All I knew of Albania was that I didn't know much about it, and that's what enticed me to visit. What I discovered was a cool, old-meets-new capital, some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, plenty of untouched nature, welcoming locals and UNESCO World-Heritage-preserved towns.
Views over Tirana city.
I had a suspicion it wasn't just me who didn't know much about this small country in the Balkans. For a nation that was closed to the world from 1945 to 1985 under the authoritarian rule of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania remained near impossible to visit (or leave for citizens) for forty years. The word on travel here seems to have been relatively slow to get out since the 1991 revolution and the country's reintegration with the modern world.
Skanderberg square in central Tirana.
But that's a part of what's cool about Albania in the first place. As a tourist destination, it's not overly popular, yet. And I never felt like one of the tourist masses here, more an anthropologist observing a culture that was, for me anyway, very foreign, having never visited a Balkan country before.
Left: Yellow October autumnal leaves from our Airbnb window.
Our Airbnb down this little alleyway.
We start the day in Skanderberg Square, a colossal open plaza in the middle of the city. The sheer size of it strikes me with awe, the surrounding mountains backdrop the scene as they seem to be everywhere I go in Tirana.
We head to the National Historical Museum to try to get a handle on Albania's complicated history. From antiquity (and showing off some pretty cool ancient artifacts—jewellery, ceramics, painful-looking weapons of war) through to World War II and the subsequent rise of the authoritarian regime, it's an interesting and at times strange museum.
Sometimes the captions are translated into English, sometimes they're inexplicably not. The entire 40-year dictatorship era isn't translated and we leave desperate for more information.
The National Historical Museum in Skanderberg Square.
After a quick lunch at a cafe along the converted 13th-century Tirana Castle Corso, we stroll along the pretty pedestrian street where I buy some tiny wooden spoons and then drool over the ceramics at Porcelain Studio Seferi, with a quick stop at Pazari i Ri Bazaar after.
We spend the afternoon at Bunk'Art 2 in pursuit of the missing information on those 40 years of dictator Enver Hoxha's rule. Staged underground inside a communist-era bunker, the eerie, immersive museum takes us through pokey, cell-like rooms one by one. Each details a different element of the regime's rule: secret police, propaganda, spying neighbours, major corruption, manipulated photography as evidence against “the enemy”, torture and more. The bunker was designed and set up as a war room during those years but was never used, the decor remains untouched.
With plans to head out of town for the afternoon, we stop by the Toptani Mall Food Court wondering what an Albanian food court even looks like. Is there a Burger King? A Taco Bell?
What we find at the top of the maze of escalators is a large room with floor-to-ceiling windows and incredible views over the city. We eat good, cheap traditional Albanian food like rice-stuffed peppers, vegetable salad with pickles and grilled fish and admire the scene before us.
Views from Toptani Mall's top-floor food court.
A smiling conductor roams the length of the bus, handing out paper tickets in exchange for the 40 leks (0.34 euros) it costs to ride. I find it charming that there's still a human being doing this job, that it hasn't been replaced by a machine in this country.
The bus stops for an inexplicable 10-minute break along the journey. Everyone, the conductor included, ducks into the adjacent coffee shop where he insists on shouting us both a coffee as a welcome to Albania. We gratefully accept and cheers one another.
The 0.35 euro paper bus ticket for the Tirana city bus.
We hop on the chairlift and are surprised at how long the journey lasts (20 minutes) and how far and high we travel out of the city, up and over the mountains.
Left: Chairlift views above Tirana. Right: A countryside picnic outside Tirana spotted from the chairlift.
The alpine restaurant at the top of Djati chairlift with views out over the city.
After making it down the mountain and traipsing the entire eastern length of Tirana to the centre before dusk, Filippo meets me, tired but happy, and we head to famed traditional Albanian restaurant, Oda, for our last night in town.
Oda restaurant courtyard.
Arriving without a reservation, we only have to wait 10 minutes before we're sitting at one of the tiny rickety wooden tables, nodding and singing along with the crowd to the eight-person Albanian folk band. In the lemon-tree-covered courtyard, we drink local white wine and eat feta cheese, stuffed eggplants, vegetable soup and grilled zucchini.
We go back to our Airbnb in good spirits. I already feel a fondness for this place, equal parts strange, surprising, fascinating and delightful. In the morning, we'll leave to drive south to the Albanian Riviera and its beaches.
Part II coming soon, An October Road Trip in Albania: Riviera.
For all the spots in these Albania stories, check out my Google map.