Sunday, December 06, 2015

Tirana - The Last Stop of the Great Balkan Adventure

The final post! The last stop! Tirana!

We gave ourselves some time to sleep in Friday morning and enjoy a huge breakfast at our little place in Berat. The honey was amazing. And English news was on the TV, all about the first waves of refugees that had landed in Greece and had made it up to Hungary. All I could think about was how much I wanted to stay and help. I'm still thinking about that. 

Remember my stellar parking job on this thing that looks like a sidewalk? It's actually a road. A main one in the old town. 

We took off the way from Berat to Elbasan, so we could pass through that part of the country. We'd even tried to get tickets to a soccer match in Elbasan, but it didn't work out. Off we go, to more viewings of livestock and small town life in Albania.

About 40 minutes in, we hit a road that looked like this. I didn't feel good about our little car on this kind of road, and I had no idea how much worse it could've gotten. So we went back to Durres, where we knew the roads would be good.

This little town's market was very busy.

This was maybe around Kuçovë?

A furgon.

Getting back into Tirana.

Anyone for Puke? There were also road signs for Kosovo, and I was tempted to pop over for a day.

We found the general area where we were to meet our AirBnB hosts - it's a brother and sister who have a place that they rent out, but they weren't available so they sent their 'cool dad' to meet us. We were supposed to meet at this Santa Bar place, so I pulled over to the side of a major road (just like an Albanian, I pulled over anywhere that I thought was good, and everyone else can just deal) and Meghan hopped out to find the bar and the cool dad.

I watched this police officer while waiting. He's got his popsicle stick to pull people over. Meghan came back to the car with better directions, and I pulled a hard left U turn sort of thing across all those lanes of traffic in front of the cop, then slammed on my brakes and did another left turn right into an alley. It worked, we got there, and it was normal Albanian driving.

The cool dad was super nice and showed us all around the place. He didn't really speak any English but I could understand a bit of Italian. He told us about every lock and key and then his storage unit with all his Vespas that he collects. He has a few from the 60s and 70s - he is a super cool dad.  We had a quick rest than started to wander around Tirana.

Some of these orthodox cathedrals are just beautiful.

We wandered over to the art museum, but it was on siesta. so we headed to the center, Skanderberg Square, named after their national hero.

Many  major buildings are right around the square.

This funky pyramid was built as a mausoleum for Enver Hoxha, was used as a conference center, and is now mostly in decay. At one point it was covered in graffiti, but it's been cleaned up. Many interesting Communist style buildings around here.

Some little festival going on - looked like fun.

Here around the mosque we met a guy named Martin, who was very eager to speak English and show us around. He said he was a tour guide and had a history degree. We kinda got the creepster vibe from him, so after he took us into the mosque (and we got all covered up), we said thanks, but no thanks. We're glad he invited us into the mosque though.

Et'hem Bey Mosque is one of the few religious buildings that survived Communism. Most religious structures were destroyed, and it's one of the oldest buildings left in Tirana.

Back to the square for more walking, and we ran into another guy who knew we were tourists and asked us for money. He shook my hand and wouldn't let go for a little too long, and then kissed my cheek. Eh....

Next part of walking was the US Presidents tour, There's a George Bush street in Tirana, though he gets a full statue in another Albanian town, Fushe. There's also a Woodrow Wilson statue and Harry Truman garden in Tirana, and Bill Clinton has a statue in Kosovo,

This is some cute little famous bridge, though I don't quite know why.

We headed over to Mother Theresa square, though this statue is outside a church.

This old building next to the art gallery was so fascinating to me - I had to figure out what it was and learn about its sad current state. It was the Dajti Hotel - once a luxury hotel enjoyed by the Communist elite and nearly all foreign visitors. It had statues of Lenin and Stalin, and the parking lot was filled with Mercedes and black Volvos, according to my guidebook. Ordinary Albanians were not allowed here. Apparently many plots were hatched and treaties signed here. It closed in 2005 and has become run down. I can't find a ton about it online, but the Bank of Albania bought it in 2010, and doesn't seem to have done anything with it yet.

We did make it into the National Art Gallery, after it re-opened in the afternoon. It's full of Socialist Realist work that glorified communist values - industry, workers, etc. Certainly used as propaganda throughout the country.

I don't think I was supposed to take photos, but I grabbed a couple when the guard wasn't looking. After art we walked more south down the main street to the university area, where I found some stadium.

And there are no McDonald's to be found in Albania, but there is kolonat! I didn't eat here, but I kinda wish I had.

We headed home for a quick rest before dinner. Lots of color around the city.

The cool dad's collection of Vespas are behind this door.

We looked up a place to eat on TripAdvisor and found an Italian place nearby. Turns out they moved to a new location and we almost didn't see it (after we saw the boarded up old place), but we are glad we did. Homemade pasta, lovely staff, very good food.

Sadly we called it an early night and didn't get to experience the Tirana nightlife. We had 530am flight. Home to shower and pack. Another question I have for Albanians - why do you not like shower curtains? Hardly any place had one, or had one that actually worked. Just an open bathroom.

I got about 3 hours of sleep, then we hopped in the car (praying we wouldn't get blocked in from our parking spot in the alley, whew), found an open gas station at 3am (cash only - of course), and got to the airport. Broke open the rental car counter gate so we could return our GPS (police watching - they didn't care), and said goodbye to the Skoda. We survived Albanian roads and didn't add any dings to the car! That might be my best accomplishment this year.

At the airport we ran into the couple who run the rental car office where we first picked up our car - they were off on holiday to Turkey, maybe?

And when we landed in Rome to catch our flight back to the US, I was once again dismayed by all the American tourists (loved not seeing any in Albania) and their Hard Rock Rome t-shirts and their incredibly loud voices and boisterous stories about occupations. C'mon guys, we can do better.

I don't quite know how to sum up this trip in a short and poignant concluding statement, but the Balkans are going to stick with me for awhile yet, I think.  I am always prone to say that my most recent trip is the best one I've ever taken, but this one really might be....

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