My ‘fast & furious’ Western Balkans Trip – 3 Countries in 6 Days
Day One: Albania (Tirana & Elbasan)
I was so happy to be flying from Tampa to Tirana with only one connection (in Frankfurt) on one of the recently inaugurated Lufthansa flights but, as luck would have it, got delayed arriving in Frankfurt and missed the Tirana flight. Lufthansa managed to re-book me on a flight via Vienna so I ended up arriving in Albania’s capital at 2:20 PM instead of 11:40 AM. No big deal, I had made it and was ready to hit the road.
The plan had been to meet my local guide, have lunch, and do some sightseeing in Tirana before transferring to Elbasan in the evening, but because of the delay getting in, we decided to skip lunch and see as much of the city as possible before moving on. I knew in advance that Tirana would not have the historic charm and elegance of other post-Communist capitals like Prague, Berlin, or Warsaw but rather the grit, chaotic intensity, and mixture of European and Ottoman influences which are more typical for Sofia or Sarajevo.
Founded in the 17th century, Tirana is relatively young (by European standards) and remained a backwater town until the 1920s when Italian architects designed its central part in the typical Fascist fashion – with a huge central square, wide boulevards (fit for military parades), and imposing yet grey government buildings. Later that century, Soviet-style architecture and socialist realist monuments were erected which added little to the city’s present-day ambiance. Throw in some mosques and other Ottoman-period buildings, spice up with crazy traffic and bustling café culture, and you may get an idea of what Tirana looks like today.
We took a quick overview drive around the city center and walked around Skanderbeg Square. Skanderbeg is Albania’s undisputed national hero and his equestrian statue can be seen at the square’s southern end. A local ruler, George Kastrioti (that was his real name) initially accepted Ottoman overlordship in the early 15th century, but later revolted, united the other Albanian chieftains and fought the invaders for over 30 years until his death, long after Constantinople had fallen.
Later, in the outskirts of the city, we drove up to the Mother Albania monument which is a fine example of socialist realism and overlooks the city near the Martyrs’ Cemetery commemorating those who have fallen in the Second World War. There is a new highway now connecting Tirana and Elbasan which includes a tunnel through the mountains and significantly shortens the drive. The old road used take much longer as it ran on top of the mountain ridge and consisted of a series of dangerous hairpin bends.
Arriving in Elbasan after dark, it was finally time for a well-deserved dinner. We found a lovely outside table at the Skampini restaurant located right within the walls of the medieval citadel and indulged in tapas-style dinner (so I can try a bit of everything) of traditional dishes like stuffed peppers, grilled vegetables, and meatballs. Our hotel for the night was Guri – modest but comfortable and also located within the fortress walls.