When you go to Tirana, you do not seek stunning architecture or rich history. You go for the curiosity factor.
Albania and its capital are shrouded in the atmosphere of a little-known, little-visited, isolated and poor country haunted by the memories of Europe's last dictatorship.
Between 1944 and 1991 Tirana was the capital of Communist Albania. Most of those years were spent under the Stalinist Enver Hoxha, who imposed total isolation on the nation. Albania was a North Korea in southern Europe. Add this to Albania's late start as a nation state, in 1912, and its troubled transition to democracy in the 1990s, and you end up with a destination that simultaneously fascinates and frightens.
A trip to Tirana reveals a nation struggling with its past, present and future, and a cityscape of Fascist planning, Communist megalomania and post-Communist building frenzy – and decay.
Unlike other Balkan capitals, such as Athens or Sofia, Tirana is a relatively new city. Yes, the plain at the foot of the Dajti Mountain was inhabited from at least the 3rd century AD, but the direct predecessor of modern Tirana appeared in the 16th century, during the Ottoman domination, and unleashed its full potential in the 19th century. Tirana became the temporary capital of independent Albania in 1920, eight years after the country seceded from the Ottoman Empire.
In the following decades Ottoman Tirana was almost completely obliterated. The city's first European-style urban plan was created as early as 1917, by Austrian-Hungarian architects. When Albania fell under the influence of Fascist Italy, Tirana's appearance was affected, too. Two of the most prominent architects of the Mussolini era went there, bringing with them the aesthetics of Fascist Italy. Straight boulevards appeared in the growing Albanian capital, together with large squares and modernist administrative and residential buildings.
In central Tirana, flashy highrises dwarf the buildings constructed when Albania was under Italian Fascist influence
When Communism arrived, it imposed its own aesthetics and urbanism on Tirana, reestablishing the same old ideas as Fascism before it: the full totalitarian control of the state over the lives, emotions and thoughts of the citizens. The old Ottoman bazaar and a mosque were razed to make room for the new Skanderbeg Square, named after Albania's greatest national hero. Prefabricated blocks of apartments were erected for the workers, while the new elite flocked to the isolation and comfort of the Blloku neighbourhood with its elegant pre- and post-war villas. Tirana became a divided city, suited to the isolation and claustrophobia of the country itself.
The collapse of Communism in the 1990s and the transition to democracy was a long and traumatic process, which saw many people become destitute while organised crime was getting born. The social and political changes were reflected on the face of Tirana. Unregulated construction, including that of flashy hotels and homes for the new rich, was rife. Lack of maintenance turned the workers' apartment blocks into something straight from a dystopian nightmare.
Things started to improve in the 2000s, as the city was beautified, and tourists began to arrive in the once closed Tirana.
Today Tirana is a charming contradiction. The elegant 18th century Et'hem Bey Mosque, closed for decades during the atheistic regime of Enver Hoxha, now stands open, next to Skanderbeg Square. The expanse of the Stalinist plaza includes the National Historical Museum with its large mosaic of Communist Albania leading the Albanian people to a bright future. The grim apartment blocks a few streets away bear witness to the futility of this piece of propaganda.
Probably the most famous piece of architecture in Tirana is the glass pyramid built as a museum (often erroneously reported to be a mausoleum) to Enver Hoxha in the late 1980s. This pharaonic reminder of the Communist past is now empty and closed. Local children love to climb its sleek walls all the way to the top, and then slide down.
Blloku, the neighbourhood of the party elite, is closed no more. As it is the most beautiful part of Tirana, it is now a quarter of bars, cafes, boutiques and the local high life.
With its live animals, secondhand clothes sold on the pavement and stinky meat, Tirana's central market might be a bit of a shock for the outsider
Before – or after – enjoying Blloku's gentrified pleasures, stop at the Postblloku, or the Checkpoint, on the central Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard. The installation by dissident Fatos Lubonja and artist Ardian Isufi stands on the spot where, under Communism, a checkpoint guarding the government buildings used to be. The monument includes a segment of the Berlin Wall, concrete supports from the mines of the vicious Spaç labour camp and one of the million or so concrete bunkers Enver Hoxha built in anticipation of a foreign invasion.
When you enter it, inhaling the damp air, you realise that all you see of the people outside are their feet. A chilling reminder of the regime that turned Albania and its now friendly capital into one of the most isolated places in Europe.
Street bookseller. Many citizens still struggle to make ends meet
Communist public art adorns the Council of Ministers
Postblloku installation: Concrete supports for mines from a labour camp and a bunker