We’re back on the road, and it feels good.
We’ve missed this space, and we’ve missed you all (Chris, are you there? Chris?).
The cats looked at us in disbelief last night as we were packing our bags. But this trip couldn’t come at a better time for us. Re-adjusting to London life since Big Trip has been a challenge.
Packing was a last minute affair, yet fairly straightforward. I guess we’re expert packers now 🙂
The best thing is that our bags weigh nothing at all; they’re both hovering around 10kgs. That’s a whole 13kgs less each than we had when we set off for Mexico City!
The taxi picked us up for the airport at 5:30am. The drive to Gatwick seemed long but there was plenty to look at out of the window – the mist over the North Downs, patterned fields.
Andy got the window seat and was rewarded with stunning views of the (Italian) Alps. Three women seated a row ahead of us were discussing travelling to Nicaragua and Guatemala. They then settled on Costa Rica and they thought a week would be enough. No (I may have said this too loud at the time)!
We landed at Tirana at just after midday and we were in our taxi soon after 12.20pm. The driver spent the journey telling us about the corruption here, how immigration is a problem, the Albanian mafia and then basically increased the fare by €6. But we stood firm. The price had been agreed in advance.
The hotel staff were happy to see us (as in, really happy). Friendly, informative and welcoming.
We hit the town. Tirana is a city made for walking. It hasn’t got main sights as such, but it’s great to explore. As long as we kept going, we were fine. If we stopped, the heat got to us. We’re not sure what the temperature is exactly. Somewhere around 33c to 36c. I remember reading somewhere that in the summer you should never turn off the air conditioning. Tirana is hot, sometimes extremely hot.
We tried a few places for lunch without luck. The places we checked out didn’t take euros, or cards and we didn’t have any lek. So we got some cash out and hit an ice cream parlour.
It’s difficult to describe what the city looks like. It’s all fairly low rises. Big public squares. A lot of benches – the older generation sits and wiles away the afternoon. As tempted as we were to join them, we had a lot to see.
The Pyramid of Tirana was built as a shrine to communist leader (dictator?) Enver Hoxha. “From 1944 to 1992, Albania was governed under a harsh Communist ideal that modeled itself after Stalinism” (source). The Pyramid is now a crumbling – and unsafe looking – wreck of a building.
Next up was Reja – inside the cloud. An art installation which you can walk over and under. We didn’t stay long as sadly, it hasn’t been well looked after and is now quite grubby (think of it as sitting under a grey-brown cloud)
Thirsty after all this sightseeing and walking, we looked for a bar with Albanian beer in Blloku (“the Block”), which is a fairly upmarket area with lots of cool bars and restaurants. And then gave up and had a Kosovan beer at Nouvelle Vague, a colourful cocktail bar. The beer was refreshing and we drunk it like we had a glass of water in front of us. Note to self: must remember to drink a lot of water.
Bunk’Art 2. This 106-room nuclear bunker is now a museum and an art gallery. It was built for the dictator in the event of an attack. The permanent exhibition is depressing – it describes how the country’s police force was slowly turned into an oppressive security force. This felt all too familiar, having just spent last weekend in Berlin where we learnt all about the Stasi and how they spied on and tortured their fellow country people. We were not expecting to find this in Albania, not to that extent anyway, and were shocked by what we read. One of the information panels described 36 methods of torture known to have been used there.
We crossed the Skanderbeg Square again. This is the main square in central Tirana. At one end of the square, there’s a statue of the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu on a horse. I must confess I know nothing about him. As the temperature had dropped a little, locals were out and about, taking a stroll. A number of people were heading for a podium (near the monument) where loud music was coming from.
The town really comes to life in the evening. It feels like most of Tirana eats out, small tables set on the pavement. We headed to Oda – a traditional restaurant. We sat outside and were joined by two Dutch couples. We talked about the food – our two dishes were excellent – Patellxhan I mbushur me oriz (stuffed aubergine) and Lakror presh ose spinaq (filo spinach pie). One couple shared tips for Kosovo. And just then, I was reminded about how good it is to travel. How much we’d learnt already today. How meeting new people is fun and especially when they’re interested in the places they’re travelling through.
Hot and weary, we made our back to the hotel. After an early start this morning we were ready to go to sleep early.