Mountains and Markets - Tirana

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Sep 30, 2010

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Where I stayed
Hostel Albania

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Tirana clock tower is only open to visitors two days a week - conveniently we happened to be there on one of those days. The ticket guy hadn't actually turned up though, but we asked someone sitting nearby who went off to find a key and let us in himself. No one asked us for the entry fee.

The main square was barricaded and seems to be undergoing some major excavation work. The national museum had many exhibits similarly barricaded, and when we wandered through an open door into a courtyard filled with mosaics, a lady hurried out after us and ushered us back in again. The rest of the city still seems to be there though, with no major excavation or renovation going on, and there is plenty to see by wandering. Like most former communist cities, Tirana is blighted by a plague of identical concrete apartment blocks but here some are randomly painted - trees on one, polka dots somewhere else, we also found many variations of stripes and geometric patterns.

Across the Lana river (despite appearances it is not actually a storm water drain) is the suburb of Blloku. This area was off limits in communist times, as the party leaders lived here. These days it is filled with cafes and doesn't look all that different, except for the armed guards outside the house where former party leader or "supreme comrade" Enver Hoxha used to live. 25 years after his death he is not a popular man.
The 'pyramid' building, not far from Blloku and designed by Enver Hoxha's daughter also does not seem to be a popular building. Designed to be a museum, it is described as an "excellent slide" by our guide book, much to our confusion - it is a hideous scratchy concrete mound. It took us a while to realise that it has recently been stripped of its shiny and slippery marble tiles - perhaps it was impressive in its day, definitely no longer the case.

There does not seem to be any such thing as a supermarket in Tirana, instead there are markets spread out around the city. Who needs to pop down to IGA when you can go down to the egg lady on the corner, and visit the olive man on the way back? The stall holders were all really friendly to us, actually understanding (and not laughing at) our limited Albanian and mime and throwing in a bit extra of whatever we were buying. There are also huge clothing and second hand markets - the latter resembling a Vinnies shop in a warehouse complete with the same smell.

Tirana is surrounded by green mountains, still melting in the summer heat we took the soft option and took the brand new (but already graffitied) Mt Dajti cable car up - its about 4km straight up by cable car, so probably a little far for a hike anyway. The cable car runs to the summit of a smaller mountain, in front of Mt Dajti, which is covered in sparse brown grass and grazing horses and foals. Out the other side was a view over Tirana. You can guess where I was, and where Bevan was.

In the lower ranges of the mountains on the other side of Tirana is Kruja, a historic town famous as the castle of Skanderbeg. This guy is Albania's national hero, nicknamed the Dragon of Albania. Born in the 1400s when the Ottomans were ruling these parts, his family was held hostage in the Ottoman court to ensure loyalty of the Albanian people, and Skanderbeg was converted to Islam and brought up as an Ottoman officer. After leading campaigns for the Ottomans, he rebelled against them and freed chunks of Albania (Kruja was one of the first) from both Ottoman and Venetian rule. Most tourists just know him as the man with the goat head on his hat (seriously) whose statue is all over Albania.
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