Behind Hoxha’s Curtain

Days: 508-510 (15 November 2015 – 17 November 2015)

Total distance travelled: 130,920.8 kilometres (81,317.27 miles)

On the outskirts of the city we passed a military base, a line of surely ancient MiG-15 fighters (a Soviet era jet fighter that was dominant back in the 1950’s) suggesting that here in Albania, things may still be a little behind the times.

In truth, that was an expectation we already had.


Long retired MiG-15 fighters… surely?

With no central bus station, we were deposited in the heart of the city, and after gathering our bearings, began the search for a hostel we’d researched whilst back in Pristina.

Navigating the main roads of this bustling, and surprisingly modern looking city was no problem, but when we hit the back streets and lane-ways trying to find this hostel, all of a sudden, despite it being broad daylight, it all got a whole lot more difficult.

Somehow it was easier navigating the back alleys of Dubrovnik (which was at night), but eventually we found our goal (of course it makes perfect sense that our hostel at number one hundred, should be sandwiched between numbers sixty eight and seventy two ), sorted ourselves with some beds and had a chance to take in our surrounds.

It was an interesting place to absorb.

Surprisingly modern, yet at the same time still showcasing some of that art and architecture that I so readily associate with communist (or former communist) nations.


Katedralja Orthodhokse Ngjallja e Krishtit (Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral), inside and out

The most obvious example of this was the glittering mosaic that adorned the National History Museum, although despite our interest in the place as well as its decoration, we sadly never got there during opening hours!


Past Communist glories at the National History Museum

Somewhere, somehow, we’d learned of an ancient Roman villa that had been discovered in the heart of Tirana, and after a bit of meandering we found the place, during opening hours… only to discover the main gate locked!

I’m guessing there’s not so many visitors this time of year…


No escape from Albania’s lockout laws?

Fear not, apparently we stood out like the confused tourists we were, as from a coffee shop across the street tottered an old man clutching the gate key.

Thus ensued one of the more amusing tours we’ve had.

He spoke no English, but had been around long enough I assume to be alive during the Italian occupation back in 1939, so Italian it was to be! …only, we didn’t speak any Italian.

But with our understanding of Spanish, we got the gist of many points, only all of our responses, in Spanish were met with silence or blank stares!

Still, for no cost, despite its small size, the Roman villa did contain a few rather pretty mosaics.


A sucker for a good mosaic: Inside the Roman villa


The opera theatre, looking a little austere

We weren’t that far from the heart of the city and Skanderbeg Square, so it was not the biggest surprise that we soon found ourselves there, taking in the view and getting ourselves oriented once more.

With our bearings gathered and a fresh plan formed, we were soon headed south and over the Lana River.


Sheshi Skenderbej (Skanderbeg Square), not a bad substitute for a bus station

Not much springs to mind when one thinks of Tirana, but we were headed toward one of the few iconic buildings, the International Centre of Culture, more commonly known as the Piramida.

Originally constructed as a museum to Enver Hoxha (the former dictatorial, communist leader), it is presently in a slow period of decay.


High time we got to Tirana (left) & The 1997 Peace Bell, cast from an equal number of bullet shells… (right)

After getting over the surprise of the nearby peace bell, fittingly cast from one thousand, nine hundred and ninety seven spent bullet casings we were then before the now empty pyramid… only we hadn’t expected it to be in such a state.

Sporting many a shattered window and with the entrance now boarded up (apparently its most recent incarnation had been as a nightclub), we watched a few kids using its slopes as a makeshift slide, then continued on our way.


The Pyramid

Our wandering (we were actually in search of the Tanners Bridge) took us into the Katedralja Katolike Shën Pali, a cathedral bland in character, but seemingly devoted to Mother Teresa (like salsa, she is claimed by several countries), that no so heroic (in my opinion is was actually falsely adored) saint of the Catholic Church.

We were met by a not so inspiring statue of the lady out front, her visage in coloured glass alongside JP II and even in pebble form!


‘Albania’s’ Mother Teresa. In glass (left) & In pebble mosaic (right)

Eventually, after a few wrong turns, we even found the Tanners Bridge too, an eighteenth century Ottoman bridge, built at a time before the rivers flow was redirected.

After finally finding it, we could see how easily it could missed, a little removed and running parallel as it was to the main road.

We strolled across, before wandering back towards the the downtown area, passing by the Pyramid again on our way.


Sarah crosses the Tanners Bridge (left) & Time out in the park (right)

With the bright sunny day, we thought to ourselves what the heck.

Let’s climb up its sloping sides and take in the views of the city.

So begin the ascent we did, up a surprisingly slippery slope… wearing our flip flops!

Despite the cool air, it wasn’t long before our feet began to sweat.

Now combine that same sweat with our rubbery footwear, and suddenly we were both struggling to find our footing.

So hairy was our position, that Sarah in fact began to slide down, and we were fearful she might suddenly tumble!

Enter a local lad, who suddenly scrambled down the sides of the building like a monkey to arrest her slide, and with her now safe, we began our much gentler descent… barefoot!


Climbing the Pyramid in flip flops. Not our wisest decision…


Views: Possibly not worth dying for!

After the recent events in Paris (that went down whilst we’d been in Kosovo), the once insular Albania was now embracing its place in the new Europe, and we were able to  spy the evidence of both candlelight vigils/tributes, and even civic buildings lit up like the tri-colour (we’d see that later the following night).

Given our failed attempts at attending a Kosovo versus Albania football match several days earlier, when we got wind of another match here in the Albanian capital, we decided to try and get ourselves along to this game instead (this friendly would be against Georgia), and after consultation with our hostel staff, figured out where we could get tickets.


Recent events, hard to ignore (left) & The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure (right)

In fact we’d acquired them much earlier in the day, our walk past the Pyramid ending at the football stadium, and with tickets now in our pockets we called it a day.

The following day, yet another full of sun despite the late stage of the year, we took a side trip to nearby Durrës, before getting back to Tirana with time enough for our evenings football commitments.

After wandering a few traditional eateries and markets, we felt this an occasion worthy of us sampling the Kolonat fare, that most Albanian take on McDonalds.


Local fare: Rotisserie chicken & sheep heads (left) & Braving Kolonat. At least they served beer… (right)

It’s uncommon for me to give McDonalds a better rap than pretty much anything, but fries aside, the Kolonat burgers were pretty bad.

Still, they did score big points for serving beer with our meals!

It was also the only time we didn’t dine on Suflaqe me mish pule, the local take on souvlaki that was pretty damn good (we went to the same place, every time).

The sun was well and truly set, and with our burgers washed down with those beers, it was game time.

We tried the first gate, but were soon waved along to another entrance… and then another, each time being frisked by a handful of security guards (I absent mindedly had a beautiful smooth stone from the shores of Iceland in a pocket that was confiscated).

Unsure of what the issue may be, eventually, after some discussions with a senior looking police official we were allowed in.


Game day (or more aptly, game night)!

Early into the match, and things weren’t looking so good for the home side.

A goal down inside the first couple of minutes and this is how the locals expressed their frustration (obviously they weren’t frisked as thoroughly as us foreigners…)


A rough start for the home team

They had obviously done a far better job confiscating cigarette lighters, given the amount of spectators who would regularly wander up to the nearest policeman to fire up their darts (cigarettes)… or perhaps they saw it as an opportunity to save their own lighter fluid!

We watched the regular stream with a small level of amusement.

Less than ten minutes into the second half, and the mood on this cold, clear autumn night was even more somber as the visitors doubled their lead.

But football is certainly a funny game, and fast forward to the last minute of regulation time and the home team had pulled one back, surely little more than a consolation goal…

With what was left of the home crowd (the already small crowd had thinned even more with ten minutes remaining as a sure defeat loomed) now in full voice chanting “Shqiperi!” we stuck around to the end, time enough for one final goal with what proved the last kick of the game!


Possibly the only fans not holding a cigarette…


Parity restored

With local hearts buoyed, we wandered back to our hostel, grabbing a few litres of beer along the way and appreciating the nice colours that made up the latest tribute to the people of Paris


Solidarity: The French tri-colours



* Our bus from Pristina to Tirana set us back €10.00 each (and included a couple of complimentary sweet treats along the way).

* Entry into the Roman Villa was FREE!

* Tickets to the Albania vs Georgia international football (soccer) fixture cost us 1000.00 Lek per person (there were more expensive seating categories).

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