Tirana, beautiful and sad, sad and beautiful; times that will be remembered

Spring has arrived in Tirana. The mimosas are blooming. The sky is blue and the sun is shining over the horizon. The heights and the slopes of the Dajti Mountain covered with a thin layer of snow. This year spring has found the city deserted like never before. My daughter and I are dancing, spinning around to the beautiful sounds of tunes of the tv swisspop music inside our appartment; my husband and our son each on their tasks; all in the dining room. Beautiful and sad; sad and beautiful at the same time. United like never before.

Schools, businesses, churches, mosques are closed. Time has stopped. The people confined in their homes. Tirana at the time of the coronavirus. A time to be remembered. And all this, in the time of democracy and coronavirus.

330 people are reported to be infected by the deadly virus, some are in the hospitals and others are isolated in their homes. 20 have died so far. Who knows how many are infected at large?! The contagion has found the poor country unprepared.

The main city’s avenue, the reknown Boulevard of Heroes, Skenderbeg’s Square and St. John Paul Street are empty and deserted at the time when I am walking. No tourists taking photos around. We used to see them a lot in the last years. Albania and Tirana had just started creating a place for itself among the Europe’s southeastern destinations trying to break into the dificult established tourism market. The country and its charms do not seem to work at the time of the coronavirus!

For the first time I could hear the singing of birds. No more cars and city noises. Nature takes over again and seems to take its rights back.

The cafes and restaurants are closed. This city does not make sense without them. The country does not have other established industry than these restaurants and cafes. The capital city lives thanks to them and they used to make Tirana such a beautiful and vibrant city. Notes of closures are displayed everywhere on the windows and doors of the cafes. The Cafe Bar Komiteti, whose name is a reminiscence and suggestive of the communist party political bureau committee shows the following note: “We like money but we like you even more, for your wellbeing Komiteti is closed as of today until further notice. Stay in your homes and drink a glass of raki and make much love”. But can we think of it in these times of contagion?! I wonder while holding the camera in my hands. The virus will be gone; it lives and lasts shorter than dicatorships.

Rare are people who think about the street cats and dogs in general. At these times of confinement, who could think that such a strange and beautiful sort people exist in my lovely Tirana?! But they do. I could tell it from the plates of food left at the the places frequented by the city’s street dogs and cats that have been abandoned and forgotten in the old derelict houses waiting to be swallowed by the real estates developers soon. They are heroes of my city.

Photography by Albi Beqiraj, animal rights activist

How long is this going to last?! Are we afraid, bored, tired?! Deep in my heart I know that this will end one day too, soon. Tirana will be Tirana again. She will come back to me brighter than ever.

Everything will be alright.

Arta Zimaj

The streets of Tirana

Some of the streets in Tirana are so lovely. The small markets of fruits, flowers and books are almost in every corner of the city.

Everytime I pass by the St. John Paul’s street, I see the flower lady selling seasonal fresh flowers for a low price of 200 lk or 300 lk. She and her flowers are like a framed picture, giving so much life and colours in that street.

Next to the flower lady, at Ismail Qemali street is the man who sells books. He comes at his corner everyday, except on rainy days, with his bicycle. He has a good selection of books of known foreign and native writers including children books. His favorite genre by the way is fabula.

We say our goodmornings every day. They are both very kind. Today, this is what I got for myself. Aren’t they lovely?!

Tirana tells stories: One day in the capital city of Albania

Mir禱dita! Hello as they say in English! So you arrived in Tirana safe and sound and wondering what one must visit here in the city. Probably you are very curious to know what this city has to offer!

This selection of things to do and see in Tirana rounds up some of most diverse and inspiring places of the city providing insights into how this city is different and exceptional from the other European capitals. The capital city of Albania, the Rock Garden of Southeastern Europe as the country was once called by one of his prominent intellectual of the beginning of the last century, invites us to this journey through the city.

How does the Scanderbeg Square with its small mosque look like? Or how a bunker was turned into a museum of art to remind us the totalitarian regime? Take a walk by the pyramid and continue all the way to the boulevard. We went to these places accross Tirana and found inspirations that will enchant you.

The locations could hardly be more diverse nor could be the views. They show how the city lived in the past and how vibrant is today aspiring to be a western capital through its many restaurants and coffee places with an unique architectural mix of different styles. This selection exhibits the effects of an aesthetic evolution. It also shows the pace of modernity the city and its inhabitants are trying to catch.

If you are visiting the city, here are the things that you should not miss in Tirana:

  • Visit the Skanderbeg Square

The Skenderbeg Square is the main Square in Tirana, surrounded by a mix of Fascist Italian-style buildings, Soviet buildings, Ottoman mosques. The National Museum , the Opera building, the Ottoman time clock tower and the Et’hem beu Mosque are the main buildings on the square. The square is called after Gjergj Kastrioti, Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albanians. The Albanian nationalism is inspired by his existence. You can take a tour and visit each of them.

The National Historical Museum features a building of Soviet Aesthetic Architecture with in front a monumental mosaic inspired by socialist realism.  The work is supposed to reflect and promote the ideals of the socialist Albanian society representing their aspirations to Independence and Identity.

  • Visit the Bunkart

In a walking distance from the Skenderbeu Square is Bunkart (a literary device in which the words “bunker” and “art” are joined together). During the Communism it served as a Nuclear Shelter for the Minister of Interior. Today the bunker serves as a museum of memories with an inscription of Primo Levi, the Jewish holocaust survivor, written at the entrance of the excellent artistic installation : “All those that forget their past are condemned to relive it”. The Bunkart alerts us to the warning signs with its many objects, relicts of remembrance, photos of people that were prosecuted and documentaries evidencing the horrors of Communist era. The Passage 2 (the Shelter had 4 corridors) confronts you with the bitterness, sadness, fear, strange emotions when reading the texts and watching the pictures relating to the activities of the communist secret police “Sigurimi” with its “36 ways of torture” used during the investigative stages against the “enemies of the people”. It teaches us that we are the ones who “create the monsters, applaud them, follow them, put them on a piedestal and afterwards the monsters feel so powerful that they don’t want to leave us anymore”. It is interesting to note that the museum was full of foreign tourists and, at the time of my two-hours visit, no Albanian visitors could be seen. Are the Albanians still afraid of the spectres of the past!? Are they not ready to confront the remembrance of the time?. These inner questions arose during my visit.

A must see: entrance fee around 3.70 Euro per person.

  • Castle of Tirana

The Castle of Tirana is an old castle since the Byzantine times. It is located not far from the Skenderbegs square. Inside the walls of the castle are few modern restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. It is a convenient place to go for a walk and enjoy a cup of coffee, ice cream, or the delicious dishes in the restaurants there. It is a very popular place for locals to hang out there too. In case you would like to buy a souvenir, something Authentic Albanian, in the Castle of Tirana you will find the best gift.

  • Take a walk by the Pyramid

The Pyramid of Tirana planted in the centre of Tirana is an emblematic building-museum, a city landmark, that the communist dictator erected to his glory. After the fall of the regime, it closed to later house a base of the NATO, a nightclub and TV studios, reflecting somehow the cultural changes of a society in permanent search for itself, for money, for aesthetics. Although not very beatiful to many tastes, it is a top attraction for tourists who, together with city teenagers and lovers killing their time there, experience the climbing. It failed to be demolished by previous city authorities but saved by the inhabitants. It will experience a renaissance by becoming an information technology center in the Albanian capital that changes all the time.

To be visited before it gets architecturally transformed by a Dutch Architecture Company.

A Beautiful Escape to the Cape of Rodoni

If you are visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, you must also visit the Cape of Rodoni especially during the summer. Why? Because the Cape of Rodoni is only one and a half hours drive by car north from Tirana. You can also easily travel north from Durres to the Cape of Rodoni. Not only is it an historical location but it has some of the most beautiful beaches in Albania that you and your family will enjoy.

My family and I visited the Cape of Rodoni for the first time last summer. We were so impressed by the beautiful scenery on our way from Lalzi Bay through the villages to the Cape of Rodoni.  From the top of the mountains you can see down to the Adriatic Sea with its almost deserted beaches, a few fishermen sailing their boats, here and there some cows, sheep and goats, so authentic and natural. One thinks that time has stopped at some point of history on an undefined piece of Earth.

There are two famous beaches there, Rera e Bardhe beach and also the beach near the so called Skenderbegs church administered by the Franciscan Order. Both of the beaches are really beautiful. The kids love to swim at the Rera e Bardhe beach, and you can also enjoy a very delicious lunch at the small improvised restaurant of Gezim who welcomes you with a hearty smile, so typical of Albanian hospitality.

Rera e bardhe beach

Probably you have already heard of the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, also known as Skenderbeg. He resisted the Ottomans for many years in the 15th century.  After his death, Albania succumbed to Ottoman domination. The Albanian nationalism is based on his existence.  St. Anthonys church, also called by the villagers as Skanderbegs Church, can be found on the Cape of Rodoni. 

St. Anthony church

The residents of the villages nearby say that Skenderbeg got married in this church with his wife Donika. The church became a cultural monument in 1963 and serves as a shrine of pilgrimage every year on the eve of St. Anthony’s celebration. Those who believe in the miraculous intercession of St. Anthony may attend the prayers on the eve of June 12th.

The Cape of Rodon also boasts the Rodon Castle built by Skanderbeg, destroyed by the Ottomans to then be rebuilt by the Republic of Venice.  Only sparse remnants of the structure with melancholy remain to this day trying to resist the eternal and unstoppable sea waves.

A small entrance fee is to be paid. At the beach you can enjoy the very authentic food of a small restaurant and as a souvenir you can buy their homemade liquor made by the peasants who were taught the craft by an Italian catholic priest of the parish. 

The Cape of Rodoni has not been a very frequent destination until this day. It seems to have become such recently. It is our favourite family destination. It is not far from Tirana and when travelling there, we feel as though we are making a great escape to rebel against the capital in an attempt to find true Albania, in search of lost time.

Thank you for reading my blog!

Much love,

Arta