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  • 186 - the logo again.jpg

Tirana

  
   - darkometer rating: 3 -
  
   
Tirana 21   feeble attempts at brightening up old prefabs
The capital city of Albania and the main place of interest to the dark tourist in this country – although two of the specific dark attractions in Tirana have suffered in recent years, other even more significant ones have been added in recent years making the city a worthwhile destination for a long dark-tourism weekend or even longer

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

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 grown to some size, and mosques, bazaars, hammams, etc. were built. But it wasn't until 1920 that this town was chosen as the (initially temporary) capital of the newly independent state of Albania.
 
Even then, when Albania had become a monarchy under King Zog and allied itself with fascist Italy, it remained a rather modest capital city. Italian architects injected some additional monumentalism into Tirana through the construction of some representational buildings in the centre (still there today and in part still in use as government/administrative offices). But then Italy got a bit greedier and actually ended up occupying Albania during WWII, with that role later being taken over by Nazi Germany.
 
It was also during 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 takeover, 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 underwent a complete transformation, 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 it is to this day.
 
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 birthplace Gori in Georgia).
 
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.
 
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 probably 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 transforming the cityscape. Ambitious redevelopment plans include modern high-rises to ring the central Skanderbeg Square, which itself received a complete makeover. All this was already palpable when I was first in Tirana in 2011, but on my return in April 2022, I was amazed by the number of additional building sites. Never have I seen such a density of modern high-rises being constructed so close to each other. Another notable new addition is the huge Great Mosque of Tirana next to the Parliament. It was close to completion when I was there and the flags of Albania and Turkey were flying between two of the four 50m-tall minarets. Indeed, Turkey largely funded the construction, and by looks this mosque really wouldn’t look out of place in Istanbul.
   
In terms of dark tourism, things have improved massively since my first visit in 2011. OK, the future of the Hoxha pyramid and the National Art Gallery look a bit uncertain, but the National History Museum now does include a part about the dark decades of communist dictatorship. And most importantly a Cold-War-era government bunker of Hoxha’s has been opened to the public and commodified for tourism under the name of BunkArt and this has now become the No. 1 attraction listed on general travel platforms like TripAdvisor! Meanwhile a second branch was opened in the centre by the Interior Ministry, and simply named BunkArt 2. Nearby, the former HQ of the dreaded secret security police of the Hoxha regime has also been converted into a memorial museum, called House of Leaves.
  
All this is evidence of a stark reversal of a trend I observed during my first visit in 2011. Back then it seemed like Albania was desperately trying to shake off all and any reminders of the dark Hoxha years. Now, the city is embracing this and with remarkable success. That may also help with further developments, for which there is yet more scope. In particular, tentative plans (outlined in this media article – external link, opens in a new window) to make accessible to the public Enver Hoxha’s mansion in the Blloku, left in the state it was in when the dictator joined the big politburo in the sky in 1985. That hadn’t happened yet when I visited Tirana again in April 2022, but if this were to come about that would be another massive addition to Tirana’s overall appeal to dark tourists.
 
 
What there is to see: Tirana does not make it easy for any visitor to love the place as a city, at least not at first sight. Though things have improved quite a bit between my first visit in 2011 and now. Back then I wrote this: "Only fans of drab residential blocks of flats, maniacally chaotic traffic and dust and smoke will be in their element in this city." The blocks of flats, the traffic and dirt are still there, but lots of new buildings liven up the overall cityscape at least in the centre, a smoking ban in indoor public spaces is now in force (and is now being observed too! … that was very different back in 2011), and in terms of dark tourism, Tirana has made massive strides forward. Here’s a list of the various places in the city covered separately on this website:
 
  
  
  
  
  
  
 
Apart from these specific places, the former "Blloku" ('block') is of interest too – this is 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 with some pretentious palaces of other dictators in history, it must still have appeared disproportionately grand in poor old Albania in 1991! Apparently the place has been left in the state it was in after Enver Hoxha died in 1985. The blinds seem to to be down permanently so you can’t look in. But a media article a few years back (external link; opens in a new tab) raised the hope that one day the place may be opened up to the public so we can all take a look at how Hoxha lived, view his creature comforts and see where he smoked himself to death.
 
One of the few leftover 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.
  
A memorial monument complex of sorts can be found in the Lulishte Ismail Qemali park not far from the Blloku and the Hoxa pyramid. Here you can see a few of the many pillbox bunkers that so characterize Albania, a segment of the Berlin Wall and some remnants from Spaç prison.
 
The Great Park to the south of the city centre (and west of the Martyrs' Cemetery) has yet more statues and monuments, along with war graves for British as well as German fallen soldiers of WWII. More recently, a Holocaust memorial was added – honouring Albania for the role it played in protecting or helping Jews, especially when Germany took over from the Italians in WWII.
 
All in all, I must admit that I was a little disappointed with Tirana when I first visited it in 2011. But I have to say that on my return visit eleven years later I liked it a lot better. That’s partly due to the added new dark-tourism attractions, of course, but the city has improved in other respects as well, and has more of a modern European feel about it now, at least in the central parts. Step a bit further away, though, and it’s still quite drab. In places it does get quite exotic, including at not so upmarket shopping options. I came across a pet shop that could have been in South-East Asia: poor scrawny animals wailing away in tiny cages, including a small monkey! Animal rights campaigners would have been up in arms. I suppose it's one of those things Albania will have to change if it wants its ambitions to join the EU come to fruition ...     
 
 
Location: 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 in Macedonia.
 
Google maps locators:
  
Enver Hoxha’s mansion in the Blloku: [41.3211, 19.8173]
  
Partisan monument: [41.3282, 19.8219]
  
‘Checkpoint’ memorial complex at Lulishte Ismail Qemali park: [41.3209, 19.8201]
  
Holocaust memorial in the Great Park: [41.3156, 19.8197]
  
Skanderbeg Square: [41.3278, 19.8185]
  
Et’hem Bey Mosque: [41.3277, 19.8194]
  
New Grand Mosque of Tirana: [41.32579, 19.8243]
  
St Paul Cathedral: [41.3248, 19.8219]
  
Orthodox Cathedral: [41.3265, 19.8174]
  
‘Tirana Castle’: [41.3265, 19.8222]
  
Arena Center: [41.3188, 19.8231]
 
 
Access and costs: still somewhat off the beaten track, but reachable by various transport links; still relatively affordable.
 
Details: 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, London, Munich 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 regular buses to/from Athens in Greece, Skopje and Tetovo in Macedonia, and Pristina in Kosovo – as there is no single designated bus station, finding specific pickup/drop-off 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.
 
Getting around 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. Pavements off the main streets can be typically eastern (i.e. very uneven and full of holes), so always watch your step. For longer distances you can get a bus – ticketing is cheap and easy, just hand the conductor who goes up and down the bus a 100 or 200 Lek note and you’ll get a tiny paper ticket and some change. Taxis are also quite affordable – but you cannot rely on every driver speaking English. Younger ones will, but not the older generation – so have your destination written down in Albanian beforehand.
 
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 restaurants, is "Era" on Rruga Ismail Qemali in the middle of the Blloku. I had several meals there and most things were very tasty. The Albanian wines are worth trying too.
 
 
Time required: If you don’t mind filling your day to the brim and having little leisurely downtime, then it could be possible to do all the specific dark sites listed above in one (long) weekend. But if you prefer a somewhat slower pace, then maybe add an extra day or two.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Albania.
  
Tirana makes a good base for excursions into the countryside – including day tours to the grim former political prison and forced labour camp of Spaç.
  
Further afield, Skopje in Macedonia, and Podgorica in Montenegro, are in a few hours reach from Tirana. 
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Tirana is, as already indicated, not the prettiest of cities and key mainstream attractions are thin on the ground. The few ancient architectural remains such as the Byzantine Justinian Wall and the footprint of an ancient keep on Shëtitorja Murat Toptani are rather underwhelming. The same could be said about the Tirana Mosaic (an Ancient Roman relic). The restored Tanners’ Bridge from the 18th century doesn’t fare much better, especially as it now bridges a grassy patch rather than any river.
 
Amongst the religious buildings of the city, the Et'hem Bey Mosque and the Ottoman-era clock tower next to it, are 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. A brand-new, but totally traditional looking, Grand Mosque (funded by Turkey) right next to the Parliament is the latest addition in this category and a new landmark of Tirana.
 
There aren't any old Christian church buildings, but a 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 new Orthodox Cathedral built even more recently has been described as looking a bit like a nuclear power station from the outside, and I can see the similarity too. The frescoes inside are just a little too much on the garish side to really convince.
 
The 1930s Italian-fascist designed government buildings, obviously repainted not too long ago, do add a certain grandeur to the inner city core.
  
The central square, named after Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg, has been pedestrianized and repaved and is the largest expanse in the city. A large monument of Skanderbeg on a horse stands on one side of the square opposite the National History Museum (which is arguably Tirana’s most iconic sight). To the side of the square is the large communist-era cultural centre, also home to the opera.
The Blloku area (see also above) is a playground for the new elite and ex-pats alike, chock-full of bars, restaurants and nightclubs. 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. 
  
A new hotspot for tourists, in addition to well-to-do Albanians, is the new secluded cluster of bars, restaurants and shops at “Tirana Castle” (‘Kalaja e Tiranë familija Toptani’ to give it its full name in Albanian) off the now pedestrianized Rruga Abdi Toptani opposite the new Toptani shopping mall, which in turn is opposite the historic Toptani Saray, a grand mansion of the Toptani family from the the first half of the 19th century (such buildings are now very rare in modern Tirana).
 
Away from the very city centre, 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 plagiarized 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, Austria do it. And speaking of plagiarism: the crassest example I spotted made me laugh out loud: a fast food joint called AFC, for "Albanian Fried Chicken"! 
 
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 …).
  
In contrast to that, the large park in the south of the city and the big artificial lake offer some calm and serene respite from the noisy and smoggy city. It’s huge so if you don’t mind walking you can easily get away from the crowds that gather here at weekends in particular.
  
Construction work is going on all round the city centre, including many a high-rise edifice with genuinely intriguing outer façades. The so far biggest and most striking modern addition to the city’s skyline is the Air Albania Stadium and Arena Center with its striking red facade. In fact, the cityscape of Tirana changed so much between my first visit in 2011 and my second visit in 2022 that I barely recognized some parts of the city centre. And its skyline is going to change a lot more still in the coming years, what with all those skyscrapers currently under construction …
 
 
 
  • Tirana 01 - Skanderbeg SquareTirana 01 - Skanderbeg Square
  • Tirana 02 - Skanderbeg Square with the operaTirana 02 - Skanderbeg Square with the opera
  • Tirana 03 - Skanderbeg on horseback monumentTirana 03 - Skanderbeg on horseback monument
  • Tirana 04 - former Enver Hoxha residence in the BllokuTirana 04 - former Enver Hoxha residence in the Blloku
  • Tirana 05 - determined Partisan statueTirana 05 - determined Partisan statue
  • Tirana 06 - park with bunkers and a piece of the Berlin WallTirana 06 - park with bunkers and a piece of the Berlin Wall
  • Tirana 07 - Holocaust memorial in the parkTirana 07 - Holocaust memorial in the park
  • Tirana 08 - artificial lake by the great parkTirana 08 - artificial lake by the great park
  • Tirana 09 - remnants of a Byzentine keep at Tirana CastleTirana 09 - remnants of a Byzentine keep at Tirana Castle
  • Tirana 10 - mosque and clock tower being dwarfed by new high-rise construction sitesTirana 10 - mosque and clock tower being dwarfed by new high-rise construction sites
  • Tirana 11 - new Grand MosqueTirana 11 - new Grand Mosque
  • Tirana 12 - new Orthodox cathedralTirana 12 - new Orthodox cathedral
  • Tirana 13 - Pope and Mother Teresa staind-glass windowTirana 13 - Pope and Mother Teresa staind-glass window
  • Tirana 14 - government buildingTirana 14 - government building
  • Tirana 15 - ministry buildingTirana 15 - ministry building
  • Tirana 16 - soldiers-workers-peasants relief on the wallTirana 16 - soldiers-workers-peasants relief on the wall
  • Tirana 17 - more 1930s Italianate architectureTirana 17 - more 1930s Italianate architecture
  • Tirana 18 - new entertainment quarter by the Toptani CenterTirana 18 - new entertainment quarter by the Toptani Center
  • Tirana 19 - outer wall by nightTirana 19 - outer wall by night
  • Tirana 20 - typical back streetTirana 20 - typical back street
  • Tirana 21 - feeble attempts at brightening up old prefabsTirana 21 - feeble attempts at brightening up old prefabs
  • Tirana 22 - Hundertwasser plagiarism on a block of flatsTirana 22 - Hundertwasser plagiarism on a block of flats
  • Tirana 23 - rare example of a pre-WWII buildingTirana 23 - rare example of a pre-WWII building
  • Tirana 24 - sad riverTirana 24 - sad river
  • Tirana 25 - garishly repainted building in the government quarterTirana 25 - garishly repainted building in the government quarter
  • Tirana 26 - new Arena CenterTirana 26 - new Arena Center
  • Tirana 27 - non-PETA-compatible pet shopTirana 27 - non-PETA-compatible pet shop
  • Tirana 28 - no, it does not mean what you may now thinkTirana 28 - no, it does not mean what you may now think
  • Tirana 29 - you can never have too many Albanian flagsTirana 29 - you can never have too many Albanian flags
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
 

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