Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tirana, Albania

Tirana is the capital of Albania and has over 750,000 residents. Tirana is located almost right in the center of the country. It's a six hour (€20/$27) bus ride from Prishtina.

The Tirana area has been inhabited since Paleolithic times but the city wasn't founded until 1614 and it didn't become the capital city until 1925.

Skanderbeg Square is the city's main square. It was completed in 1929 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Albania's national hero. Skanderbeg managed to create an independent Albanian princedom for 25 years. Albanians consider him to the father of the country and the one who saved all of Europe from the Ottoman Empire. There was also a Skanderbeg monument in Prishtina. At the main square is the opera, the national history museum, the Et'hem Bey Mosque and some government buildings. Right now the square is a full on construction zone. The entire square is being renovated with funds from Kuwait. No one seems to know when the project will be finished.

The Et'hem Bey Mosque was built in 1789. Not only did it survive WWII but it managed to escape the communist crack down on all things religious. The frescoes on the outside depict trees, waterfalls and bridges which I'm told is rare in Islamic art because still life isn't the usual subject matter. The inside is small but well worth a visit.

Behind the mosque is the 35 meter (~115 ft) clock tower. It was built in 1830. For a long time it was the tallest structure in town. The USA provided the funds to restore it. Albania is a poor country but apparently has lots of friends. America paid for the clock tower, Kuwait is taking care of the square, I was some university building renovations under way compliments of Italy and few historic sites are currently funded by the EU.

Not far from the main square is an area called the bllock (block). An entire block of the capital was off-limits to the general public until 1991. During communism this is where the party leaders lived and there were armed guards to keep average people out. Today the area is filled with cafes, shops and pubs and is home to the nightlife scene.

In 2007, George W. Bush became the first U.S. President to visit Albania. He even has a street named after him. At least Prishtina has a boulevard name President Clinton. Anyway, on George W. Bush Street is the Statue of the Unknown Partisan. It was built to honor all of the people who died fighting the fascists in WWI. Today, this is where day laborers hang out waiting for work.

The National Art Gallery was looted in 1997. The current collection covers 13th century icons to modern art. There is a large section containing socialist art from the 1940s to the 1990s when the government dictated the subject matter. Behind the museum are the last statues of Lenin and Stalin.

Enver Hoxha was the country's ruler for almost 40 years. When he died, his daughter and son-in-law designed a museum called the Pyramid which opened in 1988. The marble and glass building was allegedly the most expensive building in Albania. After the regime changed the building became a conference center and then a disco called "The Mummy".  NATO used it during the Kosovo crisis. In front of the Pyramid is the Bell of Peace as a memorial to the country's struggle. Schoolchildren collected bullet cases, in the 1990s, from which the bell was forged. The government was to demolish it and use the space for more parliament buildings. It's a real eyesore.

The National Museum of History has a huge mosaic illustrating the country's history from the Illyrians to the partisans of WWII. The first part of the museum's exhibits are labeled in Albanian and some also have French translations, but no English. In the second part of the museum the French is replaced by the occasional English caption. I had heard that this was the best place to get more information on the totalitarian years. So this was the whole reason that I went to the museum. It sure wasn't to see the usual collection of Balkan prehistoric arrowheads. I made it up to the middle of WWII and the museum ended. The whole final third of the museum is closed for renovation. Nice that there was no mention that 1/3rd of the museum is closed when you purchase a ticket. I mentioned that the entire reason I came to the museum was to see the section that was closed. A staff member asked me where I was from. After I said the USA, she told me not to worry because it would re-open one day. I still don't really get the connection but whatever. At least the admission price was only 200 lekë (~$1.92).

The Martyrs' Cemetery is up on a hill that overlooks the city. This is where 900 partisans who died in WWII are buried. It is also home to a 12 meter tall statue of Mother Albania. Enver Hoxha was buried here in 1985 but his remains were moved to another cemetery in 1992.

Albanians are the worst drivers in Europe. Never again can I complain about how bad Czech drivers are. Until 1991, only communist party officials were allowed to drive or own cars. There were only 600 cars in the whole country. My Albanian colleague at work says that they went from donkeys to Mercedes overnight. All of a sudden there was a flood of second-hand cars but there were no traffic rules, no driver's licenses, no traffic lights and zero enforcement. I have never been so scared in my whole life of just crossing the street. The drivers that do slow down or stop aren't really worried about pedestrians. They are simply worried about denting their cars. I found that the safest thing to do was wait until other people crossed the street and simply use them as human shields.

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