Tripping on Tirana

Vidya Ram | Updated on June 16, 2011

Et’hem Bey Mosque in Tirana. - Photo: Vidya Ram   -  Business Line

The capital of Albania may not be used to foreign tourists, but that's what makes it a pleasant change from other popular destinations.

You are in Tirana on holiday,” asks Klodian, in a tone more bewildered than curious as he wove his taxi out of Nene Tereza International Airport, named, of course, after Albania's most famous citizen.

Not a touristy place

Klodian's reaction was far from untypical, as I learnt during the brief time I spent in Tirana. Home to around a quarter of Albania's 3.2 million citizens, Tirana simply isn't used to foreign tourists despite being less than an hour's drive from the Adriatic Sea.

Besides a spattering of decent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, there is little infrastructure to support a foreign visitor not there to do business. No signs guide you to the city's top attractions, and at the moment at least the city's main plaza, Skanderberg Square — named after the 15th century lord who kept the Ottoman Empire at bay — looks like a building site in its formative stages, with metal barriers running this way and that around piles of materials. Crossing this square means joining the crowds that deftly dodge their way between helmet-less scooterists and beaten-up old Mercedez Benzes and BMWs.

Fortunately, the trek is worth it, particularly for Et'hem Bey mosque, a nondescript building on a corner of the square, which was constructed at the end of the 18th century and closed through communist times. Thanks to the unremarkable exterior, the exquisite wood panelling inside the tiny mosque takes your breath away. Our caution about entering the site of worship is airily dismissed by an old man, who gestures to us to come further inside to admire the paintings that envelope the space.

Around 70 per cent of the country is Muslim, though aside from the call to prayer, and a few women wearing head-scarves, there are few obvious signs of religion. The open-air bars in the trendy Blloku district of the city are as filled with young women — in breezy summer dresses, sipping glasses of wine or coffee — as they are with men.

Soon the advantages of a dearth of tourists begin to become apparent: no touts chase us down the street with tacky memorabilia and postcards, taxi drivers glance at you askance as you approach rather than hound you with promises of must-see sites. The few shops that do carry tourist trophies have little more than mugs and t-shirts with the imposing double-headed eagle, which forms the centre-piece of the national flag. A refreshing change.

While the national museum has limited amounts for the non-Albanian speaking visitor to digest, the art gallery is captivating, with works ranging from the medieval to the modern. Much of the gallery is devoted to social-realist art — purposeful-looking muscular workers at a mine or in the fields — capturing the history of a nation that for much of the 20th century lived under communist rule. It was only in 1992, several years after the death of Enver Hoxa, who led the country from the end of the Second World War, that communist rule ended.

Few reminders of the past

Apart from these works and some of the stark architecture found in the city, there are few reminders of that past. As with many parts of the world that have lurched from communist state to free-market champion, here too streets are densely packed with shops selling everything from ankle-twistingly-high stilettos to the latest Nike goods and designer watchers. (But surprisingly, there isn't a single McDonald's or Starbucks).

The lush green Mount Dajti, at 1,612-metres, is a short journey from the city centre and well worth a visit for tourists who may not have the time to visit other famous places such as Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site, or Berat, a historic Ottoman castle-town to the south of the country. Reached by a steep 15-minute cable car ride, Dajti is a place where many locals escape city life for barbeques or a trip to a 1970-ish revolving bar. It also offers impressive views, if not of the beauty of Tirana (whatever its charm, beautiful it is not) then at least of the lush vegetation that surrounds the city thanks to ample rainfall.

Eager to join EU

Albania has a tough reputation in many parts of the world. In the run-up to our visit, headlines warned of mounting tensions between the socialist and democratic camps in local elections that have delayed a visit by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. In fact, the EU has warned that the conduct of local elections in the country could hurt its chances of EU accession (the country's eagerness to join the economic union is evidenced by the numerous EU flags draping buildings across the city.)

Still, it's clear that Tirana is unlikely to remain un-touristy much longer. I meet a group of British builders who're scouting for sites to house an Irish pub, and are already drafting plans for a package-holiday company.

With the seaside nearby and cheap nightlife to rival any Mediterranean holiday resort just a two-hour-something flight from London, it's a no-brainer, says one. I'm pretty sure he's not the only one thinking that.

Published on June 16, 2011

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