We found our hotel to be delightful and soon forgot our ‘taxi’ driver. Recently renovated the Hotel Areela was decorated very nicely throughout with plenty of interesting objects dotted about.
We were about ten minutes walk to Skanderbeg Square, the social hub of the city. We had been there almost ten years to the day previously when we had met ‘tiger man’ in one of the funniest encounters of our travels in the region. Read about it by clicking Easy Tiger.
We dearly hoped he would still be plying his trade in the square, but there was a blow. The square was closed off to all but ticket holders to that nights’ concert by marvellous Albanian violinist Shkelzen Doli – click VIOLIN for a little excerpt,. If tiger man was still in business he would have been moved from his normal pitch, how were we to find him?
After securing bus tickets for the next days’ 3pm bus departure to Prizren in Kosovo, we set about exploring. The square was indeed closed off, but more dramatically the huge roundabout that had circled the area Trafalgar Square fashion had all been paved over, turning it into a large pedestrian zone. An underground car park had been built and there was loads more renovation going on. This time scaffolding was metal as opposed to the wooden type we had witnessed a decade before.
There were fences up everywhere obscuring Skanderbeg’s statue, the old mosque, clock tower, museum and opera house. The International Hotel on Boulevard Zog still towered above the rest and had been joined by the almost as tall Plaza Hotel nearby. The museum was shut due to the concert – we imagined our disappointment if we had wanted to visit. We had done so in 2007, a rare but highly enjoyable entry into such an establishment.
That evening we went in search of the Buda Bar that we had enjoyed so much before. I remembered the rough area where the bar had stood on its own in a residential area. Well, we could not find Buda, but there were now dozens of bars, clubs & restaurants in the vicinity. 32 years after the repressive dictator Enver Hoxha, the city was taking off and the younger generation were now extremely well catered for.
We savoured some wonderful Korca dark beer and a vegetarian pizza. We did however have the laughable episode of one arriving covered in ham that we sent back. Almost inevitably a ‘new’ one arrived a few minutes later, with the marks of where the ham had been removed clear to see! Third time lucky thankfully.
We sauntered back around 11 – the place would have remained lively for a good 5-6 hours yet, but we were bushed due to our long bus journey earlier. On the way back we managed to view some of the concert on a big screen. It was really good and with the square all lit up, it made for a memorable scene.
After an early hearty breakfast we had five hours to kill before our bus. We decided to visit Bunk’art, Hoxha’s nuclear bunker that had been turned into a visitor attraction. We took the bus from near the square and for about €0.25 we were dropped a few hundred metres from the entrance.
To get to the attraction, we had to walk through some large gates and down a long tunnel that sloped gradually downwards. The tunnel would have been sealed off to the outside world in the event of a nuclear or chemical attack to enable the privileged few to survive as the masses perished.
The €3 entrance was an absolute bargain. In a similar way to the nuclear submarine base we had visited in Balaklava, Crimea, this was a unique experience, no fragments of pots and coins shown here.
We walked through some corridors to our first port of call – Hoxha’s living quarters, unsurprisingly the largest in the bunker consisting of entrance lobby, living room, office, bedroom & bathroom. It was furnished as it would have been in the ’70s with the TV & radio tuned to propaganda speeches and military parades. The windowless rooms were threadbare, simply decorated, but well lit. You could even pick up the telephone to hear Hoxha barking orders down the other end.
The rest of the place was equally enthralling. Corridors that twisted maze like, metal staircases leading you further below the surface, the loud speaker system crackling into life as it would have done as a primary source of communication.
Many of the rooms that used to house living quarters, signal offices, kitchens, surgeries and the like had now been adapted to house exhibits, photographs, military equipment etc. On had been done up in the typical style of a post war worker, minimalist and with radio tuned to propaganda and the mandated portrait of Hoxha hanging over the fireplace. It reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, but happily there was no Room 101.
One room housed photographs of post war Tirana being visited by the British forces. Dame Vera Lynn blasted out of speakers, an unexpected reminder of home. Another room was pitch black so that you could shut the door and imagine what the windowless bunker would have been like if electricity had failed or been rationed.
BunkArt is rated number one attraction in Tirana and for very good reason. A fabulous experience. BunkArt2 has now been opened in a separate bunker elsewhere in the city. I will visit should I ever be in Tirana a third time.
Nearby was another of Tirana’s top attractions, a cable car taking you high up into the mountains. The ride lasts 15 minutes each way for what was described as the longest such ride in the Balkans. A round trip was €5 and as we just about had sufficient time, off we trotted up the hill to the base station. The views were superb as we glided high above the treetops & farms. There were restaurants and a hotel up top as well as very attractive hiking trails through a national park.
We just had a few minutes to take in the view of the capital below before ascending again.
We did start to fret for a few minutes when we failed to find a taxi with less than an hour to go to our bus to Prizren. Luckily a bus showed after five minutes, giving us time to retrieve our bags from the hotel, buy a nutritious bus lunch of doritoes and coke and even to purchase a take away coffee from the University of Albania (aka UFO) cafe.
Our Metropolitain bus pulled up ten minutes late as it happened, but thankfully was only a third full giving us plenty of room to stretch out and contemplate our visit to Kosovo.