Balkan Odyssey Part 2: Tirana, Albania

The capital of the poorest country in Europe is a surprisingly pleasant place.

Unfortunately, I awoke to it at 4 a.m. when a rather large minaret right outside my Tirana hotel window began broadcasting the morning call to prayer.

Thanks to decades of rule under the Ottoman Empire, Albania is one of the most Muslim countries in Europe. It doesn’t seem like it, however. Sure, there are a few other minarets in Tirana–mostly built in the last decade–but otherwise very little evidence that 70% of the country is Muslim.

It is hard to get a feeling for the city based strictly on the architecture. Prior to World War II, much of the city was blessed with fantastic Italian buildings. Unfortunately, the war leveled much of it and the communists razed quite a bit of the rest. The result is a semi-modern city with large squares–perfect for communist military parades–and a hodgepodge of architecture, most of which is ugly and utilitarian, except, of course, the government buildings which are dominate and intimidating.

Quite a bit of the city is, no surprise here, falling apart. The streets are riddled with potholes and the sidewalks are upended and punctured with amazingly dangerous holes just waiting to claim the next unsuspecting footstep. Many of the buildings are in desperate need of a paintjob.

Fortunately, Mayor Edi Rama cleanup efforts are mixed in with all this communist era rubble and balance out much of the bad. The former Paris-based artist has placed his stamp on this city unlike any mayor has ever done. He literally gave the city light by installing street lamps-something entirely missing during communism. He cleaned up a weed choked river in the center of town that was home to all kinds of post-communist, illegal commerce, turning it into a nice, grassy riverbank. Most famously, he distributed paint and asked for many of the city’s buildings to be painted in wild, bizarre patterns that are utterly unique to Tirana.

The result is a city emerging from post-communism that has improved in leaps and bounds, is harboring the first vestige of character, but still has a ways to go. Shady boulevards and café-lined streets are starting to spread like a baby’s smile, but the rough-and-tumble, gritty air of post-communist desperation still hangs heavy in Tirana. It’s a city of contrasts, and that’s what makes it fascinating.

Tomorrow: What to see in Tirana
Yesterday: Getting to Albania