Tirana, Durrës and Berat, Albania

June 14th - 19th, 2023

I took a direct flight on Lufthansa from Munich to Tirana, which is only a 1.5 hour flight. Albania became the 103rd country in my collection. I had five nights in Tirana, but did an overnight trip to North Macedonia, which left me with three full days in Albania, two of which I spent in Tirana, and one on a day-tour to the ancient cities of Durrës and Berat.

I stayed in the spectacular looking Marriott Tirana Hotel. The building is part of the national Stadium. So it can get a bit loud during football matches.

Tirana was a fairly small and unimportant city until 1911, when it was declared the capital of the newly independent country of Albania. It is quite a modern city, with no significant historical landmarks, but lots of interesting modern buildings. This is the Orthodox Cathedral with the Archaea Tower (completed in 2021) in the background.

On my first day I joined a free walking tour. It was the first time I did one of those, and I really enjoyed it. The two hour walk through the city was led by an American woman who had been living in Tirana for many years. has similar tours in most cities around the world. You can sign up to these tours in advance, but it's usually OK to just turn up. The tours are generally free of charge, but the guides do appreciate a tip. We started the walk at the huge Skanderbeg Square in the center of Tirana.

The square is overlooked by the statue of Gjergj Skanderbeg, Albania's national hero, who was a military commander in the 15th century. He successfully led a revolt against the Ottoman empire, and apparently never lost a battle in his life.

One of the more unusual landmarks in the city is the Piramida, which was constructed under the communist regime as a museum to the late dictator Enver Hoxha. It is now being transformed into an educational center, and is a popular place to watch the sunset from the top.

A strange oddity in Albania are these small mushroom-shaped bunkers that can be found not only in Tirana, but all over the country. Enver Hoxha, who was Albania's Stalinist dictator for more than 40 years, had closed and isolated Albania completely from the rest of the world, including the Eastern Bloc (because he felt the Soviet Union was not communist enough). In his paranoia he had almost 200,000 of these bunkers built across the country (on average 5.7 of them per square kilometer), in order to be prepared for a potential Soviet attack. How these tiny concrete bunkers with an entrance in the back, were supposed to stop the Red Army is not clear.

This is the presidential palace, which was repainted in coral with yellow crosses, based on a design by the current president, who apparently fancies himself as a bit of an artist.

There is still some impressive communist art to be found in the city, like the huge mosaic above the National Museum celebrating the history of Albania.

This new building, which will be the highest in Tirana, I thought was really cool. The strange shape formed by the protruding balconies is an outline of the map of Albania.

The catholic cathedral is another modern building, that's not much to look at from the outside, but quite elegant and beautiful on the inside.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Tirana. Though not very large, it is quite a cosmopolitan, lively and fun city, with lots of great restaurants and bars, that all have outdoor seating. It is also a very safe city, with very little crime, since as my guide told me, "We send the Albanian criminals abroad to work there.". If the country could improve its overall economic situation, I think Tirana will become a very livable city, that will attract a lot of people from all over the world.

Day trip to Durrës and Berat
I had a day trip booked through Viator. I was picked up in the morning and we first drove towards the coast to the old capital of Albania, Durrës. Today, Durrës is the second largest city in the country with a population of 175,000. It is also one of the oldest cities in Albania, with a recorded history of more than 2,500 years. Founded by Greek settlers from Corinth, the city later became part of the Roman and then the Byzantine Empire. The main site to see in Durrës is the large and impressive Roman amphitheatre located right in the center of the city, surrounded by residential buildings.

Built in the 2nd century AD under emperor Trajan, this was the largest amphitheatre built by Rome in the Balkans, and had space for 20,000 spectators. The structure was completely covered by other buildings in the 16th century, and only rediscovered in 1966. Large parts of it have been restored since then, and you can even walk through the catacombs underneath.

After Durrës we drove about two hours south to the ancient town of Berat, located in the central southern part of Albania. Berat is a remarkably well preserved example of Ottoman architecture. Overlooked by the ruins of a 13th century castle, the mostly two-story white houses are nestled against the steep hillsides along both sides of the river Osum. The city also contains many mosques, catholic and orthodox churches located right next to each other, which is very typical for Albania's long tradition of openness and peaceful coexistence of different religions. Berat was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

The city is overlooked by the ruins of the castle. The first Berat Castle was burned down by the Romans in 200 BC, and it was rebuilt in the 5th and 6th century under the Byzantine Empire. The current structures are mainly from the 13th century.

You can reach the castle by car, and then walk around the extensive ruins, and enjoy the spectacular views of the town and the river below and the huge mountains in the background.

There are a couple of beautiful Byzantine churches, one sitting right next to the castle near the top, and one perched on a small ledge in the almost vertical cliff face.

Overall I was really impressed by Albania, and I probably didn't even see the most beautiful parts, which are the mountainous areas in the North. It is a very safe and currently very cheap country. If they can somehow stop or reverse the extensive brain-drain of young people leaving in droves, I think the country has great potential to be a major tourist destination just like its northern and southern neighbors, Croatia and Greece.

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