Albania Mania

Albania’s capital Tirana feels something akin to a southern Italian city. It is smart, shabby, chaotic, noisy, calm and exciting in turn, whilst driving is not for the faint-hearted. We were told that until a decade ago traffic lights were seen as purely ornamental. Somehow it mostly seems to work. As one of our group said “Albania seems quite efficient in an inefficient kind of way”.

For 44 years until 1985, under the communist rule of Enver Hoxha, Albanian citizens could not travel abroad and religion and beards were banned. He raised literacy from 5% to over 90% but opponents of the regime were brutally repressed and most of his appointed Ministers killed when they fell out of favour. He built a network of 173,000 bunkers, many now imaginatively repurposed. There is a museum that describes the 36 types of torture used during those years.

This legacy, which left Albania as one of the poorest countries in the world, and subsequent rebuilding of the nation makes for some fascinating sights, though there are not too many stand out tourist attractions. Visit Tirana lists a few, including the Bank of Albania and this modest, but medieval, bridge.

Modern times have seen the construction of the Resurrection Cathedral, opened in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church, and the recently completed Great Mosque of Tirana (or Namazgah Mosque), the largest in the Balkans with four 50 metre high minarets and a capacity of 4,500 at prayer. In the last census 58% of Albanians identified as Muslim.

The transition from the communism era to contemporary society has been lengthy and there is some sense of a city still on that journey. Murals are popular.

Red light district

The frenetic nature of Tirana was added to by the arrival of boisterous Dutch fans for the UEFA Europa League Conference Final between Roma and Feyenoord. Staging the game was quite a coup for Albania and also meant our chosen derby match, Dinamo Tirana v KF Tirana, was played at the largely unmodernised Selman Starmasi Stadioni. Dinamo won 2-1 in front of only 555 fans, though both sets of ultras managed to generate a fair racket.

Tirana is not beer heaven but after the fierce heat of the open stands we found the cosy Public Beer with beers from Chimay on tap. Here, as in some other bars, we were presented with free shots of Raki from the typically hospitable owners.

The toilet instructions were studied at length, most were faithfully observed.

Suitably rejuvenated we walked around quite a fashionable part of town to Radio Bar, which featured plenty of, well, radios.

Again Belgian beers were popular in the absence of anything particularly local and crafty, though we did find some beer from Puke (thankfully pronounced Puka), a brewery in the north of the country. The same was true in the Local Bar and Kitchen but the best selection, in bottles anyway, came in the fridges of Meduza, styled as an Irish bar. Several small batch Italian beers hit the spot. Here the complementary Raki also came with generous plates of free food.

Albania is said to hold great affection for the 1950’s films of Norman Wisdom but in Meduza it was back to 1970’s on the screens for some decidedly dodgy episodes of Benny Hill.

Good evening viewers

From Enver Hoxha to Benny Hill. That’s Tirana.

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