For our recent trip to Albania (August 2018), I researched the history, cities, and most interesting sights, as well as the practical details like currency, internet, and driving conditions. Was I prepared? I think so. Nevertheless, reading about something and experiencing it doesn’t compare, and that’s a good thing. I can guarantee that if you keep an open mind, Albania will surprise and entertain you with both small and large details every day. Here are some of our experiences …
Our adventure began in the capital of Tirana. The centre of the city is quite small, and very walkable. So, off we went! Our first clue that this country might be unlike anywhere we had previously travelled appeared in the form of a giant pyramid, rising out of a lovely, well tended garden area.
Tirana Pyramid – not sure if the bell has any significance but please let me know if you know.
Built originally as a museum to honour their former leader Enver Hoxha (an interesting and somewhat nefarious character – check him out on Wikipedia) in 1988, the Pyramid started its demise shortly after the fall of communism in Albania in 1991. It now stands as a crumbling “monument” to the past. People clamor up the walls and cover available surfaces high and low with street art. We crawled through a makeshift opening into the building itself. Inside looks like a neglected building site, damaged by vandals and ogled by tourists. Tiled floors, marbled walls and an ornately decorated ceiling still exist surrounded by the chaos. Fascinating.
The grand entrance to the Pyramid. I have seen earlier pictures. Sometimes it gets whitewashed, but the artists always make their mark. Much better!
The ceiling is mostly intact. Quite lovely it must have been too.
Concerts were apparently held in this space. Maybe someday …
Caught in the act! Note the little legs above the graffiti.
As much of the Pyramid as could be reached, all around, has been a canvas for street artists. My favourite kind of art.
Walking a little further north we encountered our first of many, many bunkers, this one repurposed into a museum called Bunk’Art 2. Enver Hoxha’s strategy for Albania’s defence included hundreds of thousands of bunkers spread throughout the country. Many have been destroyed over the years. Bunk’Art 2 is particularly large, originally planned to house government officials during an attack. Now a history museum, we learned a lot about spying, on both government and neighbours. And about prisons, and torture, and all sorts of horrendous things endured by Albanians during Hoxha’s rule.
The actual bunker contains 4 long hallways with rooms all along, built underground. Originally, the only entrance and exit were through the government buildings. They moved this bunker from elsewhere to act as the entrance, and the exit was built separately across the square.
Inside the entrance to Bunk’Art 2, a mix of heroes and demons.
“Albania is closed to enemies, spies, hippie tourists and other vagabonds”. Luckily, those times have passed.
Did I mention that this bunker was meant to sustain a nuclear attack? You never know when you might need to be decontaminated…
The House of Leaves sits one block away, the former home of the Gestapo during WWII, and the Albanian secret police during communism. Ugh. More spying, keeping records, maps of sites for secret prisons (all. over. the. country.), etc. Unbelievable. I couldn’t help but be impressed at how the Albanians faced their quite recent, mostly appalling past, certainly in the memory of a large proportion of the current population. Pretty ugly stuff.
The House of Leaves discouraged photography within its walls. Heaven forbid you steal some of their surveillance secrets …
After visiting this museum, we started to feel this way about every room.
So, there was our introduction to recent Albanian history. I don’t believe there are other countries with a similar past, but I would be interested to hear if there is. Quite an eye-opener!
Now, off to get our rental car, and see a bit of the rest of the country. At the airport we are presented with our 4 wheel drive SUV, shown all the bumps and bruises, and assured that we would not need to wash it before returning it. What? Okay, we won’t. That comment puzzled me, until we started to drive and noticed all the signs for “Lavazh”, which turns out to mean “Car wash”. Albania has to have the greatest per capita concentration of car washes in the whole wild world. And they were almost always being used. Sometimes they were separate businesses, but some people in residential areas had built their own wee car wash in their driveway.
And what about cars? Well, Albania is a poor country, so you would probably be as surprised as we were to note that almost every car is a Mercedes-Benz. Not always a new one, but a Mercedes-Benz nevertheless. And, of course, they are all clean. I found this article in the New York Times from 2004. They noticed the cars and the car washes too. They also suspect it may be possible that some of these upmarket vehicles may not have been acquired from an authorized dealer …
Driving in Albania is an experience all its own. We knew in advance about the road conditions, mostly smooth, sometimes more akin to a goat track. No surprise there. However, we were not prepared for the sheer amount of passing drivers in Albania do. They pass on the right or on the left, and don’t seem overly concerned if there is oncoming traffic. Because this behaviour seems to be the norm, both approaching cars and the car beside just move over a little to allow the passing vehicle up the middle. Just like that. No road rage. If someone’s in your way, just go around them. Makes sense, and runs quite smoothly, just be careful not to bring that habit back with you.
One minute you’re driving on pavement, next minute … this …
To be fair, there was a “road narrows” type of sign. But in reality, half the road has fallen off. So they put a little back, just enough for a car width. Fixed!
Speaking of driving, every good tourist knows to keep your eyes peeled for interesting items along the road. In Albania, the farm animals sometimes rule the roads.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but these guys don’t seem to read very well. The sign says “Stop military zone”. And indeed you can see the remnants of communist barracks in the distance.
Cars? What cars?
The boss isn’t looking too happy ….
Despite the road conditions, we still managed to pass this tidy herd.
I saw this house in the Atlas Obscura before we left Canada. I had forgotten all about it but when you see it, it really stands out!
As of August 2018, this lovely abode was for sale. It might still be available …
Albania’s history ranges from 3rd century BC to present times, and they have the architecture and historic evidence to prove it. They are mostly protected, as archaeological parks, tourist sites or museums. However, the odd one goes astray. In Durres, they have preserved part of a 5th century wall and a medieval Venetian tower. As the tower is no longer needed for military reasons, it has been repurposed. As a cocktail bar. Yep.
It still feels like a medieval tower. With blue lighting.
The tower with its outdoor roof lounge and colourful umbrellas looks great at night. Cool place for a drink!
Further south down the coast, a bit south of Dhermi, poking out into the Bay of Porto Palermo, lies Porto Palermo Castle. The panels at the site indicate it was built in 1805, but its shape (triangular) suggests much earlier, Venetian, pedigree. Whatever the truth, it is now an interesting tourist destination.
Approaching from the north, the castle snuggles into its “island” host. Very dramatic, particularly in better lighting.
Just north of the castle, on the coastal road, is a deserted communist era naval base.
Creepy abandoned buildings, dominating what would probably be a perfectly lovely beach. The area is still designated for military use but looks like it hasn’t seen humans in quite some time.
Crossing the promontory to the castle you see a lovely little beach, surrounded by old communist barracks-type buildings.
The castle itself has a ticket booth at the start, with a cost of the equivalent of $1.00 Canadian. Most sights in Albania cost $2.00 Canadian. I am using this as the excuse for the fact that there are zero internal lights inside the castle. I expect in a short time this will change, but what fun it is to investigate an old stone building, with all sorts of nooks and crannies, in the dark. Our phone flashlights got a bit of a workout. What fun!
Even spaces with window openings to the outside were spooky. Some spaces were completely dark. And there had to be ghosts …
The rooms facing sunny windows had crazy cool shadows.
So, those are the highlights of the more surprising and odd bits of travelling in Albania. Trust me, there is so much more to see and do. This little photo essay just barely scratches the surface. If you are intrigued at all, I suggest you visit. Keep an open mind and you will have an amazing time. And if you find some more peculiar spots or practices I would love to hear from you.
Just for fun, I will leave you with a few more bunkers. Enjoy Albania!