Albania is a Country Just Coming in Out of the Rain… Appreciating Tirana

As mentioned in previous posts, we had a sour taste in our mouths as it related to Albania. From horrible traffic, AiBnB fails, drab cities, and unfriendly inhabitants, we were not that fond of the country. Enter Tirana, the capital. The city brought redemption to Albania, as we were finally accorded the opportunity to learn about the tragic history of the state, which explained why things are the way they are. A violent history, involving government and police spying, plagued the country for decades.

The first day, after we checked into the AirBnB, we struck out to walk the Grand Park of Tirana, which consists of a garden surrounding Lake Tirana. An esplanade lines the northern side of the lake, along with a few cafes, restaurants and a playground. The day before was when we went on the 17 mile uphill hike in Ohrid, and my legs were dead. So of course we opted for a walk that turned into a 9 mile jaunt. That was a good idea, right? Anyway, Lake Tirana is certainly not the most picturesque body of water I’ve ever laid eyes upon. The artificial lake is surrounded by a slightly drab cityscape and the park. While it was cloudy the day we ambled through it, I don’t think sunshine would have made it that much better with regards to the view… it’s just… bleak. A bike path and a walking path follow the waters edge and form a perimeter around the lake, which is precisely what we toured. We encountered several other pedestrians, one of which thoroughly confused me since she was “running” in a down vest, long sleeves and a hood – it wasn’t that cold out. You must be dying of heat exhaustion. So far, Tirana is just as uninspired as the rest of the country. Sheesh!

And then I discovered Bunk’Art.

Bunk’Art… aka. an old bunker below Tirana that has been transformed into a museum. A museum dedicated to the past history of the country, since they embrace their history as opposed to trying to sweep it under the rug like Americans having taken to doing as of late. The museum is split into the law enforcement aspect of Albania’s history and then the military side, and the information is extensive.

“Progress depends on the ability to remember… those who are unable to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

-George Santayana

“Today more than ever, it is necessary that young people know and understand… it is the only way to hope that unspeakable horror is not repeated, it is the only way to get us out of darkness.”

-Elisa Springer

A few Albanian history lessons gleaned from the Bunk’Art museum… the Gendarmerie, or the Albanian police force, was created in December 1925. It was reorganized in 1943 during the war with the intent “to care for the public safety and regulation and to spy for the respecting of law and regulations.” Moral of the Story: The Albanian government was outright acknowledging that it was spying on the citizens of the country to ensure they complied with crazy, biased laws. Then in 1944, these nuts created the Border Police with the purpose to prevent the escape of citizens from the madness. If caught, it was punishable by death! They also blocked the entry of illegals into Albania. The border police was made up of strict “loyalists.” Just to make the border police more frightening, they had a K9 unit, Unit 190, assisting with monitoring the border, as well as surveillance along the fencing of the forced labor camps. No wonder the people here are angry and untrusting looking. Hell, neighbors spied on neighbors using a camera and mic inserted into a hole in the wall separating two apartments. Hotels utilized the same technology – your neighboring room was listening and watching you. 24/7 surveillance was conducted on foreigners and citizens alike! No wonder people fled the country when possible, and the country in general is just a bit desolate.

The National Police Force was formed in May of 1945, and one part of the force was the “Sigurimi,” which was State Security and involved criminal investigations and investigations into state enemies. The Sigurimi killed and arrested and tortured thousands of people during its time. The slimy little bastards recruited with “coercive materials,” and very obviously created a deep animosity and fractures among the Albanian society. This wasn’t just during the wars… in the 80s, officials could not accept that escape to political asylum was as easy as it was. When the Popa family vanished to the Italian Embassy, a maid was recruited to spy on the family to determine how the traitorous clan made their escape! The “Broom to intercept Popa’s family” was an ingenious idea to gather intel. A bug was inserted into the handle of the maid’s broom. In fact, six different bugs were used in the broom, and the strategy was never discovered even with the building being searched for bugs routinely.

“Collaborators of the Sigurimi were citizens who for various reasons accepted to cooperate in order to collect information anonymously on behalf of the Sigurimi against other citizens in order to identify and condemn ‘enemies of the people.'”

On a positive note, the people of Albania were not all bad. When the German occupied Albania, the citizens refused to accede to the occupiers, and instead gave the Jews a safe haven. Nevermind the Albanian government had concentration camps just like the Germans did, but for fellow Albanians, and called them “Camps with barbed wire.” Psychopaths. Plus, Albania also formed the Central Forensic Lab, a state-of-the-art scientific forensic lab that is still in existence today. Though, probably used for good instead of evil now.

As a gift to the people of Tirana, Berlin gave them a piece of the Berlin Wall after it was toppled. They were also given the concrete supports of Spaç Mine, a notorious forced labor camp from 1968 located in the remote mountainous region of the country. The prison was home to political prisoners from all classes of society, and most notably, the highest intellectual minds of the country.

“Losing the past means losing the future.”

On to the other stuff…

One of the days in Tirana, Hubs refused to provide any input into what we would be doing that day like a petulant child, so I planned a little excursion to some of the cafes littered around the city and dragged him along for the ride. First up, Kafe Komiteti. Inspired by Communist area Albania, this cafe is quite unique. And kluttered. It’s also well known for its many different flavors of Raki, a traditional Albanian drink. It’s made with twice distilled grapes and anise, and imbued with an incredible number of things. The high proof libation is consumed without the addition of water, to include being iceless. Unfortunately, half the infusions Hubs wanted to partake of at Komiteti Kafe were unavailable at the time. Granted, we did not know what half the styles were, since the menu was in Albanian, our waiter didn’t speak a lick of English, and our phones wouldn’t connect well to WiFi, not enabling us to Google the words to discern their meanings. A kouple kups of koffee, and some cheap booze samplings later, it’s on to the next kafe!

Mon Cheri was a busy place over near Grand Park Tirana, with some English thrown into the menu. Given all the walking we’d been doing, we were both a ‘titch hungry, so we ordered sandwiches. And a donut for Hubs, because… vices. Certainly not the best sub I’ve ever had, but it’ll do the trick.

Next we moved back into the city to visit Small Tirana, a local spot that was supposed to have more good Raki and other concoctions. Alas, this place was a huge let down because of the staff and clientele. Someone needed to be educated on the use and wonders of deodorant, and another gent was chain smoking indoors – not illegal in the Balkans, and everyone smokes like a two-bit whore. We didn’t even sit down. The smells accosting our nostrils forced us to leave in a hurry.

Our next attempt was Sky Tower, just down the street from our apartment. However, we quickly discovered it was closed, and the hotel it was housed in was under construction. Cafe fail number two.

Ama Caffe Bllok was a quiet little place in the city center, and it did not reek of body odor and cigarettes (automatic win). My lungs thanked me, as did my nasal cavity. We found a table at the back, and of course, indulged in more Raki! We’re not alcoholics, I swear.

Dinner was our continued experience with Tirana’s food industry, and we moseyed on down to Artigiano. A little fancier than the cafe’s earlier in the day, Artigiano featured non-American portions (aka. reasonable portions sizes), and decent ambiance. Except for the children. My disdain of small humans is about to come out here. Sit your damned children down while out in the public purview, and do not allow them to play with things that can be thrown at others. Tennis balls and bouncy toys are not restaurant appropriate. Nor is screaming. Shut your mouth, stop playing with toys, and eat your damned food. Brats. The bottle of wine helped. Rant over.

And that concludes our tour of Albanian cafes and restaurants. Definitely much less harsh on our waistlines than some of our other stops, and we got to try a lot of Raki along the way!

A few more notes on Tirana… driving is agonizingly painful. The roads are clogged with cars navigating the narrow streets. Much like the rest of the Balkan states we’d visited, it’s a free for all. Finding a parking spot is like finding toilet paper during a pandemic. Very elusive. After driving the city for what felt like hours, I invented my own parking space. We sauntered over to a cafe with free WiFi since yet again, we were not given an actual address in which to meet our AirBnB host. Thank god the apartment came with a free parking space around the corner. The host’s Uncle welcomed us to the apartment. He even carried my bags the 5 minute walk to the place after leaving the vehicular device. Of course it was the “penthouse” in an old building with no elevator, so I must say I was quite pleased he ferried my bright orange duffel up for me! The photos of the condo were a bit deceiving. Shocking, I know. While she had revamped the living room area a bit, and remodeled the kitchen, complete with an oven, I had noticed there wasn’t a single picture of the bathroom on her ad. A little bit fishy, but who overhauls everything else, but leaves the lavatory untouched? That’s just asinine. The second I popped my head inside the awkward loo, it became crystal clear why photos had been omitted. The original bathroom was covered in a terrible blue, patterned tile, including a blue toilet. The shower, if you can even call it that, was basically a bowl in the corner with a crummy, ancient shower head haphazardly attached to the wall. Oh, and I should add… there was no curtain to contain the water pouring from the shower head. What the hell?! EVERYTHING got soaked when we attempted to clean ourselves while clumsily cowering in the corner, ineptly striving to restrict the mess. Other than the repulsive little washroom.

^ Traffic, traffic and more traffic. And with that, I have concluded all of the main posts for this Balkan road trip. We spent three full weeks driving these four countries, all of which were places I never thought I would travel to, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Miles and miles of hiking, an abundance of history, and very little English. Four more countries down!

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