I was wondering where and when to start my story about Albania; whether I should begin with describing picturesque coastlines or one of the charming towns with historic districts that are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Instead, I decided to start this story elsewhere, namely in Tirana. In my opinion, it is impossible to talk about this country without presenting its epicenter, the capital.
Tirana is very often overlooked by tourists who visit the country and focus on the seaside and its sunny resorts. But in case you want to have a foretaste of the real Albania, the capital is a must visit for you! Tirana is located in the center of Albania, surrounded by the three rivers Tiranë, Lanë and Ishm and inhabited by 900,000 people, which makes it the biggest city in Albania. I really don’t know if Tirana can be considered as delightful or beautiful. In my opinion: no, not really.
North Korea of Europe
Tirana must be discovered and understood, piece by piece. It is always hot and stuffy in summer, as the city is situated between the highlands and the hills, which is why the temperatures in Tirana are usually higher than other parts of the country. The city is a mixture of traditions, cultures, three religions (Islam, Orthodoxy and Catholicism) and you can even feel the oriental atmosphere here. The years of communism, however, left the biggest mark on its appearance.
The capital has no medieval roots, which is why you won’t find any ancient monuments here. The origins of the city date back to 1614 when the Turkish governor Suleiman Pasha Bargjini ordered the construction of several buildings, such as mosques, baths and shops. But Tirana didn't achieve much economic importance until 1920 when it became the capital of independent Albania. Then it began to grow rapidly and overpopulated, with people and refugees coming from poor regions and from Kosovo. So, what is it then that makes this city special? What to do and see in the Albanian capital?
It is impossible to talk about Albania and its capital without mentioning the bunkers. You can find them everywhere in Albania: on the beaches, in the mountains, in the middle of towns and cities, some are in ruins, others are restaurants and even in art galleries. The bunkers have become a permanent feature of the Albanian landscape. And it is in the capital where we will look for an answer to the question: what is the deal with all the Albanian bunkers?
To understand it, we need to meet Enver Hoxha. Hoxha was an Albanian politician who served as the First Secretary of the Party of Labor of Albania, from 1941 until his death in 1985. The dictator then ruled the country with a hard hand, almost following the example of today's North Korea. In the mid-1960s, Hoxha focused on a cooperation with China and it was that time that he borrowed money for the development of the country. After the death of Mao Tse-Tung, Albania was left alone in the international arena. Hoxha was obsessed with national security. According to him, everyone wanted to attack Albania, and the high morality of society only increased the value of the small country. According to him, he obtained this national morality by closing the country to international influence, restricting television, and prohibiting the professing of any religion or foreign trips.
That is why over 750,000 bunkers were built in Albania, to make sure that 3 million Albanians could take shelter in the event of an atomic attack. Reinforced concrete combat bunkers were built under the slogan "a bunker for every family". The goal has been achieved. However, no hostile nuclear attack has occurred, the Cold War ended, and the bunkers are still there, often built in very surprising places - in beautiful valleys, mountains or by the sea. Many Albanians say that they are such a characteristic and important element of their country that they don't want to destroy them.
But we are in the capital, and the country's most important bunker was built right here. What was the purpose of the largest bunker in the country and who was supposed to take refuge in this gigantic underground palace? I think you already know: it was the private shelter of the dictator Enver Hoxha.
Bunk'Art 1 & 2
We drive a car through a 100–150-meter concrete tunnel. An elderly man sits on a plastic chair in front of the driveway, guarding the swinging traffic. We go to a small parking lot with a ticket booth, with all sorts of souvenirs from Albania: magnets in the shape of bunkers, ashtrays in the shape of bunkers, glasses, and mugs with the Albanian flag. We buy tickets and follow the signpost. The path leads slightly upwards, from time to time we pass strange concrete walls, mounds, and big gates.
After about ten minutes of walking, we reach the entrance to the largest bunker in all of Albania. Its official opening took place in 1978. The construction of the bunker took almost six years and it was even connected to electricity and had its own ventilation system. The bunker has five floors descending underground, 106 rooms on 2685 m². Of course, the dictator had his private rooms and even a movie theater there. Hoxha designed his bunker inspired by the underground tunnels he saw while visiting North Korea. In 2016, the bunker was opened to the public. Several rooms are dedicated to presenting the history of the dictatorship, rather than trying to show its "good" side. In other rooms you will find various thematic exhibitions - the name Bunk’Art itself suggests that the bunker is to be an exhibition center. Note to remember: Despite 40 degrees Celsius outside, it can be cold in the bunker, so bring a sweatshirt or sweater.
The Ministry of the Interior's tunnel was built between 1981 and 1986 and is considered as one of the last "great works" created by the communist regime as part of the bunkerization project. Today, it is another interesting bunker in the capital, an exhibition center in the heart of the city. It refers to the history and times of the communist regime.
The mysterious Pyramid of Tirana
In the center of Tirana is a rather intriguing building, a ruined, graffiti-painted concrete pyramid. Maybe one wonders if this is another bunker, but the purpose of this strange structure was completely different. It is a Pharaohs Monument in honor of the man who gave Albania the nickname "North Korea of Europe". Sounds ridiculous? Opened on October 4, 1988, this peculiar building housed the Enver Hoxha Museum. The original object was designed by his daughter - Pranvera Hoxha. At the time of opening, the pyramid was the most expensive construction ever built in Albania.
In 1991, after the fall of communism in Albania, the Enver Hoxha Museum ceased to exist. For several years, it housed a conference and exhibition center. In the mid-90s even a disco was opened here (named Mummy). During the war in Kosovo in 1999, the pyramid was taken by the NATO and humanitarian organizations. After that, the building hasn’t been used in years, until in 2018 the concept of creating an IT center for young people, where robotics and programming classes are to take place, was presented. Let’s see if anything happens in this regard.
Financial investments with big consequences
Not everyone knows that Albania was also influenced by other sorts of pyramids. In the 90s, financial pyramids brought Albania to the brink of civil war. A financial pyramid is a risk structure that spreads the risks of investments across different risk levels, with larger parts of assets invested in low-risk strategies with a safe, predictable return and a few high-risk investments with a modest chance of success. In those years, Albania invested in such financial pyramids and lost over a billion dollars.
The biggest riots took place in 1997 when several thousand Albanians were killed. In remembrance of these sad events, the city placed a memorial next to the Hoxha pyramid, the "peace bell". The bell's cast was melted from the shells of cartridges fired during riots.
Skanderbeg Square – the frying pan of Tirana
It is late in the morning and I feel like I am in a large, hot frying pan. Skanderbeg Square is the main square in the center of Tirana and was named after the only national hero that no citizen of that country questions: Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (Skandenberg), a military leader and insurgent who became famous for his heroic battles against the Ottoman Empire after serving in the Turkish army in his youth. He is also credited with preserving Christianity in Albanian lands, despite the subsequent intensive Islamization of the country.
The frying pan is the best metaphor for this 40,000 m² large square. The heat is the reason why it is usually empty during the day and it comes to life only in the evenings, when people are sitting on the steps, drinking beer or playing chess. The square is the largest pedestrian-only zone in the Balkans. It is surrounded by government buildings and tourist attractions of the city: the Et’hem Bej Mosque, the Kulla e Sahatit clock tower, the Historical Museum, the National Library and the Opera and Ballet Theater. Thanks to the modernization, the square won the Grand Prix in the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2018 competition and was also in the final of the UE Mies Award 2019 competition.
The surface of the square is made of stone slabs, with stone coming from different parts of the Karaj. Twelve mini gardens surround the whole square and each one of them is looked after by one of the institutions that have their seats right next to them. A part of the surface is sloped, thanks to which the water flowing from the fountains creates various temporary patterns on the colorful floor. On the square, how could it be otherwise, is a monument of Skanderbeg who watches over his property.
The green capital and the Dajti Mountain
Before I went to Tirana, I read several blogs: post-communist buildings, lots of concrete, gray. Hmmmm ..... maybe I wasn't paying enough attention and not looking close enough at the streets and suburbs as I entered the city. But I didn’t see Tirana like that at all. The city has a lot of green areas, lots of flowers, and colorful buildings. You will find many lovely cafes and restaurants where you can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. The city leaves a nice impression and it creates a very positive atmosphere. And if you need even more greenery, take the cable car to the top of the Dajti Mountain!
Mount Dajti is 1612 m high and the lower station of the cable car (Dajti Expres) is located next to Bunk'Art 2. From the car park next to the bunker, you can see the carriages of the funicular gliding upwards. The funicular takes you to the observation deck with a restaurant. The ride allows you to see the capital from a different and unforgettable perspective. On the top you will find a hotel, the Dajti Adventure Park and the entrance to the National Park.
An unforgettable experience
If you want to treat yourself to an unforgettable experience, come to Tirana by car. For me, driving around the capital was one of the most extreme experiences in my life. It reminded me of driving around the Georgian capital Tbilisi. I do not know what the daredevils who drove a car in India will say about this, fortunately I was only a passenger on Indian roads. But talking about Tirana, hardly anyone obeys the traffic rules and road signs are probably just street decorations. The main rule is: first come first served (or bigger is better). Enjoy!
If you ask me, Tirana should not be missing on the map of your Albania and Balkan trip. But if you would like to travel consciously, discover places and their history, strive to understand the rules that are prevailing in the country or region. Feel free to contact Giving Getaway and we will help you planning your Albania trip by providing you with all relevant information, top sights, places and customized maps for Google Maps, and the best thing is: 10% from every payment will be donated to charity! Click here to read more about Giving Getaway’s charity events.
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