s.
The under 25s here are the only generation to have enjoyed any form of freedom throughout their life, and they are savoring it!
The elderly look on wearily in their suits from their gray communist style balconies, possibly wondering when the dream is going to end. It’s probably because of this recent emergence that Tirana simply sizzles with energy in the evening hours. People here know to enjoy it while they can, making Tirana vibrant. The under 25s here are the only generation to have enjoyed any form of freedom throughout their life, and they are savoring it!
A Visit to Bunk’Art
Up in the hills above Tirana there is a place called Bunkart, an artist complex built into the vast city of bunkers built during Hoxha’s time. He was paranoid about being invaded and had one bunker built for every three citizens, a place where the country could survive a nuclear holocaust. The underground network, 5 stories deep, is impressive, but also fairly depressing. If this is what life would have been like in a nuclear holocaust, I’d think I’d venture out so I could perish quickly…
Tirana was surprising. I enjoyed the foray into my memories, and enjoyed learning about a history I knew nothing about, as well as its energy which makes you feel alive. And, it was the doorway to a magical journey through Albania and its neighboring countries, and that is what made Tirana very worthwhile indeed.
End of Part One
About the Author
Kristien Van Hecke is Belgian, but knew at age 15 that she wanted to live in the world, and not just visit. She left Belgium at age 19 on a scholarship, has lived in 11 countries to date and has visited close to 100 countries and territories.