In the Albanian capital of Tirana, the country’s strange history and bright future collide.
By Alexander Lobrano – Published Sept. 6, 2019 – Updated Sept. 7, 2019
Over the past five years, Albania has been discovered by travelers as that rare thing: a largely unexplored corner of Europe (one with some 265 miles of coastline). The small Balkan country sits just across the Adriatic and Ionian seas from Italy’s heel and a mere 45-minute ferry ride away from the Greek island of Corfu. It’s recently gotten its first high-end waterside resorts, and as the beach town of Sarande and the seaside city of Vlore have become more comfortable, so too has Tirana — the country’s capital, about 22 miles inland with a population of over half a million — grown more cosmopolitan, with new restaurants, shops and galleries joining the almost surrealist pastiche of testaments to the city’s past. For a good example of the way eras collide in Tirana, just visit Skanderbeg Square, recently renovated with new fountains and rosy granite paving, and home to an 18th-century mosque and minaret, a domed Albanian Orthodox church opened in 2012, a set of government buildings that echo the fascist architecture of Mussolini’s Italy and a Brutalist monolith that houses the National Historical Museum.
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Initially settled by Illyrian and Greek tribes during ancient times, Albania spent over four centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire. After 1912, it became a fascist-leaning monarchy, and then, in the wake of World War II, a Communist state ruled by the infamous dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1991, a full year behind many of its Eastern Bloc neighbors, the country saw its first democratic elections, as well as murmurings of a cultural awakening. Tirana may not have a robust avant-garde scene, but it does have a gritty, iconoclastic edge — the Pyramid, a large monument to Hoxha in the center of town, is now popular with skateboarders — and a joie de vivre that’s enticed many former expats. “There’s so much potential,” says Flori Uka, a local winemaker who trained in northeastern Italy and now specializes in vintages made from organic Kallmet grapes grown just outside the city. “We were isolated for so long, but today it’s possible for creative people to do what they love. The place has become very receptive to the new.”
The Plaza Tirana
Opened in 2016, this luxury hotel is housed in a 24-story skyscraper with a geometric facade of zigzagging glass and terrazzo. Located just east of Skanderbeg Square, the building shares a skyline with Tirana’s famous clock tower, built by the 19th-century poet Etehem Bey Mollaj, and, since its completion in 2016, has become a landmark itself. Inside, the 190 rooms have oak parquet floors and battleship-gray walls that manage to feel stately, not drab. Guests can relax at the spa, which includes a room lined with Himalayan salt, thought to improve breathing, or at one of the three restaurants — Panevino serves excellent pasta. plazatirana.com
The Rooms Hotel & Residence
This partly solar-powered hotel is a short walk from the Blloku, which was once a residential district off-limits to all except the upper echelons of the Hoxha regime but is today lined with lively bars and restaurants. (Don’t miss the cape gooseberry sours at Colonial Cafe, whose Albanian mixologist recently moved back to the country after three years in Brooklyn.) The hotel’s 23 rooms are a study in Milanese-inspired minimalism, with white walls and linens, gauzy beige curtains and Nespresso machines. They’re also close to the city’s Grand Park, which has four miles of paths for jogging and walking. therooms-hotel.com
Three and a half years ago, after stints at Le Gavroche in London and Noma in Copenhagen, Bledar Kola returned to his native Albania and, along with two friends, opened Mullixhiu, set on the edge of Grand Park’s artificial lake. The restaurant honors traditional dishes and methods — mullixhiu means “miller,” and the restaurant makes use of working millstones — while exploring inventive flavor combinations such as charred pumpkin with pomegranate molasses. Depending on the season, other dishes might include jufka (an Albanian pasta) with porcini mushrooms, quail roasted inside of clay or a bright salad of Jerusalem artichokes, pickled apple and cured goat tongue. mullixhiu.al
For a quick byrek (a flaky cheese-filled pastry), head to Avni Rustemi Square, home to the city’s main market. Afterward, if you’re still in want of a full meal, go around the corner to Oda, a family-run restaurant in an Ottoman-era building that was once a private house. Its two odas (salons) are still richly decorated — hand-woven carpets hang on the walls, and one room contains a single sofra, or low table, which is perfect for large parties looking to share plates of classic Albanian dishes like peppers stuffed with cottage cheese, kukurrec (grilled lamb’s intestines) and fiery shots of mulberry raki. 011-355-4-224-9541
Nji Mar, Nji Mrapsht
Because most locals remain enthralled by imported brand names that weren’t available to them under Communism, few spots carry traditional Albanian handicrafts like unglazed terra-cotta pottery and hand-loomed patterned linens. This two-story shop is a notable exception and has become a gathering spot for the city’s fledgling art and design scene. The selection is ever changing, but you can always find handmade jewelry, soaps and creams made With Albanian herbs and olive oil and old army trunks that have been remade into side tables. Islam Alla Street, Building 3
An accomplished entomologist and the former Albanian minister of agriculture, Rexhep Uka set up this farm on the leafy outskirts of Tirana as a showcase for small-scale sustainable agriculture in 1996, when the country was still transitioning from massive collective plots. In 2005, he planted it with grapevines unique to the region and began producing a range of wines made with organic grapes. In addition to the Kallmet reds, which taste like earthier pinot noirs, there are whites made from ceruja grapes, with notes of honey and citrus. Uka’s son Flori will gladly show visitors around the fields and cellars before presenting a tasting flight paired with homemade grilled lamb. Reservations are a must. 011-355-67-203-9909
National Gallery of Arts
In addition to temporary exhibitions — this summer featured a retrospective of the work of Kolë Idromeno, whose 1883 painting “Motra Tone” is known as the Albanian “Mona Lisa” — this museum, which is set in a 1960s Modernist building flanked by a row of palm trees, also has a large collection of eerie and transfixing Socialist Realist works depicting goggle-wearing miners and brawny factory workers. For more culture, head to Bunk’Art, a mazelike underground complex originally built as Hoxha’s nuclear bunker, with an assembly hall that turned out to have great acoustics and now functions as a venue for jazz and classical concerts. galeriakombetare.gov.al
Amphitheater of Durrës
Along with relics of the Communist era, Albania is also home to a number of ruins, from the archaeological park of Butrint to the ancient Greek colony of Apollonia. The port city of Durrës, which was founded over 2,600 years ago by Corinthians, has the advantage of being close to the capital — Tirana locals often make the trip for a swim and good seafood. Try the aptly named Fresh Fish restaurant, but not before touring the city’s ancient baths or partially excavated 20,000-seat amphitheater, which was built under the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D.; a few years ago, the Albanian government oversaw the demolition of a handful of modern houses sitting within its crumbling ring of stone.