October 10-12, 2011: Tirana didn’t make it onto my initial itinerary for Albania – I figured I’d arrive on one bus, cross town, and leave on another. This might not have been such a good plan. “Bus station” doesn’t mean quite the same in Albania as it does in other European countries. Even the guide books tell you that the locations they list need to be verified on the ground. And the locations for mini-buses or shared taxis, which might leave at more friendly hours than the buses, are even more fluid.
Once I gave up on the coast, and decided to spend a couple of days in the capital, I saw a fair amount of the city just checking out bus locations. The dusty and forlorn train station was fairly easy to track down, since it, obviously, had not moved, and I found a couple of bus parking lots nearby, but really the best solution was to use a taxi and rely on the driver’s local knowledge. Although I had arrived by bus (after a long and boring drive only enlivened by conversation with the tour guide seated next to me) it had dropped me on a street south of my hotel that bore no relation to the locations I needed for north-bound transport.
Tirana largely lived down to my expectations. True, the staff at my hotel were friendly, and it had a reasonable restaurant. True, the views from the revolving bar at the top of the Sky Tower were good. True, the main square, with its statue of Skanderbeg, hero of the 15th century resistance to the Turks, may be impressive when its renovation is complete, but meanwhile it’s a dangerous construction zone, where pedestrians risk a turned ankle or a close encounter with a bulldozer. Otherwise I found the History Museum uninspiring and the architecture mostly unimpressive.
Following a tip from a backpacking couple I met in Saranda, I spent the morning of my one full day in Tirana out of town at the mountain village of Kruja, Skanderbeg’s birthplace. Unfortunately, I didn’t read my guidebook carefully enough, and wound up taking a bus to Fushe Kruja, at the foot of the mountain, instead. I had a long wait for the minibus to Kruja to leave, and then discovered that if I had walked a couple of blocks into town I could have taken a taxi.
The location is undeniably scenic, with views as far as the coast, but the village, and especially the re-built one-street bazaar, is remarkably touristy. The most prominent building within the castle walls was put up in 1982 by Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law. At least this museum, unlike the strange pyramid they erected in Tirana, was dedicated to Skanderbeg and not Hoxha, but by this time I felt I had seen enough museums dedicated to battles against the Turks and skipped it. I should probably have skipped the Ethnographic Museum as well, although I was interested in the women’s gallery that allowed them to see what the men were up to, but I did find the small Sufi teke evocative. (The teke is mentioned in Bradt, but not Lonely Planet, and you need someone to alert its guardian to unlock it for you.)