After my spell in the remote Albanian countryside, it was time to head back to city life as I ventured south to Albania’s capital, Tirana. From Shkodër, transport is regular with buses heading there roughly once an hour. Given Albania’s aversion to proper bus stations, from Shkodër you catch the bus just off the big roundabout in the centre of the city, close to the pedestrianised area. You should see a lot of people hanging round and buses with the destination sign on the front. If you ask any of the waiting people, they’ll point you to the Tirana bus. My bus left at 11am, Albanian time so it was more like 11.30. It cost 300 lek (just over £2) and took about 2 hours to get to Tirana. In the same vein as Shkodër, the bus didn’t stop at a proper bus station. It was more of a car park, about a 20 minute or so walk from the centre.
My hostel, D1 Hostel, was right in the centre, in a bit of a dingy back alley. It was quite a nice hostel though and even included breakfast in the already cheap room rate. It was spitting distance from the central area of Tirana, which is one of the most open centres I’ve ever seen in a city. It is just open space after open space – huge squares and parks literally next to each other. I mentioned that Shkodër felt like it could be the capital but Tirana makes it abundantly clear that this is the top city. A smattering of fancy looking malls, upmarket restaurants/hotels and hip, trendy bars make it feel infinitely more youthful and lively than I was expecting.
Among its numerous open spaces are Skanderbeg Square slap bang in the heart of the city, a surprisingly sparse huge square which is a good reference point. Not too far away, colourful European architecture makes for great photos, as well as the quirky Pyramid of Tirana, a retro looking building which was clearly meant to be something but has ended up becoming dilapidated and run down though this manages to add to its charm. It’s a good people-watching spot if only to watch the youths whose rite of passage seems to be to scale the diagonal pillars of the building up to the roof and then slide back down. Most of them made it, though one tourist pulled out about three-quarters of the way through his hair-raising climb. I feel his main obstacle was the fact he was carrying a water bottle and wearing flip flops which seemed a bit of a stupid decision. In fact, climbing up the bloody thing is a stupid decision, though watching their stupidity is highly entertaining.
To the south of the centre is Tirana’s enormous Grand Park which makes for a good spot to wander round. Complete with a huge lake, plenty of walking trails and a selection of cafes (one of which played ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ on a 10 minute loop… in October), it’s definitely a relaxing spot to escape the madness of Tirana’s traffic. Beyond that, there’s not a whole lot to “do” in Tirana. Neighbouring Dajti National Park is supposed to boast good views and the cable car up there (800 lek return) is the longest in the Balkans. Unfortunately it’s closed on Tuesdays (the very day I was going to go up).
Instead of sightseeing, I decided to spend most of my time in Tirana frequenting its many hip, trendy bars, cafes and restaurants. I was surprised at how many there are. One thing that confused me in Tirana was that I never saw people eating – at lunch and dinner time a lot of places would be packed but just with people drinking coffee or beer. It was so rare to see locals actually eating a meal. Do the people of Albania just not eat or…?!
I certainly didn’t join in with this practice and the district of Blloku to the south of Skanderbeg Square and the river is where most eateries and bars can be found. There’s so many of them and lots of them are pretty cool – the sort of hip places you’d find in London but where it’s not £20 for a sandwich and a drink. Amongst the quirky places I checked out were the open air Duff Bar, serving (obviously) pints of Duff and supposedly the best burgers in the capital, coming in at just over £5 for a meal/drink. Close to there is Pitagoras, a good cheap lunch spot which also serves good burgers as well as tasty pitas with wholesome fillings. For good, cheap Italian food, Pastamore is a great choice (closed on Sundays) which serves delicious home-cooked pasta in a range of styles. A quirky choice for a drink would be Bunker 1944. All across Albania sit these bunkers which were built in case of a war that never came. Some have been left, some converted into museums and this one has been converted into a bar which is definitely worth checking out.
One of the more interesting experiences I had in the capital was getting my haircut. When in Shkodër I noticed barber shops everywhere so thought Albania might be a good place to get my hair trimmed. I decided to hang on until Tirana, figuring they might be more likely to speak English and not give me an absolute mare of a haircut, an experience I’ve been all too familiar with several times in Hong Kong. I did a quick Google and found Boba Barbers in the centre of the city which had good reviews and seemed to know have a degree of English.
When I arrived there, it was more like a social space for young Albanian men, people constantly coming in, chatting for a bit and then leaving without getting a haircut. There was rap music blasting out of the speakers and the barbers kept taking time out of their work to check up on themselves in the mirror. When I arrived, there was one barber there, cutting someone’s hair with a fag hanging out of his mouth, and a boy who I assumed worked there but was actually a customer. The barber spoke very little English but luckily the boy’s was quite good and he translated what I wanted (I hoped). “Barber is coming” I was told, so I guessed maybe they were waiting for an English speaking barber to arrive. That wasn’t the case though. A barber who could speak a bit of English did arrive but I was handed over to the non-English speaking barber for some reason. I was able to reiterate what I wanted again and sat back and hoped for the best, really hoping he didn’t give me the traditional skinhead Eastern European haircut. As it happens he was great. He obviously knew what he was doing and gave me probably one of the best haircuts I’ve had abroad. Despite the language barrier, he somehow managed to get it exactly right. At the end of it all, I paid just 500 lek (£3.50) and got a high five from the excited (and, I suspect, relieved) barber. The quality of the cut is great so as long as you can overcome the language barrier, you’ll get a damn good and cheap haircut here. Boba Barbers – give it a go if you want a £3.50 haircut that may or may not turn out exactly how you want it.
Infinitely more trendy and vibrant than I expected, Tirana is a great capital city to soak up. With so many picturesque places in Albania, there’s a temptation to whizz through the capital but, just for its sheer number of fantastic bars and restaurants as well as its vast open spaces, this is a rugged but cool city that is definitely worth a few days of your time.