My first impressions of Tirana in 2008, were that the city did not look like anything I’ve ever seen before. Outside of the planned central core, buildings, new and old, were shooting up randomly, making the drive around the outskirts a vertiginous experience.
The whole city was marked by almost five decades of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist isolationism and its chaotic aftermath. There were bunkers, grand boulevards, a Pyramid dedicated to the dear leader, and, finally, dilapidated facades with so many ad-hoc alternations, that they look like a part of an actual architectural movement (maybe “Tirana postmodernism”?). Sadly, the only things missing were remains of old Tirana, most of which was levelled or left to rot in the fight against bourgeois mentality.
Although not conventionally pretty the city had its charms, but they were mostly due to Tirana’s friendly and lovely population, who fill up its many excellent cafes and restaurants, for some of the world’s best espressos and Trilece.
When I returned almost ten years later, the city was revamped almost beyond recognition with many smart facelifts around the old core by local and foreign architects. Of course, many old problems remained, from illegal buildings to water shortages, but the city was bent now on becoming a contemporary, open city.
The recent reconstruction of the central Skanderbeg square according to the plans by a Belgian studio 51N4E and local contemporary artist Anri Sal, is poetic, and if not exactly practical, it is still one of the most stylish large-scale municipal interventions in the Balkans. New Bazaar, previously a colourful if pungent market, was also remade into a sleek and bustling area with cafes and restaurants, but still maintaining its old functions. New Plaza hotel tower, again designed by 51N4E, is alluringly curvy and ingeniously integrates an old Turbe at its base. Finally, there is “Cloud”, a pavilion designed by Sou Fujimoto for London’s Serpentine Gallery, and a lot of obvious effort in making the city greener and more pleasant.
The driving force behind the face lift was a motivated, enthusiastic team from the Tirana city hall, who I had a pleasure of meeting. Rather than typical burly and boastful Balkan bureaucrats, this was an energetic, smart and pleasant bunch.
All in their 30s and mostly foreign-educated, they were proud of making their hometown a batter place, not only with their cosmopolitan tastes, but also more efficient work ethos. They told me about an app that helps citizens navigate Tirana better, but also about the planned reconstructions of a disused factory and a film studio, for which they enlisted architecture students from some of the world’ best universities.
The openness and stylishness of Tirana’s city hall team was in no way at odds with the rest of the society. On a Friday night, Hemingway, a charmingly rustic jazz and cocktail venue, was projecting an old film onto a nearby façade. Radio Bar, the current hotspot, was full of stylish Tiranians chilling over wine.
Looking at impeccably dressed people were walking from bar to bar around (Ish-)Blloku, a part of town previously reserved for the communist grandees, it was heartening to see the city transformed after decades of isolation and turmoil. Tirana’s confidence in becoming an open, cosmopolitan city is admirable, and justifies spending a few days in this remarkable city.
- Skanderbeg Square and Et’hem bey Mosque
- House of Leaves
- Bunk Art 2
- Orthodox Cathedral
- New Bazaar
- Artifical lake and park
- Dajti mountain
- “Taiwan” park
Eat and drink:
- Tirana Times Book house/café
- Radio Bar
- Skanderbeg Brandy
- Ismail Kadare’s fantastic novels