35 days, 9 flights and 4 countries later – poof, I blink my eyes and I’m back in the U.S. As always, it was a wild survey, and as always, it’s good to be home. This will be my first summer in Boston, and with plenty of friends to romp around with, it’s sure to be a fun one.
This survey, my last stop was a 10-night stay in Tirana, Albania. Nestled amongst the Balkans, Albania is quite a country. Historied with a turbulent past, a promising future awaits, a future that will begin with increased international presence. On April 1st – just a few weeks ago – Albania joined NATO, and just a few weeks later, formally applied to be the newest member of the European Union.
Needless to say, I was excited to visit. Below are some highlights and pictures from the trip.
Mother Teresa was arguably the most celebrated Albanian of the 20th century. The airport is one of many architectural elements named in her memory, and I crept into it just after midnight. As my taxi glided toward Tirana (the capital city), the puntz-puntz of house music was just loud enough to keep me (and probably the driver) from falling asleep. It was a two-lane road, and high grass was flanking the shoulders. At first, I thought the small dots a few fingers above the horizon were low-lying stars, but then I remembered that mountain ranges cover most of the country. Mountains, house music, entering a new country – it doesn’t get any better folks.
Broadway Hotel and the Shower from Hell
I was fortunate enough to stay at what has to be one of the friendliest hotels in the Balkans. It is small, just about 20 rooms, and there is definitely a Vegas/Egyptian thing going on – pharaonic symbols line the hallways. In front is a lush terrace that is packed almost every night with both guests and locals. The grilled fish is delectable and best served with a hearty amount of Tirana beer.
One of my friend’s cousins actually owns the hotel (Kristi, thanks again!), so I was given a nice corner room on the top floor. Between the quiet balcony, the wireless Internet connection, and the wooden ceiling, I was set. That is, until I battled the shower from hell.
I’ll do my best to explain. At the sink, I learned that left=hot and right=cold. At first, I thought it would be safe to assume that the shower was the same way, but I had made that mistake before, so I timidly stood outside the doors and conducted a new temperature experiment. Immediately, when I turned it on from the left side, the water was scalding. I then proceeded in the shower by turning the knob to the right, then turning on the pressure. Bad move, Alan. Due to cylindrical confinement, I narrowly escaped the piercing wrath of fiery water. My chest and arms were red for two days.
Once I got the shower temperature right, I realized that about every 20 seconds, the water became freezing cold for 2 seconds until the heater kicked back in. Between varying temperatures and massage settings, I never took an entirely relaxed shower. Future guests, beware.
Skanderbeg Square and Bllok
One thing I really liked about Tirana is that you can walk everywhere. When I wasn’t working, I was exploring, and I found that most of my time was spent around Skanderbeg Square, the central park, and Bllok. Skanderbeg Square describes the square expanse of asphalt in the center of the city. Watch out for crossing Mercedes cars and plastic, battery-operated kiddy mobiles. Around the square you can find the Opera, Skanderbeg Statue, the National Library, the National History Museum, and Et’hem Bey Mosque. Often described as a majority Muslim country, 70% of Albanians are estimated to be non-religious or non-practicing.
Bllok, prior to the fall of communism, was an area sectioned off for government officials. Interestingly enough, since then Bllok has become the number one spot for Tiranian youth, boasting the best cafés, shops, and restaurants. The streets, especially in summer afternoons, are filled with people.
The Dajti Express
Originally, I had planned to rent a car in Tirana and drive outside of the city to tour the countryside. After a few days, though, I concluded that with my lack of aggressive driving maneuvers, this would be a nearly impossible task. Thus, in an effort to escape citified Albania, I settled with the Dajti Express, an Austrian-constructed cable car that whisks passengers to a 1230m shelf on Mt. Dajti in just under 18 minutes.
The ride was quiet. We soared over rolling pastures, a lake, steep, craggy outcroppings, crowing roosters, and barking dogs. At the top of the lift are picnic grounds, some restaurants, and rainforest hiking trails. When I tried to climb higher, I was turned away with a pointed gun (and a smiling face), reading much later that the top of the mountain is controlled by the military.
It was a Sunday, so families occupied all the non-trash grass patches. I walked around, took a few pictures, and headed back to the city before it got dark. For future travelers, it is definitely worth checking out as a nice half-day excursion. On a clear day, the views of Tirana are stunning.
If you’re traveling in the Balkans, or feel like jutting out over the boot of Italy for a quick ferry ride, Albania is a fine choice. People are friendly, Tirana is geographically manageable, and as a cost-of-living surveyor, I can vouch that prices are good. I wish I had had more time to explore surrounding cities like Durrës and Shkodër, but I had to leave something for my next trip, right?