red sky tirana

I have all but lost my way lugging my worldly belongings to the Mosaic Home Hostel by Google map when Jessica calls me on Whats App. I tell her my location – a quiet restaurant with a bar and half its tables and chairs outdoor under an awning.

While we wait for our lunch to share, of roast wild boar with potatoes, Jessica pulls out a wonderful surprise of presents for me and the family! Mine is an expensive book we browsed in the bookstore at Skanderbeg Square last night on Enver Hoxha – the communist dictator who ruled Albania and locked her people away from the rest of the world for 40 odd years.

And once again Albania cowered in a hut
In her dark mythological nights
And on the strings of a lute strove to express something
Of her incomprehensible soul,
Of the inner voices
That echoed mutely from the depths of the epic earth.

She strove to express something
But what could three strings
Beneath five fingers trembling with hunger express?

It would have taken hundreds of miles of strings
And millions of fingers
To express the soul of Albania!

Ismail Kadare,  “What are these Mountains thinking About” 

Of the countries in Europe, including former feudal statelets known by their postage stamps and large new nations that arose from the collapse of Communism, none is as mystifying and hard to get your head around as Albania.

On my first visit, to the southern city of Sarande sixteen years ago by boat from Corfu, I was warned that Albania was a dangerous place full of criminals and crazy people. Today although Albania’s fortune and standing have vastly improved, its oddball image remains tangled up with its lingering badass reputation

Gjergj Kastrioti or Skanderbeg – the epic hero of Albanians epitomizes the national character: brave, loyal and vengeful. He was born a Christian, converted to Islam and then reconverted to Christianity to save his people from the invading Turks.

Everything about Albania marks it out as an oddity. It is Europe’s only officially atheist, muslim majority, ex-socialist, now staunchly pro-American country which once only friend and close ally was Mao Tse-Tung’s China. Albanians, or Shqiptare as they call themselves, claim to be the most ancient people in the region and are the direct descendants of the first humans in the Balkans. Their language is obscure and fabulously unique being the sole member of an isolated branch of the Indo-Aryan family that has survived the influence and onslaught of Greek, Latin, and Slavic.

Tirana like a third of Albania on the coastal plains, enjoys a Mediterranean climate but for the rest of the towering two-third of the country winters are sharp and snowy.
The center of Tirana is dominated by the Skanderbeg Square, a 40,000 square meter public space designed and built by Italian architects in the Neo-Renaissance and Fascist styles
Albanians are majority Muslims, many are Christians, most do not make a big deal of the God they pray to or what meal they consume with one another. Pork along with beef is eaten a lot in Albania.

Jessica’s family comes from Kukës, a picturesque lakeside town surrounded by mountains in the country’s northeast. Home for them is now Tirana – a city where she was born and brought up. Jessica sacrifices time to show me her city; supplementing my bookish knowledge with stories about her proud, wonderful but historically traumatised country.

Tribal geography, blood honour coupled with centuries of subjugation, neglect and misrule have gone into creating today’s Albania : a marginal and poor land that is disproportionately abundant, welcoming and generous in human spirit and possibility.

My three nights in Tirana have been tantalisingly short – barely sufficient time to scratch beneath the city’s surface to uncover its hidden past and apprehend its overt idiosyncrasies. But I am closer now to understanding the true meaning of Buk’ e krip’ e zemër (bread, salt and our hearts) – the old Albanian offering to any guest who comes purely and in peace.

Lemons on the rooftop
Expat websites and retirement gurus consistently rank Tirana among the worst cities in Europe to live, but I respectfully disagree with their findings
Morning caffeine the civilised way in Tirana
Tirana away from its usual traffic
Late evening pedestrians at a traffic crossing in central Tirana
A breakfast of omelette with olives and everything nice, freshly prepared for me by the lovely duty person at the hostel
Beer for one
Mother and daughter skipping across Skanderbeg Square
Fast and friendly food and drinks at a busy roadside grill
The face of Tirana across the ages. The tall building in the center is Alban Tower (ATTI) a green glass skyscraper by Archea Associati of Italy that serves as the city’s premium business address.
Albania’s population remains below the three million mark despite a positive birthrate as high number of young people depart annually for better jobs and higher pay overseas.

Although Italy ruled Albania for only a short period in the first half of the twentieth century (as a Protectorate from 1917 – 1920 and as union colony from 1939 – 1943) it left Tirana with its urban design, many beautiful administration buildings and a Southern European feel.

Blloku – the once privileged precinct reserved for Enver Hoxha and his inner circle of communist party loyalists