Walking the streets of Tirana

Everyone has their own intimate reasons for traveling, be they discovering new places or simply leaving behind old ones. For me however, it’s about finding yourself somewhere that you previously couldn’t have imagined. The clichéd word for this type of travel is “off-the-beaten path,” though the experiences it yields are anything but cliché.

Several years ago, I landed in Athens intent on traveling overland through the Balkans en route to Vienna. While this was never a major tourist route to begin with, I did manage to visit some of the better-known sites: the hilltop monasteries in Meteora, the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia and the up-and-coming Montenegrin Riviera. Along the way, I took a slight detour into a country that I knew next to nothing about: Albania.

What little information I could remember from history class was the following bizarre account. During the Cold War, the Communist leader of Albania was a deranged paranoid by the name of Enver Hoxha. Fearing annihilation from above by Western powers, he charged his military engineers with the task of building almost one million concrete bunkers across the whole of Albania.

The Iron Curtain has long since fallen, but I confess that my image of Albania hadn’t changed with the times. As such, you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in the whimsically-colorful capital city of Tirana. Take a look at the gallery below, and then continue reading to learn how this once grey and gloomy city earned its multi-hued stripes.

%Gallery-124160% Prior to the Cold War, Tirana was a beautiful city. First established as an Ottoman outpost in the 17th century, Tirana quickly prospered as a major commercial center along the caravan trading routes. It was soon outfitted with all the architectural symbols of the ruling Turks, including mosques, hamams (bathhouses) and bazaars.

Following independence in 1912, the somewhat comically named King Zog I (yes, that’s his real name!) launched a massive building campaign to Europeanize the city. Noted Italian architects descended on Tirana, and gifted the city center with neoclassical buildings and grand boulevards. Of course, construction efforts were de-prioritized following subsequent invasions by Italian Fascists and German Nazis.

After World War II, Albania became a communist state and sided with the USSR. Tirana was thus transformed into a socialist-styled industrial powerhouse. Elegance gave way to practicality as historic buildings were ripped down and replaced with concrete block-style apartments, and any available green spaces were filled-in to accommodate behemoth factories. Tirana became the cold and dreary city one often associates with so-called brutalist architecture.

Since 2000 however, Mayor Edi Rama has launched a number of admirable campaigns to beautify Tirana. Some of his efforts are fairly standard urban renewal practices, such as knocking down abandoned buildings, cleaning up public parks, planting trees alongside river banks and renovating the few remaining culturally significant buildings.

But what separates Mayor Rama from your average fighter of urban blight is his love of color – yellow, orange, blue, green and violet to be specific. And in this case, the palette is the bleak concrete facade that typifies most of Tirana. Viewing his city as a work of art in progress, Mayor Rama has set aside subsidies for people and communities to spruce up their streetscapes. Indeed, a fresh coast of paint can often do wonders.

Walking the streets of Tirana is really the best way to capture his lofty vision. Some apartment buildings opt for geometric patterns of intersecting shapes in bold coloration. Others embrace softer undulating pastel lines that are reminiscent of waves crashing in a fantasy ocean. And then there are those with blunt racing stripes that draw attention away from glaring architectural flaws.

Soviet-era stylings still do predominate, and the frivolous nature of the project has drawn its fair share of justified critics. But as a living, breathing social experiment, Tirana truly is one of a kind.

We’ll be the first to confess that Tirana is not an easy place to visit. Your first hurdle is simply getting here as Albania isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world. But there are direct flights to Tirana from most major European capitals including London. There is no train station, so you can forget about the Eurorail pass, though international buses run to neighboring Balkan countries as well as to Greece and Turkey.

English is a rarity, so it’s recommended that you book a hotel in advance rather than stumble around in search of accommodation. Habitable rooms tends to gravitate towards the mid-range and top end, though rates here are much less than in other European capitals.

Eating out is very cheap, and you’ll find all manners of filling treats including byrek, a filo-dough style pastry with meat, cheese and/or spinach. More familiar doner kebabs and Italian pastas and pizzas are also popular. Local beer is excellent, though keep in mind that the local “Stela” is not the same as the Belgian “Stella Artois.”

In terms of sites, there are a few decent museums and performance spaces scattered around the city. The National History Museum is recommended if you want to get a better sense of the strange twists and turns that led to the creation of modern Tirana. Petrela Castle on the outskirts of the city is an impressive Byzantine structure lying at the top of a rocky outcrop. For something far less stately, check out Hoxha’s International Center of Culture, which resembles a giant pyramid of cement!

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery images below.

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[All photos and gallery images are the author's own original work unless otherwise specified.]