Travels in Albania: Tirana

The capital of Albania is where we began our trip a month earlier and where we would end it as well. After dropping the car off and checking into the hotel, we were off to explore the city. Tirana is located in a valley in central Albania, and is home to nearly 600,000 people. It is busy and there is a lot of hustle and bustle. We stayed near Skanderbeg Square, which is the cultural center of the city, so that is where we walked to first. As it was already evening when we arrived, our first order of business was dinner. We ate at a burger restaurant that served German beer, and after we finished we saw some of the sites on the Square; the 18th century clock-tower:

the outside of the Et’hem Bej Mosque, dating back to the 18th century:

and a couple other statues and monuments, including the Reja – The Cloud Structure, The Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy (in front is the exit to Bunk Art 2, more on that later), the Monument i Kapllan Pashes, and the Sulejman Pashë statue:

The next day we took a walk through the Grand Park of Tirana, which is a well maintained park south of the central part of the city, with a man-made lake and many paved and gravel trails. It was nice to get near the lake and feel the breeze on this 103 degree day.

Our one Orthodox Church visit was to the largest and newest in the city, the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, built in 2012. It is an impressive building, inside and out.

Across the street was the Museum called the House of Leaves, which was formerly the spy center in the city. They have many of the items used in the surveillance of the Albanian people that were labeled dissidents by the state during the Communist regime. There are also many translations of the exhibits into English. Within these rooms the spy service spied on its own citizens and diplomats from other nations as well, pushed propaganda and tortured dissidents.

They had copies of the communist propaganda magazine “Ne Shebrim te Popullit.”

There are two floors of rooms to explore inside the building (which was originally a doctor’s office) with an exit at the rear. Near the exit, there is a mural of many of the perpetrators of this state-sponsored terror against its own citizens; these people were never charged or punished for committing atrocities against fellow Albanians. Outside, near the entrance, there is an underground tunnel and cell where they held dissidents.

All in all, the House of Leaves was the highest priced museum we saw in the city (700 Lek per person) but well worth it as it pulls no punches on the past atrocities of the communist dictatorship in Albania.

Our last stop that day was inside the Et’hem Bej Mosque, which the day before we saw from the outside. It has a large entryway but a small room inside the mosque. The ceiling is exquisite, and we sat and talked quietly as we rested and observed all the intricate details of the mosque.

We finished up our day walking through the new mall in the center of the city. Walking each floor and then taking the escalator up, all seven floors, and then back down again, as a fun excuse to get inside the air conditioning and window shop a bit and people watch. 

We ended it by taking some night shots around Skanderbeg Square.

The next day we spent the hot part of the day at the National History Museum, also located on Skanderbeg Square.

The front of the National History Museum has a long, tall, mosaic, mural, but was under construction. Here’s a picture I found online of the entrance, it is inspiring and impressive.

Once inside, for a very reasonable 500 Lek per person, we were able to explore this massive museum which spans ancient times, with the normal tools of the first people, pottery and the like, to statues, tombstones, and an ancient mosaic floor:

There was a set of dolls wearing traditional Albanian clothing from different regions of the country throughout history:

Skanderbeg, also known as Gjergj Kastrioti, is an Albanian folk hero, a feudal lord that ruled Albania as the Lord of Albania from 1443 to 1468; he fought against the Ottomans and united Albania for the first time in history. His helmet was unique for the horned goat on the top of it; below are replicas of his sword and helmet, the originals are in a museum in Austria.

Definitely check out the exhibit on the Albanian independence movement in the late 19th century, which was another attempt to unite the country.

There was another large section of the museum devoted to the invasion of the country by the fascist Italians in the late 1930s, that included a lot of weapons, as well as many details (translated into English) about the invasion. All of this was in greater detail than the exhibit I saw at the Gjirokastër Castle museum, and there were a lot more guns. 

With red painted walls, there was an exhibit dedicated to Orthodox Art, with many pieces taken from closed churches around the country and displayed here in the museum.

All of the door entrances feature the Annunciation, and they had many ornate doors dating from the 1600s-1800s.

Lastly, the final exhibit is dedicated to the Communist period and the oppression of the citizenry during the second half of the 1900s. It was a very somber exhibit, and there were many items that the prisoners and dissidents used, blankets, cigarette cases, spectacles, and other very personal items. There were also many details about the people that were imprisoned, pictures of torture victims, and other displays that felt the most heavy of all the sites we saw relating to the Communist dictatorship in Albania. As mentioned above, we visited the House of Leaves, and later the two Bunk Art museums (which I’ll talk about next), but the section of the National History Museum was the best presented and most moving.

Overall, exploring the three floors of the National History Museum was tiring as there is not air conditioning inside, but they provide many seating options to rest throughout; we could have spent more than the two hours we did reading and exploring further. If there is only time to visit one museum in Tirana, make it this one.

Our last full day we took an hour plus long walk out to visit Bunk Art One, which is a museum housed in an old communist bunker, outside the city. It was another very hot day, so we took our time, even stopping for ice cream before we reached the tunnel that led to the museum. 

After we cleared the first tunnel, we were at the ticket booth; we bought our tickets and took the long trail up to the entrance to the bunker, passing the mannequin ready for battle on the left and entering through the red star gate on the right.

We saw offices and meeting rooms and even a theater inside the many, many, roomed underground bunker, as well as long and creepy hallways. There was also a soldier’s room and gas masks worn by soldiers (and horses). Being underground was a bonus due to a colder temperature; much needed on this really hot day. 

We had read that there were also some contemporary art pieces inside the bunkers, the “Art” part of Bunk Art. However the only art installation we saw was done by the Italian artist Nicola Genco, entitled “Promenade” which you can see below:

There is also a Bunk Art Two, located on Skanderbeg Square, and one could buy tickets to both at a reduced rate (1,000 Lek) if purchased at the same time. So that is what we did, planning to visit the other before dinner later that evening. But before that we took the nearby cable car high above the city, called the Dajti Ekspres, which, for a pricey 10 Euro per person, took us to the top of Dajti Mountain. The ride took fifteen minutes, which is longer than most cable car rides. Most of the ride is over ground, as the city becomes country and then forest; once we reached the mountain the cable car goes up more than 60 degrees, and then we were at the top.

There is a mini golf course, a shooting range, hiking trails, horse rides, a hotel, restaurant and cafe at the top, so there is a lot to do. The hotel also has an observation deck, but that was closed, so we had some drinks at the cafe. After we walked around the grounds, and took some pictures at the restaurant’s lookout point. It was a hazy day, but could still see the city below.

Then we took the ride back down; it was unfortunate as the air flow was not great in the cable car and the windows were all scratched up (by bored teenagers, we assumed). After we reached the bottom, we began the long walk back to the hotel, for a much needed rest. 

Since we had bought tickets to Bunk Art Two, and it was so close, we went there before dinner as it was open until 8pm. The outside of Bunk Art Two and the entrance was much better than inside the bunker.

It had rooms where they told similar stories and displays as Bunk Art One, though it was smaller than Bunk Art One and there were more people; so we went through it rather quickly and there was no air conditioning and it was not so far under the ground to make it cooler. We were also hungry, so we made haste to the Delano Lounge Restaurant.

Our dinner was excellent. Jesse had found the restaurant, read the food was superb but that it was hard to actually find the entrance; we saw it was on the second floor from the outside but after walking down a couple hallways and up (and back down) a couple staircases we finally found the entrance. 

We were welcomed by two very friendly waiters; they treated us so well, as we were the only diners there that evening (at least at 8pm, maybe it was more popular later or earlier). We ate excellent food, Jesse had pasta and I had a steak; we shared multiple tasty appetizers and drank excellent wine. We were there for almost two hours, and afterward took a nice walk around the city for our last night in Tirana.

The next day we awoke and prepared to head to the airport, taking a taxi; I had forgotten the key to the hotel room in my pocket. The hotel, who had booked us the taxi, called the driver and he was kind enough to return the key to the hotel after he dropped us off. We spent the last of our Albanian Lek on sandwiches, coffee and snacks before our flight; we walked up the stairs onto the plane, headed for Frankfurt, Germany, ending our month-long trip to Albania. What a wonderful country; full of good food, friendly people, so many diverse towns, castles, and beaches, nice roads, crazy drivers, and lots of adventures. Ciao, Albania!

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

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