Greek and Latin Theranda: the fallen material
Moving on our spontaneous very last minute mini break, after visiting the capital city of Montenegro, Podgorica, where our flight landed; we continued our journey south towards Albania where we would spend the next 2 days visiting the capital, Tirana, the Adriatic coast resort city of Durres, and the marvellous intact Ottoman city of Berat in the middle of the country. Not much time for that many places, but easily manageable since the size of the cities are small and you can do both Tirana and Durres in the same day as they compliment each other. Planning any longer for Tirana would be nonsense as there is not really much to do and visit there.
I must say coming to Albania is been quite difficult over the years hence why we kept postponing it. Flying into Tirana is not a cheap business at all! Perhaps the tax is very high, or there is no other choice from London than the only direct flight with British Airways so no competitive. The great news was to find out the new Ryanair route from London to Podgorica, a great location just 24 kilometres from the Albanian border. However do not even expect good overland transportation between both countries. There is only a bus per day between Podgorica and Tirana in each direction, but the next good news is that you can rent a car in Montenegro and drive it into Albania at a little extra cost for the insurance. With all this information on hand, it was clear this was our chance now.
Tirana is very easy to navigate, either on foot or by car. Most of the city centre was planned in the 1930s following a perfect orthogonal street grid, although this urbanism came at a cost, demolishing many older structures from the Ottoman period, and unfortunately many more were destroyed through the WWII period. What’s there today is not much and that’s the reason you should plan ahead your trip including other places/cities or you will actually face having nothing else to do.
It took us less than a day for being everywhere around, and actually we really enjoyed it! It does have some charm, and lots of new construction going on everywhere. The new business district near the central square, new towers and shopping centres, and restoring old structures are all pointing in the good direction. The best view from the city is by going up the Clock Tower. It costs only 200LEK, and even though this is not a tall place, comparing with the surrounding structures which are low, will let you see a lot more than expected and capture a nice cover picture for your city’s photo album.
Food was great everywhere! So cheap and so big quantities that’s incredible. Grilled meat is their speciality, Qofte or Kofte being served everywhere and delicious (also known as Cevapcici in other Balkan countries), which are small sausages or meatballs in form made of beef. Commonly served with cabbage, onion, yogurt and bread. They do great pies, Byrek, you should definitely give it a try, majority are filled with vegetables, others with meat or mixed. Deserts are also great, shockily they do “tres leches”, something very Spanish and Latin American; you will find them in any of the countless patisseries everywhere in the city (and the country). For sure you will not only enjoy the city itself but also their amazing food.
For more information about Tirana check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Albania’s currency is the LEK. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Tirana
While there is not too much to see in Tirana once you move away from the proper city centre, you will soon notice as you pick a map of the orientation of the city: north-south along both the main boulevards with the central square right in the middle, with the characteristic orthogonal street plan projected by Florestano Di Fausto and Armando Brasini, the well known architects of the Benito Mussolini period in Italy; hence the fascist style of the buildings. Starting from the north:
- Zogu I Boulevard The starting point is the former train station (now dismantled on behalf of the newer one being built). King Zog Statue marks the beginning, however there is really nothing to see in this section until reaching the middle section.
-Faculty of Natural Sciences The first of the “fascist” style buildings is part of the University.
- Skanderbeg Square The most important and central square in the city where majority of the sights are around and nearby in between parks and gardens.
-National Historic Museum Where not only its contents are worth to visit, but also famous for its mosaic in the main front facade. LEK200 to enter. Located at ther north of the square.
-Palace of Culture Which includes the Opera and National Library, was built in communist style in the 1950s.
-Et’hem Bey Mosque Built in 1821 is one of the most beautiful and most important in the whole of Albania.
-Clock Tower Built in 1820 is ranks among one of the oldest constructions still standing, and symbol of Tirana. Behind the mosque.
-City Hall Next after the mosque, in fine Italian fascist style matching in colours with all the buildings in the southern section of the square.
-Orthodox Cathedral Located towards the south of the square is of recent construction (2012).
-Forever Green Tower Right behind the Cathedral is one of the new towers being built in the city with a significant design worth to picture.
-Ministry of Finance and Economy and Internal Affairs Both buildings sit at the very south of the square facing each other, marking the beginning of the Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard. Designed in Italian fascist style.
- Murat Toptani Street This is the main pedestrian street in Tirana, few meters south from the Skanderbeg Square heading east towards George W. Bush Street. Between this street and the Lana River, the section contains some further sights such as:
-National Arts Gallery In the intersection of Murat Toptani with Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard.
-Walls of the Fort of Justinian Some of the very few ancient remains of the original settlement are visible along the eastern section of Murat Toptani Street.
-Toptani Shopping Centre The new shopping landmark in Tirana, impressive outside architecture. Next to the ancient walls.
-Museum House of Toptani Family One of the rare examples left in the city of a traditional Ottoman house. Located few meters south from the ancient walls.
-Parliament Across the road from the House of Toptani.
-New Mosque Recently constructed, it follows the traditional Ottoman style, like those you can see anywhere in Turkey.
-St Paul’s Catholic Cathedral A horror in every sense with that ugly design.
-Lana River It divides north and south at this part of the city. Many bridges cross it over from where there are some nice views, however do not think this is a big river, instead it is a tiny flow with gardens at both sides.
- Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard (Nation’s Martyrs Boulevard) Starting at the southern end from the Skanderbeg Square, it was built by the Italians in the 1930s in fascist and communist architectural style.
-Tirana Pyramid Continuing south across the Lena River you will reach this out of context building. Originally built as a museum dedicated to the former communist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, it is without any use nowadays and decaying.
-Peace Bell At the front of the Pyramid, was created by melting the shells of bullets from 1997.
-Kuvendi Parliament During the communist times it used to be the offices of the Party of Labor of Albania (PPSH). It’s of elegant design.
-Council of Ministers Across the road from the Kuvendi Parliament. Another communist era building.
-Presidency Farther south along the boulevard, almost at Mother Teresa Square. Easy to spot for the heavy guarded and fenced, but visible from the outside.
-Palace of Congress Across the road from the Presidency. Another building for the lovers of communist architecture, although this one has an unique design.
- Mother Teresa Square Located at the southern end of Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard, is the next major square in the city with the last remaining sights to see.
-University of Arts Occupies an entire side of the square with many more buildings behind. It has a nice front facade over the square.
-Archaeological Institute and Rectorate At the opposite side, compliments each other with the Italian fascist architecture.
-Polytechnic University At the very front as the boulevard ends. It completes the great urban design of the entire square.
- Other places not far from Tirana Albania is a long yet small country but full of history on every corner. From ancient archaeological sites and cities to modern cities, nature and landscapes, and resorts along the Adriatic coast. Visiting only Tirana would be a mistake and your judgement would be too poor, however if you try to get to the following sites on your trip then your point of view will dramatically change for the better: Petrela, Durres and Berat. If more time then a visit to the ancient Greek/Roman city of Butrint at the very south end of the country is a must!
-Petrela Castle 16 kilometres south of Tirana is one of Albania’s best preserved castles. With a history of over 2000 years, the current construction houses a great restaurant among its walls.
-Durres The seaside resort of Albania by excellence along the Adriatic Coast is barely 45 kilometres to the west and a good compliment when visiting Tirana. Although do not expect to find many old and historical buildings, but a rather new city with big apartment and hotel blocks along the sea promenade.
-Berat 120 kilometres south of Tirana (on the route west to Durres then south along the only motorway in the country), it is an unique city like no other for retaining absolutely every building from the Ottoman times. The city feels out of place to the point of feel like you are in the back old times of Turkey. It is known by the nickname “the city of the thousands windows”, and once you see it then you will understand why. Check a separate travel guide here.
Mother Theresa International Airport is 17 kilometres north of the city, and connected to the central downtown square Skanderbeg by hourly buses in both directions for LEK250. While flying is actually quite costly (at least the route from/to London), there are many overland bus and rail routes to all the neighbouring countries. Distances are not too big however including the border crossing process it can be a lengthily journey.
The nearest border crossing to Tirana is that to Montenegro, and actually you can now fly to Podgorica on Ryanair’s new route from London (as was our case), and get on a bus to Tirana, or rent a car and cross the border. It is allowed to enter Albania with a rental car from Montenegro as long as you return it back in Montenegro of course. A small extra fee is required to be paid at the rental car office. This is how we planned our trip to Albania and experienced no problems at all.
Within the city there are only urban and suburban buses. These costs LEK30 per ride. However, the city centre and around the old town distances are short, some streets been made pedestrian friendly and absolutely no need for taking any public transportation to go anywhere unless your accommodation is far enough
There is a good selection of hotels of any kind from the top names to the modest ones and all in between. Of course this is not a big choice but good enough with all the big hotel names represented in the city. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Broadway Hotel, at the southwest of the city, still within the main urban core and walking distance to Mother Theresa Square and the major thoroughfare where all the sights are. Definitely a great location! And also a great choice in every sense. The staff was impressively friendly and professional, and very knowledgeable in everything in the local area, speaking fluently lots of languages. The room was very large, neat and clean with a comfortable bed. All was nicely maintained and care in all details. The breakfast although simple was good enough to start the day, Apart from what they have on option at first view, they do also fresh omelettes, fried and boiled eggs to order, they will come and ask you what you wish, the same with the great coffee they serve. Albania I must say was great with excellent coffee everywhere! I will not hesitate in highly recommend you this hotel, and will for sure consider it again.