By Alex Crevar – Aug. 28, 2015
You begin to understand Tirana, the capital of Albania, the first time you try to cross the city’s main road, which locals simply refer to as Boulevard. There are zebra-striped crosswalks, and cars stop if they must, but the feat is something akin to stage diving into a free-form automotive ballet. Confidence is the operative word here — coupled with an understanding that Albanians live by a rhythmic, improvisational code: Fill space when it’s free.
On a steamy day in late June, I found my rhythm and crossed Boulevard from Tirana’s central Skanderbeg Square. As I dodged the traffic on my way to a meeting with Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, it dawned on me: I have been driving a car since 1986 — five years before anyone in this entire country, except for the few granted special permission during the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s suffocating style of Communism, which lasted more than 45 years.
When I entered the Prime Ministry building, I was whisked to Mr. Rama’s office. As the mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011, Mr. Rama, the charismatic head of the Socialist Party, was responsible for covering the city’s once-gray Communist buildings with kaleidoscopic paint jobs. Today, the palette of bright colors provides explosions of gaiety across this wide-open Balkan capital founded in 1614 by an Ottoman general named Sulejman Bargjini.
“My purpose here is not political,” I told him after we shook hands. “I am a travel writer covering Tirana.” Mr. Rama, 51, who is also an artist and a former member of the national basketball team, visibly relaxed and kicked his feet, L.B.J. style, onto his desk crowded by containers of colored markers. But instead of a suit and cowboy boots, he wore khakis and artsy black sneakers. His office’s custom wallpaper pattern was covered with prints of his mazelike doodle drawings, for which he is famous.
“What you see today was not the city [in 2000] — every green space you see was occupied by illegal buildings,” he said, adding that the crackdown on illegal construction along the banks of the Lana River alone resulted in the removal of 123,000 tons of concrete. Mr. Rama paired this removal with the city’s colorful makeover, which has become its calling card.
“When we started painting, two things would happen,” Mr. Rama told me. “First, people that had the shops would start to get rid of the grids [covering windows] … because they felt safer. And the second effect was that they started paying taxes.” I asked the prime minister how it feels to live in the Albanian capital, which endured a despotic regime until 1991 and is now democratic. “You live with change,” he said. “You live with a need to change every day.”
For visitors, that change manifests itself in a palpable urban energy. Framed by the 5,291-foot Dajti Mountain to the east, Tirana is a dense tangle of 1920s Italianate villas, mirrored skyscrapers, Ottoman-era cobblestones, markets selling loose tobacco and crates brimming with vegetables, and cafe terraces where stylish young people sip macchiatos. Scattered throughout are chunky Communist structures splashed with eye-popping colors.
Skanderbeg Square is the center of town and a prime example of the green spaces Mr. Rama resolved to reclaim. Businessmen and -women rushed across the square, bordered by avenues and studded with grassy islands. Here and there people lounged on the grass, eating watermelon and fanning themselves under trees. This leafy nexus is where a visitor can get an architectural, and thus historical, sense of Tirana, which became the capital in 1920. One quarter of Albania’s population of three million lives here.
Standing in front of the bronze equestrian statue of a sword-wielding Gjergj Kastrioti (known as Skanderbeg in English), a national hero who revolted against the occupying Ottoman Empire in 1443, I turned in a circle. To my right was the Ethem Bey Mosque, completed in 1823. About 65 percent of Albania’s population is Muslim, and on that day, the middle of Ramadan, a crowd gathered around the terra-cotta-roofed mosque to pray. Behind me stood the mustard-yellow, Baroque-style ministry buildings designed by Fascist-era Italian architects in the 1920s. Beyond, I could just see the blue-capped rotunda of the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, which opened in 2012.
I walked to the square’s northern end and the National Historical Museum with its huge exterior mosaic, a tribute to Albanian history, from the Illyrians to World War II partisans. A tour guide, Viktor Sharra, informed me that the blocky socialist structure was opened, in 1981, during “Hoxha’s time”; those last two words were uttered with such frequency during my stay, and about so many subjects, that they began to sound like one word: HoxhasTime. (Hoxha, pronounced HO-ja, ruled Albania from 1944 to his death in 1985.)
Inside, Mr. Sharra and I strolled through the 193,750-square-foot exhibition space among more than 5,000 pieces from the Paleolithic period to the end of Communism. We passed Hellenic busts, Illyrian coins, cannons, and documents declaring Albanian independence in 1912. Back outside, Mr. Sharra looked at me seriously and quoted Churchill: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”
I turned down the southern section of the main drag, officially called Boulevard Deshmoret E Kombit, or Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard (the northern half is Boulevard Zogu 1, named after Albania’s president-turned-king Ahmed Zogu, who served from 1925 to 1939). More than 85 years ago, when Boulevard was still being built, a visiting French architect reportedly exclaimed: “I have seen cities without boulevards, but I never saw a boulevard without a city.”
This is no longer the case. Today Boulevard is lined with four- and five-star hotels, banks, boutiques, the Palace of Culture — housing the National Theater of Opera and Ballet and the National Library — and the National Arts Gallery, with rotating exhibitions on the first floor and an excellent collection of socialist realism paintings on the second.
On my way to meet a journalist friend, Alda Bardhyli, for coffee, I saw evidence of the kind of disparity that is typical of post-Communist countries shifting quickly to the free market. A gleaming Mercedes cruised alongside a rickety one-speed bicycle carrying three people. Just ahead of me, a woman in go-go boots and a skintight, leopard-print dress was trying to keep up with an old man in a tattered coat and straw fedora on an asthmatic scooter.
“For many years people in Albania had little — there were no cafes, no bars, just work,” said Ms. Bardhyli, adding that during the time of Communism all work was collectivized and people had “normal jobs” and clocked in at factories and mines. Today, businesses have privatized and, though unemployment hovers around 13 percent, there is an entrepreneurial spirit — evidenced by the many shops, restaurants and bars — and a noticeable taste for Western consumerism.
We sat on the patio of Komiteti, a cafe that also calls itself a museum. It was filled with HoxhasTime relics. Antique radios lined shelves next to Communist-era books. At the bar, which serves 25 flavors of Albanian liquor called raki, garden rakes hung upside-down from the ceiling with wineglasses slotted between their teeth. “People here like foreign things because we were closed without TV, travel and communication with the world,” Ms. Bardhyli said. “They missed things during Communism and are now making up for it.”
We headed to the nearby Taverna e Kasap Beut for lunch. The Verushi sisters run the homey restaurant, where strings of garlic and peppers hang next to painted plates and earthenware jugs. The sisters are the kind of Balkan matrons who smile wide when they see strangers and even wider when they see regulars. Their father butchers the tavern’s meat (the name of the place means, loosely, mister butcher). Vegetables come from village farmers. There were no menus; dishes just arrive on your table: flaky burek pastries filled with puréed onions and tomatoes; fresh greens; baked lamb; extraordinary cheesecake. The bill came to 1,500 leke per person, with gratuity, or about $12.50.
Admittedly, I develop city crushes easily, and I am a sucker for underdogs. But Tirana is no underdog — though most citizens I communicated with tried to convince me otherwise. At every turn, new acquaintances attempted to usher me out of the city, to the places considered Albania’s highlights: the Adriatic coast, the mountains. I refused. Only then would they share a favorite city nook.
“Tirana has a lot of energy,” explained Gent Mati, who owns an adventure tourism company, Outdoor Albania, and with whom I’d hiked the previous summer in the northern Albanian Alps. “But it is a capital with a neighborhood feel. Everyone has their own special spots.”
We contemplated those spots over cocktails at Radio Bar in the upscale Blloku neighborhood. During Hoxha’s regime “the Block” was reserved for government elites and off-limits to average citizens. Today this tight grid of about a dozen streets is crowded with bars and chic boutiques radiating a nouveau riche vibe. Radio, where an urban hippie crowd lounges on 1960s furniture, is a standout in this trendy district.
“Before, we were poor and now we have more shops, but the quality of life isn’t better,” said Radio’s owner, Enton Kaca, who believes that Tirana’s citizens are just starting to think in new ways. “Here we want to serve a new generation of Albanians.”
Later, Mr. Mati and I drove five miles out of town through a sprawling hodgepodge of commercial and residential structures to the oasis that is Uka Farm, to see that new generation in action. The winemaker Flori Uka, 30, runs the family business, which promotes sustainable agriculture. The 4.5-acre farm grows grapes, olives, cherry tomatoes, green beans, arugula, apples, pomegranates, plums and kiwi.
The fruits of Mr. Uka’s labor end up in glasses and on plates served in his year-old, open-air, mountain-facing restaurant. Dishes of grilled zucchini, peppers and potato tortas covered checkered tablecloths. We sipped a glass of his Chimaera, a blend of three merlots, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. “Find the food fresh and cook it simple,” Mr. Uka said as we touched glasses.
The next morning I took a taxi three miles northeast of the city center to ride the Dajti Ekspres cable car. The 15-minute gondola flight soared above forests to its terminus in Dajti Mountain National Park, an 8,154-acre expanse of green rolling hills. Looking backward from the cable car, I wondered: Where was my special Tirana spot?
I found it that night.
Hemingway Bar sits in a quiet neighborhood about a 10-minute walk from Skanderbeg Square. Other Hemingway bars in Europe — in Paris, Prague and on the Croatian coast — have pretentious reputations. Not this joint. Here, cool met literary, jazz met Balkan, Tirana met Havana. Red, seductive lighting cast shadows over photos of the Buena Vista Social Club. Pictures of Papa were scattered between quotations in Albanian and English. There was a piano for intimate jazz nights, and 140 rums lined shelves.
It was late when the crowd thinned out. I sat outside with the owner, Rodmir Sukaj. “Here in Tirana there’s a spirit of creation, and doing something in a real and good way,” he said as we toasted the evening.
I remembered something the prime minister told me a few days before about how visitors are often reluctant to come to Albania, because of “perception and stereotypes.” But when they finally do decide to venture here, he’d said: “they always want to come back. So it is always about the first touch. Once you touch it you can’t forget it.”
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
The 170-room, 15-floor Tirana International (tiranainternational.com) rising above Skanderbeg Square was completed in 1979 and refurbished in 2014. The city’s grande dame has a terrace bar, a spa and a nightclub. Rooms from 116 euros with breakfast. (Lodging is often charged in euros.)
A short walk from Boulevard and in a quiet neighborhood near government buildings and embassies, City Hotel (cityhoteltirana.com), a 15-room boutique, is basic but homey. Standard doubles start at 58 euros.
Where to Dine
Taverna e Kasap Beut (Rruga Perlat Rexhepi 12; 355-69-539-8609) is a traditional tavern, with dishes that are based on fresh ingredients purchased from local farms. A three-course lunch for two is about 3,000 leke (about $25).
At the family-run farm and vineyard Uka Farm (Laknas village of Tirana; 355-67-203-9909; facebook.com/ukafarm?fref=ts), grilled lamb, chicken, or pork is paired with on-site vegetables. A meal for two with a bottle of wine runs around 5,000 leke (about $40).
What to Do
A 15-minute ride by the Dajti Ekspres cable car to Dajti Mountain National Park provides panoramic views of the city; 355-67-208-4471 or 355-68-492-2305; dajtiekspres.com
A daylong tour of Tirana with Albanie Vacances (vacancesalbanie.com), which has English-speaking guides, includes all historic sites and entrance to museums and galleries and costs 50 euros.