Having studied East European Studies at University, I’ve long been intrigued with Albania. This small country in south eastern Europe which kept itself isolated for so many years is now easily reached by air, ferry or land from across Europe. Most of what I knew about Albania comes from a project I did at university in 1986, so I wasn’t not really sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a fascinating place to spend a couple of days exploring.
We drove to Albania from North Macedonia as part of a Balkan road trip. The drive and the border crossing were easy. Hertz provided us with a ‘green card’ (a wallet full of documents verifying the vehicle’s credentials and permission to take it abroad).
We were through the border in a matter of minutes and heading for Tirana. We stopped on the way into the city at Bunk’Art 1 and the Dajti Ekspres, which are around 4 miles from downtown Tirana.
Tirana is a compact city with a population of less than a million. We spent two days exploring on foot.
Where We Stayed
Accommodation in Tirana is reasonably cheap. We opted for the Dinasty Hotel which is to the south of the city centre, close to the Grand Park. This is an ideal base from which to explore the city on foot with the added benefit of free parking. And we even had thrones in our room!
A substantial breakfast buffet was included in the room price.
|Day 1||Bunk’Art 1|
Dinner – Era
Accommodation – Dinasty Hotel x 2
National Gallery of Arts
Albanian National Museum
Grand Park of Tirana
|6||National Gallery of Arts|
|7||Albanian National Museum|
|10||Grand Park of Tirana|
We drove to Bunk’Art 1 en route to Tirana. If you don’t have a car, Bunk’Art 1 and the Dajti Express are only a few hundred metres apart and can be reached from the city centre by bus; the City Center-Porcelan route can be picked up next to the Clock Tower.
Former president Hoxha was obsessed with building bunkers to defend his population from an attack from the West. In Tirana, his personal bunker is now a museum.
Bunk’Art is part museum, telling the story of Albania’s communist past, and part art gallery, with a range of topical installations. One exhibit (I’m not sure if it is museum or art) depicting a child going to school to combat illiteracy, is so scary it looks like a scene from Bride of Chucky. The old man swears it moved while I photographed it!
Bunk’Art is open 9-4.30 from Wednesday to Sunday. Entry costs 500 lekë. There is a Bunk’Art 2 in central Tirana, which we didn’t visit as we figured one bunker themed museum was sufficient.
Before continuing to Tirana, we took a ride on The Dajti Ekspres; an 18 minute cable car ride over a lake and a valley and finally up the side of a cliff to a park atop Mount Dajti. The views are stunning but it’s not a ride for the faint hearted.
The cable car operates from 9-6 daily except Tuesdays. A return ticket costs 6 Euros. There are various activities available at the top such as mini golf, a restaurant and an adventure park.
Once in central Tirana, we rounded off our day with a wander round the suburb Blloku; an area once only accessible to senior party officials. Among the trendy bars and restaurants stands Hoxha’s former villa, which lies empty as if no one really knows what to do with it.
Dinner at Era
For dinner, we went to a restaurant in Blloku; Era. The food was amazing, although the size of the starter floored me before the main course even arrived.
On the corner of Blloku where the checkpoint controlling entry to this elite area once stood is Postbllok; a collection of the relics of communism comprising a bunker, part of a labour camp and a chunk of The Berlin Wall.
A full day of sightseeing in Tirana. Most points of interest are on Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombit; a wide, tree lined street which runs between two squares, Mother Teresa and Skanderbeg.
Our first stop was the Pyramid. This hideous carbuncle was designed by Hoxha’s daughter as a memorial to his legacy. After lying derelict and decaying for years while its future was debated, it is now under reconstruction. The plan is to preserve the concrete shell, whilst converting the atrium and the surroundings into ‘a small village of cafes, studios, workshops, and classrooms.’
My guide book says that children enjoy climbing up and sliding down its sides. The old man was determined to give it a try. It wasn’t a pretty sight but at least he didn’t get stuck.
National Gallery of Arts
Next, we visited the National Gallery of Arts. It has some great socialist realist art. In front of the gallery is a large white installation; Reja (The Cloud) which you can climb into for the obligatory selfie.
Inside the gallery, photography is prohibited but the guard, like most Albanians, was a smoker. So I managed to photograph almost the entire collection during his cigarette breaks.
There’s also an interesting collection of old communist statues out the back. The gallery is open daily from 9-7. Entry costs 200 lekë
National History Museum
We continued to the National History Museum, which documents Albania’s history from the Stone Age onwards. Unfortunately, shortly after the Roman invasion, the English subtitles ceased. From here, if (like us) you can’t read Albanian, it’s just a random collection of stuff, until we reached the post-war era and then the subtitles reappeared.
The museum is open daily from 9-7. Entry costs 200 lekë.
Back outside, is the enormous Skanderbeg Square, which isn’t sure if it’s a pedestrian plaza or a fountain, with water pouring out of vents between the marble tiles onto the feet of passers-by.
We returned along the boulevard via the Orthodox Cathedral. This ultra modern cathedral is one of the largest churches in the Balkans. Its separate bell tower, at 46 metres high, looms over the cathedral.
The Grand Park of Tirana
I finished my day with a spin round Tirana Lake; an artificial lake in the Grand Park which has a footpath round it.
It’s a lovely scenic run (or walk) with the lake in the foreground and a backdrop of mountains. The lake looks like the designer used a paint splatter as a template. So even though it isn’t that big, a run round the edges is 6 km (it would make a great parkrun). Also in the park are a theatre, swimming pool and a zoo.
- Trip taken: September 2018
- Updated: February 2023
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