Balkan Odyssey Part 3: What to See in Tirana

Like all former communist capitals, Tirana was socially engineered with the required injection of culture in the center of town. Skanderbeg Square boasts a Palace of Culture, National Library, and National Historical Museum-all of which loom above the expansive square where a mammoth statue of former dictator Enver Hoxha once held court. One’s eyes, however, are naturally drawn to the very beautiful Et’hem Bey Mosque and its towering minaret in the south east corner of the square. The 18th century building, one of the oldest in Tirana, seems incongruously out of place amongst the monumental architecture of the communist era.

Just south of Skanderbeg Square and partially obscured by poorly kept grounds, The National Art Gallery is my favorite museum in Tirana and well worth a visit. It cost $2 to get in and is like so many of the other museums I’ve visited in post-communist countries; I was the only tourist in the entire place and as I moved from room to room, squat female docents, bored out of their minds, turned on the lights for me and, just as quickly, turned them off once I left each room.

The bottom floor has some rather uninspiring contemporary Albanian artwork and is best viewed at a quick gait. Upstairs, however, is a fascinating study in contrasts. At the top of the stairs is an impressive collection of 16th century religious icons while the adjoining room showcases the social realist paintings of an atheist government–paintings which extol communism with even more religious fervor than the icons in the first room.

At the opposite end of the gallery a surreal hodgepodge of statues and busts ranging from Mother Teresa to Enver Hoxha are stuffed into an odd little room that’s been painted white. The statues are haphazardly scattered about as though they are as much in storage as they are on display.

Just down the road from the National Art Gallery is the city’s most bizarre exhibition space: The Enver Hoxha Museum. This pyramid-shaped structure was designed by Hoxha’s daughter and opened in 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death. As you might suspect, a museum honoring Albanian’s horrendous dictator did not survive the communist revolution. It was briefly turned into a disco after communism fell and today is worth a wander to check out the assortment of small shops and salespersons that now operate inside, hawking all manner of goods much to the ironic chagrin of anti-capitalist hardliners from the communist era.

Near the pyramid’s entrance hangs an 1100-pound Bell of Peace. The bell was cast from an estimated 20,000 shell casings collected by Albanian children in 1997 when civil unrest threatened to rip apart the country. I’m sure glad I didn’t visit Albania that year.

Once past Hoxha’s pyramid, Tirana starts to gain some character. This is the part of town where the communist elite lived in luxury–at least compared to the average Albanian who was prevented from even entering the area. Albanians call this part of town the Blloku. Spread across a one kilometer square area, the Blloku has much more greenery than the rest of the city and numerous early century houses which survived the war and communist city planning. This is also where most of the foreign embassies are located. Keep an eye out for the Italian one–it is the most heavily fortified. The barbed wire atop its walls reflect the early days of post-communism where Albanians by the thousands attempted to flee to neighboring Italy.

These days, the Blloku is where most everyone in Tirana seems to eventually find themselves in the evenings; it has been turned into the Greenwich Village of Tirana and is now lined with cafes, bars, and restaurants. The Blloku will be the focus of tomorrow’s essay.

Yesterday’s Post: Tirana
Tomorrow’s Post: Drinking in Tirana