Once again, Albania was a country I hardly knew anything about before I visited. The three weeks I was in Tirana were wonderful, and I can’t wait to get back someday.Photos of Tirana, Albania
The three weeks in Tirana were spent working in my first hostel, Hostel Propaganda, which you can read about here. My time in the hostel was not all work, and much of the work was play. Many times I would cook meals for the manager and other volunteers, such as French toast with caramelized apples, pasta, and scalloped potatoes…without an oven. The last one was quite fun, and it came out a lot better than I expected even though it was only stove top. There were also the nights spent watching movies in the hostel with the other volunteers and guests joining in. Don’t get me wrong. I worked hard and got my hours in, but it was a lot of fun.
The hostel happened to be located on the edge of the hip portion of Tirana called the Blloku. This was the portion of town inhabited by the elite communists before Albania became a Republic. At that time, it was off-limits to the general citizens and now it’s home to the posh and trendy restaurants, bars and stores. In fact, the street the hostel was on had some of the best bars on it, including the Albanian Cheers Pub, Whisky Bar and Sky Tower. I admit that many afternoons it was simply too hot to venture into the city, and I spent the time in front of the fan in the hostel. But at night when the rest of the citizens ventured out, I would often join them and explore. And there was a lot to explore.
First of all, there is a free walking tour leaving from the steps of the National Museum every day at 10 AM. I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone visiting the city. Gazi is a wonderful tour guide and provides a bunch of the history of Albania while taking you to all the central landmarks in the city. It takes about two and a quarter hours. Just make sure you bring some water with you, as Tirana gets hot. For that matter, never leave your hotel or hostel without a big water bottle.
To the south of the Blloku is the Big Park of Tirana and Artificial Lake. Yeah, that’s the English translation of the park and lake. Not too creative but a great place to walk around, especially when it provides the only cool place to walk in town during the hottest hours.
My favorite attraction was the Pyramid of Tirana. This huge building in the center of town was originally built in 1988 as a museum for the late communist dictator by his daughter. After the fall of communism, it became a conference hall and event center, and was later used as the Albanian headquarters of NATO in 1999. Since then it has fallen into ruin. The steep slopes on its exterior can be climbed (with care) and you will get some of the best views of Tirana from the top. I had fun bringing a few friends up, especially after I heard the reluctance of some of the locals to attempt this adventurous activity.
A great part of living in Albania for three weeks was how cheap it was. I know Thailand is cheaper, but Tirana is the first place in my travels where it was cheaper to eat out every meal than to buy food to cook at home. In fact, by working for my room at night, I was spending an average of only €7 a day on food and other activities. Which was a huge relief after my two months in the UK.
And finally, I have to mention the food in Tirana. It was actually delicious. I can say I didn’t have a single bad meal the whole time I was there. And there were quite a few meals, including local meatballs (qofte), several plates of ravioli, kebabs, byrek, etc. I even found a German bakery around the corner of the hostel after the first week which served really good sandwiches for under €1 each, at which point they became my daily lunch. My favorite meals were the crepes, which I’ll be mentioning in a separate post shortly as soon as I can find the photos. I admit I also had a pizza at least every couple days. After all, when the pizzas are less than €4 each and really tasty, how can I resist. I mean, how can anyone resist pizza? Combined with the absurdly cheap meals and large selection, the food in Tirana will be as memorable as Italy. Not better…but close.
The biggest mistake I made with visiting Albania was staying the whole time in Tirana. While it is a really great city, there are so many more places I need to see. So once again, I have an incentive to get back. And with all the other places in the Balkans I’ve missed already, I’ll need to get back sooner than later.