UPDATE July 2016: I just read a couple of articles that point out that things are changing here. It seems that the country is now readier to embrace its dark past than it was when I was there a few years ago.
Meanwhile one of Hoxha's big government bunkers has been opened to the public as a cross between a dark-themed museum and a jazz concert venue (called Bunk-Art). And more commodifications of other related sites in the city are said to be in the making too. I'll probably have to go back for a return visit before too long. Check back later.
The capital city of Albania
and the main place of interest to the dark tourist in this country – although the great potential that the city could have had in terms of dark tourism is far from being utilized. On the contrary: at least two of the few dark attractions that still exist in Tirana have suffered badly in recent years.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Tirana, though an inhabited spot since antiquity, was of rather secondary importance for most of its history. Under Ottoman rule it had already grew to some size and mosques, bazaars, hamams, etc. were built, but it wasn't until 1920 that town was chosen as the (initially temporary) capital of the newly independent state of Albania
Even then, when Albania had become monarchy under King Zog and allied itself with fascist Italy
, it remained a rather modest capital city. Italian architects injected some more monumentalism into Tirana through the construction of some representational buildings in the centre (still there and in part still in use as government/administrative offices). But then Italy got a bit more greedy and actually ended up occupying Albania during WWII
, with that role later being taken over by Nazi Germany
It was also in that time that Enver Hoxha
started his communist
movement in Tirana, which eventually led to his partisan army kicking out the Germans in late 1944. Shortly after the communist take-over, Hoxha turned from liberator to dictator and Albania's long dark years of increasing isolation from the rest of the world began.
From the 1950s Tirana grew in size like never before and also became an industrial centre – as well as a representational one – to fit the Stalinist
ambitions of strongman Hoxha. The cityscape was completely changed, with many old buildings disappearing and endless typical socialist prefab housing blocks erected to accommodate the growing populace. It was also then that the city's main square, Skanderbeg Square, became the huge expanse that it still is today.
The huge Palace of Culture on Skanderbeg Square reflects the changing alliances of Albania's communist era: construction was begun in the late 1950s initially with Soviet aid. But as Albania fell out with the USSR
over de-Stalinization it had to turn to China
instead to get the building finished (before China too fell from grace in the eyes of Enver Hoxha, leaving Stalinist Albania in complete isolation).
Skanderbeg Square also used to sport a giant statue of Hoxha – and it remained one of the few places in the world that staunchly refused to remove its big Stalin
statue (together with Big Joe's birth place Gori
But the most megalomaniac imprint the Hoxha years should leave architecturally on Tirana only came into being a few years after his death: with the construction of the Hoxha pyramid, intended as his mausoleum.
With the fall of communism, Tirana's face changed yet again, and no less dramatically. Stalin went first, then all those Hoxha statues followed. The formerly tightly guarded district of the "Blloku" ('the Bloc'), in which Hoxha and his inner circle of communist party fat cats had holed up and lived a life of luxury otherwise unheard of in Albania, was opened up to the general public (who needed a few moments rubbing their disbelieving eyes before they could take it all in).
In the chaos years of the 1990s, Tirana became an anarchic place of uncontrolled illegal building, looting of museums, and Mafia/gang crime. Since then, much has been cleared up, parks returned to being parks, and the development of a proper infrastructure began.
In recent years, Tirana has been experiencing a building boom that is further changing the cityscape. Ambitious redevelopment plans include modern high-rises to ring the central Skanderbeg Square, which itself is receiving a complete makeover.
Most of the remaining vestiges of the old communist days have meanwhile largely fallen by the wayside or into disrepair. The Hoxha pyramid
is in a particularly bad shape, and its future survival remains uncertain. More recently, even the part of National History Museum
that chronicled the horrors of the Hoxha era disappeared (maybe it's coming back in a new form?), while at the National Gallery
a few socialist realist
paintings remain, but the large statues of Stalin
have been dumped in the back yard.
Whether this path of wiping out past history will continue remains to be seen. For now, Tirana is far from being the prime dark tourism destination it had the great potential of being. Maybe one day it will be realized, but for the time being I am not holding my breath.
What there is to see: Tirana does not make it easy for any visitor to like the place as a city. Only fans of drab residential blocks of flats, maniacally chaotic traffic and dust and smoke will be in their element in this city.
Mainstream tourists will find precious little to keep them going, but for the dark tourist there are a couple of spots that (at least for now) warrant their own separate entries:
Apart from these specific places, dark tourists may also get a certain kick out of walking through the former "Blloku" ('block') – the part of Tirana that used to be completely out of bounds to ordinary Albanians, since it served as the residential area for the party elite during the communist era and was heavily guarded. Now it's openly accessible and has become an entertainment district – a trendy playground for Tirana's well-heeled young and for ex-pats alike. The area has changed a lot through new prestigious high-rises and all those bars and cafes being the very opposite of reminiscent of the old totalitarian days.
But there is one particular place to look out for: the large villa on the corner of Rruga Ismail Qemali and Rruga Deshmoret e 4 Shkurtit – this was Enver Hoxha's home in Tirana! Though almost modest in comparison to some pretentious palaces of other dictators in history, it must still have appeared disproportionately grand in poor old Albania in 1991! The building (or a part thereof) is still used as a government residence and it is forbidden to take photos from the guarded front entrance on Rruga Pjeter Bogdani. But at the back, where you get a much better view of the place, no one seems to mind. The blinds appear to be down permanently anyway.
One of the few left-over monuments from the communist era, which probably survived only because it wasn't all that communist, is the Unknown Partisan statue on a square near the new Tid Tower modern landmark at the top of Rruga George W. Bush (a street name you'd be rather unlikely to find in "old" western Europe – here it recalls Dubya's triumphant visit to Tirana in 2007). The partisan on his plinth looks suitably fierce and upset, fist raised in the air and marching purposefully forward. Not a big monument, but a real classic.
Not far away, and right in the middle of downtown Tirana, a bizarrely enigmatic ruin overlooks the square – more an unfinished building fallen into dereliction, than a ruin proper, it's just an empty cage of concrete pillars and floors, the ground strewn with rubbish and home to stray cats. I have no idea whatsoever about the site's history, but it's an amazingly bizarre sight to behold.
More ruined or damaged buildings can be spotted elsewhere in the city – such as the strange hollowed out ground floor and first floor of an empty modern building right next to the hotel I stayed in on small street behind the big International Hotel. I tried investigating what may be the reason for this strange find, and found only one note on the Internet that ventures the story that this too was supposed to be a hotel, but that the authorities objected, sending in the police to start ripping it apart, against the security guards' resistance, but that since some elections the whole thing has been abandoned and forgotten about. Not sure if this is the truth but it doesn't sound too unbelievable for Tirana …
And speaking of ruining things: at the bottom of Rruga e Elbasanit can be found a monumental "Martyrs Cemetery", dominated by a 12m tall stern stone statue of a "Mother Albania". It was at her feet that Enver Hoxha was initially buried in 1985. But soon after the fall of communism in Albania, the old man's remains were dug up from his formerly monumental final (or rather penultimate) resting place and transferred to a bog standard grave in Tirana's main Sharrë cemetery on the south-western outskirts of the city (you'd need someone local knowing its location amongst thousands of other graves in order to find it).
The Great Park to the south of the city centre (and west of the Martyrs' Cemetery) has yet more statues and monuments, as well as war graves for British as well as German fallen soldiers of WWII
All in all, I must admit that I was a little disappointed with Tirana. Not only were some of the dark sites a bit of a let-down, I also found the city as such not so easy to stomach. This has partly olfactory reasons – as it positively stinks in Tirana (a cocktail of exhaust fumes from all those old cars, coupled with the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, piss and heady perfume). I never expected to like the endless drab apartment buildings, but they were among the things I least had a problem with.
In fact, some intrepid dark tourists may get a small adventurous kick out of wandering off out of the city centre through those residential areas. In places it does get quite exotic, including the not so upmarket shopping options – for instance, I came across a pet shop that could have been in South-East Asia: poor scrawny animals wailing away in tiny cages, including, in the window, a small monkey! Animal rights campaigners would have been up in arms. I suppose it's one of the many things that Albania will have to sort out if it truly wishes to join the EU …
pretty much in the centre of Albania
, inland about 20 miles (30 km) from the Adriatic coast, 50 miles (85 km) from the northern town of Shkodër and about 100 miles (160 km) from Skopje
Access and costs: still somewhat off the beaten track, but reachable by various transport links; still relatively affordable.
You can fly direct to Tirana's international airport (called – what else – Mother Teresa airport, or "Nene Tereza" in Albanian) from a number of European cities including Vienna
and several cities in Italy
. Fares are not necessarily cheap. Cheaper access is provided by international buses, though connections aren't as plentiful as one may hope, but include they regular buses to/from Athens in Greece
and Tetovo in Macedonia
, and Pristina in Kosovo – as there is no single designated bus station, finding specific pick-up/drop-of points is an additional challenge. Within the country there's a network of buses and minibuses (called "furgons" in Albania
). But often it is easiest to hire a taxi even for longer transfers, including to and across the border to neighbouring countries.
in Tirana can be done on foot if staying in or near the small city centre. But in Tirana, even walking can be a challenge. Be very careful when crossing roads (drivers genuinely don't give a toss about pedestrians, or indeed anyone else on the road, and will run you over if YOU don't dodge THEM!). Pavements off the main streets can be typically eastern (i.e. very uneven and full of holes), so always watch your step. There's ongoing construction work on and around Skanderbeg Square, with many areas for pedestrians still dug up and fenced off, which means you need to pay even more attention to the traffic there. Only drive a car yourself in Tirana if you've lost all will to live (see under Albania
Accommodation in Tirana covers a surprisingly wide range, and some pretty good bargains can be found, even for quite decent hotels in perfectly central locations. Shop around.
While there is no shortage of bars and cafes for a beer or a coffee, especially in and around the Blloku area, eating out is a bit more limited. Fast food, pizza and other Italian fare is readily available, and there's the odd other international cuisine, but authentic Albanian is thinner on the ground (partly because it had such a long period of underdevelopment and dearth during the dire communist era). A place that offers a very good compromise of several traditional Albanian dishes and superb pizzas, and is also one of the most foreigner-friendly, is "Era" on Rruga Ismail Qemali in the middle of the Blloku. It also features a non-smoking section whose rear part seems to be about the only spot in town that indeed isn't permanently filled with smoke … sit closer to the front, though, and it's more likely to be the usual story (see under Albania
Time required: You may struggle to find enough to see and do to fill even a single day, so if you arrive early enough or leave late enough, a single night's stop-over may do. I had booked two nights and had more or less exhausted what I wanted to see after one afternoon and one morning.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
if you're getting into Tirana by road from one of the neighbouring countries you will inevitably see many examples of those countless little bunkers
that characterize the Albanian landscape and are a legacy from the paranoid Hoxha years of total isolationism. Further afield, Skopje
, and Podgorica
, are in a few hours reach from Tirana. But within Albania
I am not aware of any other dark tourism sites.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: as already indicated: Tirana is not a particularly attractive city, and certainly anything but touristy. Mainstream tourists will possibly struggle even more to find good reasons to spend some time in this place. The In-Your-Pocket (2011) guide for Tirana puts it as bluntly as sarcastically when it describes Tirana's sights as "low key" and adds that "the must-sees can nearly be counted on one finger".
Well, indeed "nearly". You could be even harsher and say they can be counted on zero fingers. But if you try hard you can count more than one. The Et'hem Bey Mosque and the Ottoman-era clock tower next to it, for instance, are already two sights worth pointing out. The mosque is special in that the frescoes on the outside are full of unusually realistic depictions of real life objects and landscape features – in contrast to the prototypical abstractness that characterizes Islamic religious buildings normally.
Christian churches struggle to compete, but a new Orthodox cathedral was under construction when I visited (April 2011), still not open to the public and still looking rather "industrial" modern (the IYP guide likened it to a nuclear power station – but when I was there the concrete roof was receiving some colour that softens the similarity). Of course I can only guess what it may be like when it's finished.
Another modern church in the city centre is the Cathedral of St Paul on Boulevardi Zhan d'Ark (yes, that's Jean d'Arc in Albanian spelling!). Completed in the year 2000 it looks rather bland from the outside, but go inside to find one really remarkable stained glass window. It features a Mother Teresa whose facial expression is hard to read: is she in tears or is she grinning diabolically? There's also a Pope John-Paul II with an unequivocally smug smirk. Priceless! Outside sits a statue of Mother Teresa in the more familiar, serenely devout posture.
The 1930s Italian-fascist designed government buildings, obviously repainted not too long ago, do add a certain grandeur to the inner city core. And the small Rinia Park tries its best to make for a respite from the horrendous traffic and ugly architecture all round. The hailed "Taiwan
Centre" in it, however, is neither architecturally attractive nor all that remarkable for its large cafes/restaurants either. The latter are geared towards the pretentious rather than authentic (a clear indication is the fact that you can only get overprized imported beers like the usual suspect US or Mexican rice-based "branded" plonk, but nothing local). It's really more a place for the city's see-and-be-seen clientele. But at least it's away from the roads and traffic …
The Blloku area (see also above) is in part similar: a playground for the new elite and ex-pats alike, chock full of bars, restaurants and night clubs. This is certainly where the action is, for those into such things, but again, so internationalized and branded it could be in almost any (second-rate) city in the (westernized) world. The main street of the Blloku, Rruga Ismail Qemali, is supposed to be pedestrianized here. But that's only "pedestrianized" in the Albanian sense, i.e. instead of the complete deadlock and constant honking as everywhere else in the city, there are somewhat fewer cars here and they do in fact manage to get past each other (if laboriously) and therefore don't have to honk all the time. (It's a bit like their "non-smoking" sections in restaurants – see under Albania
in general – where there is just a tad less stinky smoke, if you're lucky).
The general appeal of the city's residential buildings is rather less than low key. Some of the extremely drab socialist-era apartment blocks that firmly dominate the cityscape have been painted in "funny" colours (e.g. rainbows) in a feeble attempt to counter their drabness. But there really is only so much you can do with such buildings. And to be frank: I almost prefer them in their plain grey – at least it's "honest" drabness.
I also spotted a larger block of flats whose design rather shamelessly plagiarised some features of the Hundertwasser style, like rounded columns in garish colours and bulgy bits breaking the straight lines – in the same way as the authentic Hundertwasser's famous buildings in Vienna
And speaking of plagiarism: the crassest example I spotted made laugh out loud: a fast food joint called AFC, for "Albanian Fried Chicken". Oh, gimme a break!
The very saddest aspect of Tirana's cityscape is its "river". You wouldn't think that this sorry little runnel in its straight concrete bed even has a name, but it does: it's the Lana (well, that's almost 'lane', so maybe that's why they thought they had to force it into such a concrete straightjacket …).
The main focal hub of the city, Skanderbeg Square, is currently undergoing massive re-construction, so that the statue of the national hero that the square takes its name from is sitting rather forlornly on his horse amid a building site. It didn't look like the work is going to be finished any time soon, but when it's done, maybe it will manage to look attractive. Fingers crossed.
Construction work is going on all round the city centre, including a high-rise edifice with a genuinely intriguing outer façade of angled grey squares (called Tid Tower). It promises to be a rare exception of successful modernist appeal – and that in a city otherwise bent on convincing everybody that modern buildings must mean ugly buildings.
The best thing regular tourists are usually advised to do in Tirana is get out of Tirana – as there are a few mainstream tourist spots nearby (e.g. Kruja, the Pellumbas cave or Petrela castle), and the mountain scenery is pleasant.
- Tirana 01 - Skanderbeg Square still a building site
- Tirana 02 - forlorn Skanderbeg monument
- Tirana 03 - cultural centre
- Tirana 04 - government building in fascist style
- Tirana 05 - some remaining socialist realism relief on the wall
- Tirana 06 - parku rinia
- Tirana 07 - new cathedral under construction
- Tirana 08 - what castle
- Tirana 09 - sad river
- Tirana 10 - former Hoxha residence in the Blloku
- Tirana 11 - padlocks on the fence
- Tirana 12 - that name is a very rare sight these days in Albania
- Tirana 13 - blühende Landschaften
- Tirana 14 - bridge with book seller
- Tirana 15 - feeble attempts at brightening up old prefabs
- Tirana 16 - Hundertwasser plagiarism on block of flats
- Tirana 17 - downtown Tirana
- Tirana 18 - enigmatic ruin right in the centre
- Tirana 19 - very few older-style buildings
- Tirana 20 - stained-glass church window with pope and Mother Teresa
- Tirana 21 - an angered Partisan statue
- Tirana 22 - memorial plaque to 1944 partisans
- Tirana 23 - plaque in a side street
- Tirana 24 - contemporary graffiti in the Blloku
- Tirana 25 - mysteriously hollowed-out building in the centre
- Tirana 26 - OSCE presence
- Tirana 27 - non-PETA-compatible pet shop
- Tirana 28 - typical back street
- Tirana 29 - no it does not mean what you think