One night in Bangkok, or two months in Tirana? We chose the latter, though maybe we’ll do the former later.
Now that that’s out of the way, on to waxing nostalgic about a not-so-distant stay in a country I had almost zero knowledge of until very shortly before landing in Albania. We made the decision while sitting at a hotel in the Algarve, and two weeks, a train ride, and two airplanes later we were touching down for our first taste of the Balkans.
Preparing is what people do as life passes them by. Yes, you might die earlier if you live in the moment, but you might also live. That’s enough wisdom for one post.
The first impression of Albania had me questioning our spontaneity, she’s a little rough around the edges. Picture a beautiful woman with a heart of gold who’s lived a rough life and has a brutal hangover. And we’d agreed to a relationship with her on a whim, and were now at her parents’ house. Run away now, or tough it out until the hangover passes.
We didn’t run, and it paid off big-time.
The apartment we rented in Tirana was about three blocks from Pazari i Ri (New Bazaar), on Rruga Musa Maçi, in a new building in an old neighbourhood. Most people suggest Blokku (a trendier, noisier, hip area) as the best spot in the city to stay, but we loved Pazari i Ri. We could have only explored there and been just fine, not venturing past the boundaries of the neighbourhood even, if we were the type.
The covered market at the center of Pazari i Ri has vendors of all kinds, doggedly vending away from well before we ever arrived in the morning until late evening, selling wares of all sorts. With rudimentary Albanian and some general human communication skills, or a translator app (but that’s no fun), you could realistically find everything you needed for day-to-day needs, solely under the market roof.
“Under The Market Roof”, that sounds like the title of a great Canadian novel. Maybe it is, and that’s why I’ve never heard of it.
Tirana is a wonderful city; it’s alive. People are out and about doing things all day, and, when not curfewed at home, well into the night. They’re even doing something when they’re doing nothing, like sitting in cafes for hours or just walking around smoking cigarettes. Or hanging out on the sidewalks outside their numerous and varied shops, selling all manner of just about everything.
If you feel more comfortable with a one-stop-shop type of arrangement for procuring goods, no problemo, there are Conad and Spar stores enough, and Bio Shops for the more organic-minded consumer. Big Markets aplenty dot the city-scape and are good for a quick this or that, although none of the ones I saw were actually big.
Toptani Shopping Center, at the center of the city, is a shiny new multi-storied complex that offers all sorts of whatever you fancy. And it’s also a nice place to hang out. Better yet, why not hang out in the area directly behind Toptani Center, called Kalaya e Tiranës; The Castle of Tirana? It’s beautiful, with enough high-end cafes, restaurants and shops to keep your interest for many visits.
Kalaya e Tiranës
One prominent feature of Tirana that is impossible to not notice, is the vast array of restaurants. There are a lot of restaurants and cafes in Tirana. Actually, all of Albania has a surprising number of them, some in the most unlikely places. And most of them are great. In fact, the best pizza I’ve ever eaten was not in Italy, but in Tirana, at Season Restaurant in Pazari i Ri. Absolutely epic.
Although far from being appreciated by Albanians, we really liked the Eggs Benny breakfasts at Stephen Center, also in Pazari i Ri. They do it just like at home. We enjoyed an American Thanksgiving there as well, which was quite nice. To complement the delicious comfort food of Stephen’s Center, their service is exceptionally good as well, which is not always the case in Albania. You eventually get used to that, or you just hunt around until you find the places with excellent service.
Because we lived not far from Pazari Ri and everything we needed was in the area, our favourite bakery and deli became Vila Luara, right on the edge of the bazaar. We would often forgo cooking at home (for nights on end) because the pre-cooked dinners there were so tasty and affordable and the staff were sweethearts.
And although it’s got many crap reviews, mostly due to atrocious service, Sakura Sushi Bar did prepare great Japanese food for us. Probably because we were one of three occupied tables during our visit. So the service was only poor, not terrible.
Even the street food was great in Tirana (Try Byrek, a stuffed, salty, flaky bit of heaven). We never had any issue filling our bellies in all of Albania.
Over the course of two months, we tried many a restaurant, and all but two were great. There are also many memorable agritourism restaurants (farm-to-table) in and around Tirana.
Perhaps to offset the possibility of becoming morbidly obese due to the prevalence of all the eateries in Tirana, it is a city of very enticing walkability. There are many footpaths and parks. Grand Park (Parku I Madh) is quite epic, and a person can easily walk many miles in a day. Especially if walking from restaurant to restaurant and finishing the day off in a pub or cafe, which is not hard to do.
In Tirana, you’ll find no shortage of bakeries (furrë buke) and coffee-shops, restaurants, restaurants, and more restaurants, fashion outlets, shoe-stores, markets, vendors, peddlers, churches, museums, and mosques, defunct communist relics, and beautiful, restored government buildings. There are hotels for every budget (we recommend Xheko Imperial Luxury Boutique Hotel), and parks and paths aplenty in a city built for walking. Tirana has something for just about everyone.
But, lest you now have visions of a pristine paradise dancing around your brain, and can’t wait to apply for citizenship after finishing this post, I should let you know just what the beautiful-but-haggard woman analogy I used in describing Tirana earlier on is all about.
Most of the sidewalks in Tirana are uneven or broken, or non-existent. All of the trash from private dwellings are thrown into generally well-placed dumpsters near every street. Nothing too odd about that. But often they’re over-filled, never sorted into recycling categories, and much of the overflow ends up blowing away and becoming litter. This can make areas seem grittier than they really are.
Eventually, though, the men roll along in the garbage trucks to empty the dumpsters, pick up whatever extras haven’t blown away, throw all the bigger bits that didn’t fit into the dumpsters into the trucks, beep, honk, spew diesel fumes, and lumber off to the next site for the next cleanup. And with that, things are tip-top. For two days.
Sadly, the garbage issue isn’t confined only to Tirana. You’ll find garbage strewn about nearly everywhere in Albania where there’s regular human habitation or transit. It eventually ends up in the waterways.
Nearly every creek and river I saw, in the entire country, was covered along both sides with plastic. A billion ragged bits of discarded petroleum by-product, flying like sad little flags from the saplings growing along the riverbeds, until the wind, high water, or prolonged exposure to the elements inevitably break their grip on the trees and the deteriorating bits are washed out to sea. This painfully obvious garbage issue is unusually strange when compared with the insides of nearly every building in Albania, which are generally immaculate.
Tirana is a bit grubby, for sure, but that’s not enough for me to harbour an ill opinion of her. Though it could use a bit of a shining up (it seems that there are organizations trying to do just that), the scuffed facade exudes none of the hopelessness I’ve witnessed in many cities of Latin America, and it doesn’t even come close to matching the abject squalor.
Tirana is a very safe, bustling city. Full of life, and, in my experience, very open, honest, welcoming, cheery, skilled and helpful inhabitants. We were there from November to mid-January during the plandemic, the “off-season” in almost everywhere but ski-resorts, and we still loved it.
Like any larger center, it can be hectic at times. The traffic is nuts all the time and the rules of the road have to be learned quickly for new drivers and pedestrians alike (read about our driving experiences here). Also, Albanians don’t seem squeamish about human contact, and aren’t shy to squeeze between each other or brush past with a hand on the shoulder to get where they’re going. I’m sure it’s not meant to be rude, they do it to each other all the time and nobody seems to get worked up about it.
In Tirana, the coffee’s always on and the food is epic almost everywhere. The sun shines often and the city pulses with pure Albanian awesome. What more is to be said? It’s one of the few cities that feels like home to me, and even if by some series of unfortunate events I couldn’t return for years to come, I’d always look forward to going back.
Loving the Balkans? Read more here.
A typical sight in Tirana
Top 5 Things to See & Do in Tirana
- Bunk’Art 1 & Bunk’Art 2
- Dajti Ekspres “Cable Car” up Dajti Mountain
- Pazari i Ri
- Grand Park (Parku i Madh)
- Skanderbeg Square