kenopsia n. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.
Albania continues to linger in the collective consciousness among travelers who pursue lesser-traveled destinations.
Following the end of World War II, Albania was established as a hermit, isolated, Communist government led by resistance leader Enver Hoxha. After breaking with the Soviet Union, Hoxha chose to take after Maoism instead as well isolating his nation not only from the free market democracies of Western Europe and the United States, but also from the Soviet Union, China, and even Tito’s neighboring Yugoslavia that formed the rest of The Balkans.
Although Hoxha rebuilt post-WW2 Albania, constructed its first national railway, eliminated illiteracy, and advanced women’s rights, he was also known for his oppressive and ubiquitous secret police, who sent 25,000 Albanians to their deaths with forced labor camps, extrajudicial killings and executions. It was not until after his death in 1985 that the first foreigner was allowed to step foot in Tirana for the first time in 1988.
Everyone that you see walking these streets of Tirana is more a less a survivor.
So with Albania’s resurgence into economic freedom, commitment to democracy, and its recent invitation to join NATO in 2010, you would expect here a flurry of newfound confidence, rebirth, and progress here that would usually accompany a city eager to forget its dark, isolated past. However, the city of Tirana remains anything but, permeating with a odd feeling of recent abandonment and residual scars of times past. It reminded me a lot of how I felt when I explored Minsk, Belarus 2 years ago.
After an uneventful night in Ohrid, the group slept for a few hours, getting up at 6:30am just in time to catch the tail end of the Mayweather-McGregor match. We then took 3 cabs at 7am to the Bus Station.
Instead of attempting the public Ohrid-Struga-Tirana route that everyone knows about, we opted instead yesterday to have our hostel in Ohrid prebook and reserve Delfina Tours’ direct 7:30am bus from Ohrid to Tirana for 50 denars/person. We would pay the full 800 denars/person bus fare to the driver when we boarded.
We crossed the border rather quickly at around 8:15am, with the bus driver collecting your passports for the border guards to stamp in and out.
We arrived into Tirana by 10:30am, with the driver asking where you wanted to be dropped off.
. . . That’s right, as of this posting in 2017 there still does not exist an actual official, permanent, bus station within the capital city of Albania. Given that our Tirana hostel was right next to a well-known eyesore/landmark, Pyramid Of Tirana, we chose to be let off here:
Once dropping off our bags and checking in at Cosy Hostel, we had lunch at charming and highly recommended next-door Kafe Librari E, a hybrid café/restaurant/bookstore.
We then started our walking tour by first crossing Lana River north to get to Tanners’ Bridge, an 18th-century Ottoman stone footbridge named after the nearby Tanners’ Mosque.
From there we snaked up George Bush Street through Toptani Shopping Mall. . .
. . . past The Plaza apartment complex . . .
. . . and exited out onto the 30m high Clock Tower, which you can climb up . . .
. . . and 18th century Et’hem Bej Mosque, which is free to enter.
Right by the mosque is the immense Skënderbej Square — Tirana’s equivalent to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — which was closed to all outsiders until 1988.
Northwest of the square is The National History Museum, most notable for its large mural mosaic titled The Albanians that depicts storied ancient to modern figures throughout Albania’s history.
Heading south from here down Ihrahim Rugova Street, we took a stop at Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral that was completed in 2012.
Then we strolled down a leafy pedestrian mall . . .
. . . and paid the $4 USD/person entry fee to explore Bunk’Art, a Hoxha bunker converted into an underground museum that depicts life during communist Albania.
If you weren’t aware, during his rule Hoxha’s paranoia led him to force the construction of over 172,000 bunkers in Albania to defend anything that could be defended — graveyards, city streets, beaches, playgrounds, schools — with the belief any Albanian could man these bunkers and defend their country during war. However, not a single one of his monstrosities was used for their intended purposes during his lifetime, leading many to ridicule his decision for draining much of the country’s economy for an totally unnecessary venture.
They make for great, kitschy museums though.
After about 45 minutes here, we swung by funky public art installation, Cloud Pavilion:
We then crossed one of the many wide open streets of Tirana to stroll through interestingly named Taiwan Pool (nobody we asked knows why it’s named after Taiwan).
We then crossed the Lana River again and headed down south 2 blocks to visit Enver Hoxha’s Former Residence.
Perhaps out of irony or out of mockery towards Hoxha that would cause him to turn over in his grave, his former residence is located in Blloku, an upmarket part of Tirana known for casinos, bars, cafés, restaurants, and high-end shopping.
We then turned a corner and walked back east along Rruga Abdyl Fresheri to take a look at Albania’s Congress Hall:
We then turned the corner again and headed back up north along Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit for 1 block to take a peek at Postbllok – Checkpoint, a memorial installation dedicated to the political prisoners who lost their lives during Communist isolationist Albania.
The memorial is composed of one of Hoxha’s enigmatic bunkers, concrete supports from the mine at the notorious Spaç labour camp, and part of The Berlin Wall from Postdamer Platz.
Finally, it’s a diagonal up northeast through the park to reach Pyramid of Tirana, a former museum that was supposed to be dedicated to Hoxha (as it was designed by Hoxha’s daughter). It was then turned into a conference center, a nightclub, a TV station, and now unofficial and heavily dilapidated and vandalized homeless shelter.
Feel free to climb up to the top as long as you have the proper footwear.
Getting down might be the hardest part.
And with that, we concluded our 2 hour walking tour of Tirana’s City Center.
I have to note that the entire time, many of us felt an odd energy pervade throughout the entire city, making it feel like we were wandering through a place that had seen so much transformation and drama, only for it to become a hollow shell of a former potential. Perhaps it was the stifling summer heat keeping everyone indoors or that it was a Sunday, but even the design of the city made walking these streets feel pretty desolate compared to other livelier cities that we had visited in The Balkans.
And yet, our opinions may still change when we head out in a few hours for dinner at Era and drinks at Shisha Room. . . .
- At time of posting in Tirana, Albania, it was 80.6 °F - Humidity: 53% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny