This past weekend, I traveled to a rather peculiar destination if you ask most Europeans: Tirana, capital of Albania. Due to the country’s isolation from the rest of the world for a large portion of the last century, it is surrounded by many myths, no less thanks to the movie Taken. Albanians are generally assumed to be criminals active in the sex and drug trade, and many people are afraid of traveling to Albania.
I found a decently priced flight from Athens to Tirana on Skyscanner and decided I’d make up my own mind, rather than listening to what other people who have never been to the country say. I didn’t expect much, but went to Tirana with an open mind. I was pleasantly surprised and have to say that I liked Tirana even more than other cities in the region.
1. People are honest and friendly.
Contrary to the stereotype of the Albanian mafioso, I’ve actually found Albanians to be exceptionally helpful and sincere. It started as soon as I exchanged money at the airport where I was informed by the clerk that the rates in the city are usually much lower and advised to only exchange a minimal amount of money.
It continued when the bus driver didn’t take advantage of the fact that I didn’t know the ticket price and gave me back the exact amount of change that he owed me.
2. The city center is relatively clean and in good condition.
Since Albania was so isolated for a long time and far less developed, a lot of ideas were only introduced recently. Private cars were not allowed until after the fall of the Communist regime, at which point more modern roads had to be constructed. These are kept in good condition and there are regular corrections made. The streets in the center of the city were in much better condition than what I am used to here in Greece or even what I’ve experienced in Sofia. Furthermore, there are bike lanes which is something we can only dream of here in Athens.
Even the stray dogs are vaccinated and sterilized which is why they all have tags in their ears.
Skanderbeg Square is the largest pedestrian zone in the Balkans.
3. The attitude towards religion is great.
60% of Albanians are Muslim, 20% Atheist, 10% Orthodox Christian, and 10% Catholic. Yet, Albania is the only country in the Balkans that doesn’t base its identity on religion. Where its neighbors are lost in myths of the importance of religion to their national identity (even though the people existed before said religions), Albanians place their language first. If you speak Albanian you are Albanian, no matter your religion. Albania has never seen any sort of conflict between the different religious communities.
Due to the fact that religion was banned under the Communist dictatorship, there are only a few religious buildings in the capital, most of which have been built in this millennium. This means an unfortunate lack of pretty old religious buildings, but at the same time it means that you see a newly built Catholic church, an Orthodox one, and a mosque being built within walking distance of each other.
The Et’hem Bey Mosque reopened after the fall of the Communist regime.
4. Albanians are looking to the future without ignoring the past.
Other Eastern European countries still struggle with their past, and in Bucharest I felt like people had not yet dealt with Romania’s Communist past but also didn’t know where they wanted to go in the future.
Albania is clearly oriented towards becoming a part of Europe and the European Union. However, while Albanians are understandably upset about the years under the dictatorship (think North Korea’s isolation today), they are not sweeping anything under the rug. Museums still proudly display the anti-fascist struggle and don’t blame the partisans for the misguided government that followed. Socialist realist art is exhibited in the National Art Gallery with a disclaimer on its role as propaganda. Most hauntingly, the offices of the former secret police, Sigurimi, has been turned into a museum on the horrible realities of surveillance and torture suffered by not only the Albanian people but people in other totalitarian systems as well.
Torture methods used by the Sigurimi in the House of Leaves.
5. People are happy about tourists.
As a follow-up on the first point, Albanians are very aware that they’re not the most popular travel destination in the world, and they are thankful to every traveler who chooses to visit their country.
Museum employees’ faces lit up when they realized I was not Albanian and asked curiously where I was from.
6. It’s a really safe city.
Now, as I’ve only spent the weekend there I have only seen the center and cannot speak for the suburbs, but I have possibly felt safer than in other areas of Eastern Europe simply because there are always people around. If you’ve been to Athens, you know that it gets extremely dead on Sundays. Not so in Tirana – people were out and about going for walks with friends or family, having coffee. I knew that even if someone were to try something there would be so many people around to get help that I was not worried at all.
7. It’s the most colorful city in the region.
Edi Rama, the current prime minister of Albania, was mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011. As he was an artist before going into politics he thought of an excellent way to improve the cityscape: He had the gray communist style housing blocks painted in vibrant colors. Pink, yellow, green, purple, blue, there is no color that you cannot see on the walls of Tirana. This creates an impressive atmosphere of joyfulness in the city and leads me to the conclusion of Tirana in point eight.
Brightly colored houses can be seen all over the city.
8. People make the best of what they have.
Being half-Balkan myself, I believe I can say that we have a tendency to complain about the state of things but not actually do anything to change. I have found that Albanian people, more than anyone else in the region, refuse to let the circumstances define their reality. They make the best of what they have and continue on with life.
Ugly architecture? No problem, let’s add some color! Not many famous artists? Let’s just display propaganda art from the Communist era as a wake up call for future generations. As mentioned in the second point, private car ownership did not exist under the dictatorship. When cars were finally allowed, people had to buy the only cars that were able to work with the fuel that was used for tractors before.
Albanians have a strong drive to improving their situation and dealing with it in the best way possible.
Mosaic “The Albanians” on the National History Museum.
Have you ever considered a trip to Tirana or elsewhere in Albania?