20,000 leagues under the sky, 2004- travel blog

Mother Albania

Tirana smog

Multi-colour appartments


Hoxha's Balcony

Peace bell - made from bullet casings from the '91 uprising

Downtown Tirana


Mural - minus star

Main square

Made it at last.

The mini bus was fine, turned up exactly on time and brought me all the way through the border and to Shkadar. Actually the journey was more than fine as the bus navigated the narrow twisty lanes up from the coast through frosted valleys and early morning mist towards the mountains and Lake Shkadar. The driver even asked whether I wanted to go to Tirana and when I said yes he dropped me next to an ATM, which I think was really thoughtful, and pointed out the bus to Tirana. There were a few people on the bus but no-one appeared to be in charge of it, I stood next to it waiting for a driver or conductor to turn up, I needed to see if I could pay on the bus or whether I had to go to an office to buy a ticket. Fairly soon one of the few passengers got off and started shouting "Tirana" so I guessed he was it. I indicated that I wanted to go to Tirana and he told me to shove my bag underneath and jump on. Although there were very few people on the bus at this point more passengers seemed to materialise out of thin air until the shouty man was counting the number of free seats, filling them up and then revving off to Tirana. The early start got to me and I couldn't keep my eyes open, waking up two hours later on the outskirts of the capital. I didn't have a clue where I was when I got off, nothing I could see corresponded to anything on my map and there didn't appear to be any street names. A young lad came up to try to flog me a hotel room but when I said I wanted Tirana Backpackers he pointed me in the right direction. It all started to make sense when I got to the main square and from there I found the hostel easily, it was also a much shorter walk than the LP map made out.

If I make three observations about Tirana, I think in order that they are - Dark, polluted and crazy traffic. Tirana has severe energy problems, power cuts are frequent and random. Even when the power is on many areas have the street lights turned off anyway to save energy, This leads to the darkest city I've ever walked through at night, the only illumination coming from shop windows and cars, it certainly doesn't help that the pavements have a tendency to be uneven and potholed. When the power goes, the darkness can be total, I was walking down one main street when it went and people were walking into each other it was that dark. Most shops and businesses have there own generators for the power cuts and I think that this must be partly responsible for the second observation, the air pollution is chronic. I've been to lots of cities that people claim to be heavily polluted, Bangkok and Delhi to name two and I've never had a problem in either but at times I could hardly breathe in Tirana. Badly tunes cars and lots of wood burning stoves are two other contributing factors as well as a very high level of dust.

And now the traffic, again I've been to other places notorious for crazy traffic but Tirana has them all beat, I tried to work out the rules of the road and failed. They have traffic lights which most people seem to observe, they have traffic police on nearly every junction and people sort of respect them. It's in between where it all goes a lot crazy. Some of the rules that I think I worked were - i) you are not allowed to be in the same lane for two consecutive junctions, ii)whichever direction you intend to turn you must be in the opposite lane before commencing the turn, iii) if logic says that you are in the wrong be the first and loudest to blast the horn and act as if you have been wronged. Now, factor in the power cuts, when the power goes so do the traffic-lights and the traffic police can't be seen. They also have the common, and in my view crazy, rule that people turning do not have to take any notice of pedestrian crossings and as they are all constantly turning, a green man in Albania is up there with chocolate fireguards. To be fair to the drivers, the pedestrians are just as crazy and step blindly into the traffic causing even more road-rage all round.

So, what did I do in Tirana? Well, I had intended 3 nights here but the hostel was fully booked for Friday night and as there are only two and I couldn't be bothered to change for one night, I had one full day of hyper-tourism where I tried to see everything worth seeing in one day. I started off with a walk up a hill in the city to the Martyrs' Cemetery and the statue of Mother Albania. The views of the city were impressive but the level of smog blocked a lot of the view. When I came back down I headed to the main drag and stopped of at Kolonat, a fake MacDonald's where the burgers are better and the prices laughable.

I saw the Council of Ministers building and the balcony from were Hoxha used to watch his military parades. Next off I went to see Hoxha's old gaff, he couldn't have been that bad as his house was very understated, a mere 3 story house compared to Ceausescu's mega palace. I had a stop-off at an internet café but got hit by a quick dose of Hoxha's revenge and made a quick retreat back to the hostel. I went back out around about sunset for some photographs around the central square and to track down the travel agent to buy a bus ticket to Macedonia.

One last comment about Albania, I think the biggest "employee" must be the car washing industry, seems to be a national obsession.

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