I admit it. I’m not a city person. I’m just not. I nestled myself into the suburb of Lake Zurich, Illinois as a single girl, without a family of my own because living in a city just holds no appeal for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love cities for the culture and the opportunities, but to live… it’s just too hectic for me. I’d rather live in a country feeling place- admittedly with conveniences… but I love the quiet. So, to be honest, going to Tirana wasn’t a huge priority… it was a stopping point between Sarande and Kotor. Well, wow I’m so glad that I did. Tirana has an incredible history- and I highly recommend the free walking tour that starts from Skanderberg Square and takes between 2-3 hours walking around the city. The guy who does the tour is amazing, he goes through detailing it’s complicated past, the present and ideas of where he would love to see it go in the future.
I met Tabitha on the bus from Sarande to Tirana – a fellow American traveling on her own, and we decided to meet up for the tour in the morning. I’m so happy we did! She ended up being a great travel buddy for the day. We walked about 10 miles around Tirana seeing the sights, looking at the quirky street art, the random bunkers around the city and, I “helped” her move to her new airbnb from her hotel and got surprised with some beautiful views of the city from her gorgeous terrace. One of the coolest things we did was to go to a museum called “Bunkart 1” it is a museum that is in an old war bunker- of which there are 177,000 bunkers throughout Albania- the brainchild of the dictator Hojxa (spelling?) who was paranoid about nuclear war. It’s said that when they were all completed there was one bunker per 11 citizens of Albania. Well, this museum was absolutely incredible and provides an eerie step back in time (not that far, really). From the sound effects as you enter the hole in the side of the mountain, to the flickering lights, and the cool, dampness that couldn’t be manufactured, my heart raced a little and thought that perhaps this was all a trick and we would be locked in this bunker forever! Walking down, down, down the steps, we stepped through one, two, three fortified cement and steel doors that looked like hatches in a submarine. We navigated through narrow corridors, peeking in the rooms that had been designed to give you a timeline of Tirana’s history. There was no way to read everything, so we glanced at military uniforms, propaganda signs, looked at what a typical living space in the bunker would have been like, and even were able to be in a mustard gas simulation. By the time we surfaced, over an hour and a half later, we were slightly disoriented and our heads were full of information… we walked to the bus stop musing over what we just had experienced and still couldnt believe how recent the history of conflict has been in this country (1990s) After all the “heavy” we were ready for a break from the heat and the history, so we decided to take a little afternoon break and then meet up to watch the World Cup game (Russia v Croatia) in the Square.
After my nap (god, I’m old) I was heading out of the hostel and ran into a group of people headed down to the square too. It’s amazing how you become fast buddies with people you share common space with. The only thing I can compare it to is my college dorm. You happen to share this common space with a common goal and you can’t help but get to know people and want to have experiences with them. So we excitedly walked down to the square, passing vibrant cafes with people all gathered around television sets ready to see who would be in the final match. By the time we got to the square, the place was packed with people. It was like watching the Super Bowl, but in Times Square. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people were talking, drinking, eating and getting geared up to watch the huge screen that was put at the end of the square. It really was a cool thing to be a part of. Tabitha and I met up and darted off to grab some food- an experience in and of itself! We sat down at one cafe and they were out of everything- so we chugged our beers and literally moved over two tables and were in another grill place. We had a great dinner of grilled meat, a pickle salad and potatoes. Tabitha and I talked about traveling solo as a female, places we’ve been and things we’re excited to do in the future. It truly does amaze me the travel magic that happens when meeting and being with other people in foreign countries.
Making our way back to the square, we joined the group of people and watched with baited breath the shoot out at the end- being in the Balkans, I was definitely cheering for Croatia and it was so great to see them win! There was a chorus of cheers from some Croatians sitting next to us.. off went their shirts and they looked like they felt as if THEY personally had won the match, they were so excited. It was amazing to be a part of.
There is something magical about Tirana, more than I can possibly describe here. I met and hung out with some incredible people. By the time I went to sleep, I was so incredibly mesmerized by this city, the people I had met… I felt as if I was walking on a cloud. Tirana- Albania- I leave a piece of my part in your beautiful city and country as a whole… I hope to be back very soon.