FANCY a holiday in Albania? Bet there weren’t many people 25 years ago who would have considered that.
But things are very different now. Since it emerged from Communist rule in 1992, the country has grasped the chance to show off its new, liberated image to everyone. It really is one of the friendliest places you’ll ever visit. And its capital Tirana is one of the most fascinating cities in Europe for a short break or longer family holiday.
Tirana is many things to many people and has been at the centre of various power struggles between the giants of Europe for centuries. It’s wasted no time in realising the potential rewards of welcoming tourists from all round the world and its residents clearly relish their new found openness and freedoms. And the result is a city which refuses to be pigeon-holed. Walking round the streets of the city you could be in Soviet Russia one minute, then early 20th century Italy, then the 19th century Ottoman empire – all these styles come together in a fabulous mix of atmospheres and cultures. It’s a quirky side to Tirana which locals are rightly proud of.
The religious buildings are a wonderful mix of Christian and Muslim shrines, reflecting its varied heritage and multi-cultural nature. There is also a pulsing nightlife scene and Tirana is famous for its all night café culture. Skanderbeg Square is the social and cultural centre of Tirana, an excellent place for people watching and absorbing the daily life of the city. The famous Equestrian Statue is located on the Southern Side of the Square.
In the heart of the Mediterranean, on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Albania is fast becoming one of the world’s most interesting getaways. Still relatively unspoiled by globalization, tourists will notice an inspiring mixture of civilizations and cultures – making this European country truly unique.
SHOPPING IN TIRANA
Upscale shops have started to spring up in order to compete with other chic tourist destinations. Local ceramics, crafts, jewellery and food items continue to offer an experience of the native cultural flair.
The Universe Shopping Centre is a brand new spectacular shopping outlet, located just west of the city centre. More than 13,600 square metres makes it one of the Balkans’ largest such centres. A free shuttle runs daily between the National Museum and Universe every 20-30 minutes from 8 am–10 pm.
Central Market is a gourmet food paradise, where local cheese, meat, fruit, honey and home-made raki can be found.
The Sheraton Shopping Centre is a small mall connected to the Sheraton Hotel. There is a popular café and restaurants on site, along with several up market shops. For ceramic and jewellery go to the Bulevardi Gjergj Fishta area, which consists of several blocks of excellent ceramic and jewellery stores.
EATING OUT IN TIRANA
Albanian cuisine is surprisingly good, a mix of Mediterranean and Balkan traditions, with plenty of fresh fish on the menu. Dining in Tirana is still affordable and even more upmarket restaurants a main course will not cost too much.
Besides offering local food, many restaurants across Tirana, especially in the more fashionable parts of town, serve international cuisine, including fast food. For a budget meal, among the best places to visit are the many restaurants around Skënderberg Square and on Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit.
Tirana’s nightlife scene is not as vibrant as in other major cities but that’s not necessarily a bat hand it is improving fast. Locals usually mill around for the earyevenng xhiro (mass evening stroll), and finish up at the bustling blloku area. There’s a fine line between cafés, bars and clubs in Albania, and some venues officially listed as cafés or bars are known to be basically clubs by another name beause of the hurs they keep and the party scene they encourage.
To be honest, Albanians prefer sipping strong bitter coffee to serious alcohol drinking, and you might find yourself the only drinker in the place!