"It is a beautiful city, but be careful. The people there are crazy. They will do anything for money, even kill you." My fellow intern at D4D gave me this advice before I visited Tirana, the Albanian capital. She recently spent four years at a university in Tirana, so I asked her to give me some tips for my time there. Her response was not exactly what I had expected, but I appreciated the warning.
I boarded a bus in Pristina at 11:00 PM Thursday, or 23:00 as the time is referred to here, and arrived in Tirana at 4:00 in the morning. After my coworker's warning, I was wary of walking to my hostel in the middle of the night. However, the only real scare I got came from an ATM, rather than a murderous thief. I felt it was too early to wake anyone at the hostel to let me in. I went to an ATM to pull out some local currency in the hopes of finding an open cafe where I could wait for morning. I had not checked the exchange rate between dollars and Albanian lek before my trip. I selected 20 lek from the menu, assuming that whatever the exchange rate was, this must be enough for at least one cup of coffee. I was horrified when not 20, but 20,000 lek appeared from the mouth of the ATM. Fearing I had just overdrafted my account in a foreign country, I frantically tried to deposit the cash back into the machine before remembering that I was not at a Wells Fargo. My phone could not get access to any wifi, but luckily a sign on another bank a few blocks down the street informed me that one dollar was worth about 125 lek. So 20,000 lek was still a good deal of money, but definitely not enough to empty my checking account. Twenty lek is also definitely not enough for a cup of coffee in Tirana.
I had heard from my coworkers that Albania was hotter than Kosovo, and they were right. The temperature reached one hundred degrees on Friday. When I stepped out of my hostel after sleeping a couple hours Friday morning I started sweating almost immediately. I walked the few blocks to the city center and walked into the first museum I saw, so as to escape the heat for an hour or two. The museum, the National Historic Museum, turned out to be the best museum I have visited so far. The museum had pieces on display dating far back into antiquity. The collection of statues, pieces of architecture, and figurines from the Greek and Roman was especially impressive. The museum also had a section dedicated to Albania in the twentieth century, with pieces placed in chronological order around the room. Before coming to Tirana, I did not know much about Albania, besides the fact that it was run by a dictator, Enver Hoxha, for decades. This portion of the museum had an extensive collection of clothing and personal belongings belonging to slain Albanian communists from the first half of the century. Each of the rebels mentioned was referred to as "People's Hero." There were photographs documenting Enver Hoxha's rise to power, but the next photograph was of the statue of Hoxha being toppled by rebels on February 20, 1991. The only pieces from the time of Hoxha's reign were the blood-stained, bullet hole-riddled clothing of individuals who had tried to escape Albania across the border in the late 1980s. I was a little disappointed, and confused, by this lack of information about Albania's time as a communist dictatorship.
Just as in Pristina, the center of Tirana is adorned with a statue of Skanderbeg on horseback. This Skanderbeg has a long strip of grass to himself, called Skanderbeg Square. The Skanderbeg in Pristina is currently hosting a viewing area for the 2016 UEFA "football" championships. Kosovo is still not eligible to compete in international sports, so the Kosovars I have met are loyal supporters of the Albanian team. In fact, there is currently a life-size cutout of the Albanian team standing at the feet of Skanderbeg's horse. Present day national heroes standing before a national hero of the past.
On Saturday it was still hot in Tirana. I decided to visit Mount Dejti, a fifteen minute cable car ride outside of the city. There is a hotel and restaurant on the mountain. I spent a few hours hiking in the morning. The only other people I met on the trails were a Swedish family who live in Tirana for half the year. It is always fun to meet other Swedes around the world, as there are so few of us. I got a bit lost on the mountain, and came across a quaint sign and fence warning me that I was about to enter a military zone. Since it was a hot, hazy day in Tirana, the photos from the mountaintop did not turn out very well. I then took the cable car back into the city. I was once humiliated on a hike in Yosemite, when one of my companions led me to believe that a trolley would take us back down the mountain after we reached the peak. Thirteen years later I have yet to live down my gullibility from this instance. Luckily, on this mountain there was transportation available to take me back down into the city.
Whenever I retreated to the hostel to escape the heat and charge my phone, the owner would talk to me about Albania. He pointed out the ugly apartment building behind the hostel, and told me it was built by the communist government after it seized the majority of his family's land. He also told me about how Albanians were not allowed to leave the country during this time, though his father was able to travel as a part of the national football team. He also described what he considered to be the main difference between Albanians in Kosovo and Albania. "In Kosovo the people work very hard. People are not so hard here; they are soft. Well, not in Tirana," he said, as he lay on the couch between his first and second nap of the day. "But everyone outside the city is soft."
Despite the heat, and being forced to shower more than I would like, Tirana is my favorite city that I have visited so far in the Western Balkans. It is a beautiful city. The architecture is more impressive than in Pristina, and not as garish as the architecture in Skopje.