Tirana embraces urban chaos with a smile. Many of the buildings in the Albanian capital are colorful or eccentric. The local markets have an abundance of fresh produce and local cheese. Vehicle traffic is insane, but there are also many pedestrian friendly areas. The language is all but impossible, yet almost everyone we met was extremely welcoming and accommodating. Tirana is nothing if not interesting.
All of the Balkan cities that we stayed in prior to Tirana have a quaint old town with cobblestoned pedestrian streets. While Pula, Zadar, Split, Mostar, and Budva are all unique, they are more alike than they are different. Despite the relatively close proximity, Tirana has very little in common with them. Many things we experienced reminded me of SE Asia, in both a good and bad way. It barely felt like Europe.
Colorful And Unique Buildings
The most immediately noticeable thing about Tirana is how many apartment buildings are painted in funky color schemes. Apparently a former mayor was an artist who decided that the city needed more color, so he started a campaign to liven up the otherwise drab housing stock. Who doesn’t love splashes of color? We had a lot of fun wandering around and finding these.
It’s not just old apartment buildings though. Currently under construction are multiple high rise buildings that each have some unique architectural feature. It’s almost like there’s some local ordinance preventing the construction of a “normal” skyscraper. In fact, there are at least as many high rise buildings currently under construction as there are existing ones that are functional. With all this construction happening, I imagine the city would look and feel a lot different if we make a return visit.
Fresh Produce And Cheese
Even in the winter, Tirana’s produce markets were overflowing with goodness. The city was filled with all kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables. There were many small-time sellers with a pile of oranges or some green onions, medium-sized stands with a great mix of fruit and vegetables, and several large markets offering groups of sellers with tons of variety including nuts and dates. Everything felt incredibly cheap to us, with stops at our local produce stands providing several pounds of produce for very few dollars.
While some of the wares were different, the abundance reminded me of SE Asia. There was one major difference though. Albania has a ton of fresh local cheese made from cow, sheep, and goat milk. Much of it was stored in brine, similar to blocks of feta. All of the three types of fresh cheese were similar, although there were subtle differences in sharpness and salt content. It was a bargain too, at around $3 per pound. The sellers would normally just pull out a gigantic chunk and show you with their knife where they were going to cut it before slicing. This allowed us the opportunity to buy more or less by waving our hands in one direction or the other, making the cut off point large or smaller.
Every cheese seller offered firmer aged cheese as well, also with the three varieties of milk. Like the fresh cheese, these three types were also reasonably similar but with mild differences in flavor. They were all delicious, albeit a little on the salty side. We ate a bunch of it and just made sure to drink a lot of water.
Tap Water And Old Pipes
Unfortunately, that water wasn’t potable straight out of the tap. It isn’t recommended to drink the tap water in Albania, so for the first time in our European travels, we found ourselves constantly boiling water in our hot pot. Again, just like in Asia. It’s not a huge imposition, especially as we find ourselves drinking more tea in the winter. Plus our winter stay meant that we could walk around for hours without needing to rehydrate on the go. But it was a hassle that we hadn’t dealt with in a while. The older plumbing also means that toilet paper needs to go in the bin instead of being flushed. We haven’t done that for a while either.
Language Is Impossible
Everywhere we go we attempt to learn a bit of the local language. At a minimum, the two most valuable things to know how to say are “hello” and “thank you”. The more we can learn, the better, but that’s always a good start. We never got past the start in Albania, as it’s a really difficult language. Saying hello is 4 syllables përshëndetje, pronounced like purr-shen-debt-yay. That took a bit to pick up and remember. It’s a mouthful, but overall not too bad. Once we got it, it stuck.
But trying to say thank you was a disaster. It’s a 5 syllable word, faleminderit, but every single time I said it, I could tell I was saying it wrong. Helpful people would try to correct my pronunciation, but it seemed to always change. When I used the new pronunciation the next time, it would get corrected again in a different way. So sometimes it was fah-lah-men-dare-EET, sometimes it was fah-lah-men-DARE-eet, sometimes it was fal-lah-MEN-dare-eet, and yet others it was fal-lah-mihn-dare-eht. And I’m sure *all of those* are wrong, because even after 5 weeks, neither of us could ever get it. Sorry Albania. We tried. Luckily, almost everyone appreciated the effort and even those who didn’t speak English were still happy to put up with our points, gestures and grunts.
Skanderbeg Square Carnival
In the center of Tirana is the large Skanderbeg Square, named after a rebellion commander who fought to drive the Ottomans out of the area 6 centuries ago. When we arrived on December 12, we found that almost all of the 40,000 m2 (10 acres) was occupied by a carnival. There were all kinds of rides, games, local vendors, junk food, and fun for the whole family. This was open every day of the week during our 5 week stay, only being torn down during our last few days in the second week of January.
We were staying near the square, so we walked through the carnival a bunch of times. It was always popular, but attendance definitely picked up around the holidays. We would often stop to watch the daredevils get flipped upside down and inside out for a couple of minutes on one of the many rides. Observing seemed more fun than participating in this instance. With tons of places to sit, many rides for the kids, and loads of stuffed animals to win, it was very festive and fun.
Holidays And Baked Goods
We were in Tirana during both Christmas and New Years. Both holidays are celebrated in Albania, but the importance is reversed compared to what we’re used to. If shops and vendors closed for Christmas, it was only a 1 day closure if anything at all. For New Years though, most places closed completely for 3 straight days. That included the local produce sellers too. This is apparently rooted in their communist history, as it was illegal to observe religious holidays so the citizens adjusted to have their largest celebration be centered around the New Year.
Albanians observe both holidays with lots of delicious baked goods. It’s customary to bring a treat when going to someone’s house, which happens often over the holidays. That meant all of the bakeries were at full inventory for most of our stay. There were loads of cookies, biscuits, cakes, baklava, and other desserts. Aside from the baklava, most had a very subtle sweetness. That allowed us to feel less guilty when we stopped every couple of days to try more of the large variety of goodies that we’d never seen before. And like the produce and cheese, the baked goods were also very affordable.
Extending The Welcome Mat
It was obvious that many of the residents in Tirana were happy to have us in their city. Multiple times we were approached when we were walking around by people wanting to know where we were from. Many of them were very excited to have Americans visiting and sometimes would share where they had visited in America. Occasionally it turned into a sales pitch (“I can offer you a tour”), but the majority were just people excited to see us in their country. It’s common to read stories of people in Lisbon or Barcelona or Venice that are just overwhelmed by the number of tourists and would love for that number to shrink. It’s the opposite in Tirana. They welcome tourists with open arms.
Air Quality And Escaping Traffic
For the most part, the official AQI was pretty decent for the winter. It was normally in the 50-100 range, which is considered a Moderate pollution level. In practice, it varied more than that because of the insane traffic jams that plague the city. Public transit is sparse and the roads can’t really accommodate all of the cars that exist in the city, so there are constant traffic backups in one place or another. Walking down one of these streets at the wrong time meant that all of the vehicle exhaust from the stopped traffic was pretty bad.
At one point I commented to Katie that Tirana must be where old Mercedes come to die, as we saw a ton of 1990s Mercedes sedans around, and almost every one was spewing out some sort of black smoke from its tailpipe. It can be difficult to avoid these exhaust fumes when walking around, as there aren’t always ways to get around the city aside from main roads.
That said, the Grand Park is pretty nice for when it’s time to get a traffic break. It’s pretty popular with the locals, and there are paths going everywhere. There are a multitude of benches with many people just hanging out enjoying the green space at any given time. On the west side is a large man-made lake that is home to many ducks, geese, and loons. We saw a few gorgeous kingfishers hanging out by the shore too. Naturally, we’d have to stop and watch them fish for a few minutes.
Our Horrible Travel Day
As I alluded to in our 2022 Year End Summary post, our travel from Budva to Tirana was painful. Unknowingly, the bus tickets we booked were on a minibus instead of a real bus. When it pulled into the Budva bus station, it was almost entirely full. There were 4 open seats remaining and only 2 of those were next to each other. Of course that set was in the very back crammed next to 2 other people in a row of 4. We opted for the 2 together, figuring that if we’re going to be wedged into a tight bus, we might as well be next to each other. But we knew right away that this was going to feel like a long 5.5 hour ride.
As we left Budva for the 1.5 hour journey to the next stop in Podgorica, there were only 2 empty seats remaining out of 23 in the minibus. Like almost every route in the Balkans, the road to the Montenegrin capital goes through the mountains. It was a cramped ride and it was also raining heavily, so like the trip we had between Mostar and Split, the windows fogged over making it hard to see out. The lack of views plus the constant twisting and turning of the roads meant that we both were feeling some motion sickness early in the trip. That’s not good.
When we arrived in Podgorica, 5 people with tickets were waiting to get on. Apparently they oversold the minibus. The bus driver got off and started talking to them. I assumed he was telling them that there were only 2 seats remaining and that 3 of them would have to find alternate transportation. But I soon learned that was not the conversation that was taking place. Instead they were discussing which 2 of the 5 people should get the seats versus which of the remaining ticket holders would be standing! So all 5 people boarded, with the 2 lucky winners taking the seats and the 3 remaining ticket holders standing in the aisle. Safety regulations are obviously different in this part of the world.
If we thought it was a tight squeeze before, having people stand in the aisle of the small minibus made the space feel absolutely tiny. That was not the worst of it though. Our minibus did not have enough cargo space for the luggage of more people than it could seat. Nevertheless, the driver jammed the excess baggage into the space right behind our seats in such a way that the rear doors couldn’t fully close. They were latched, barely, but it wasn’t sealed. As soon as the bus started up, the lack of proper seal on the back doors meant that the cabin started filling with noxious exhaust fumes from the tailpipe right below.
As you can probably imagine with our stomachs still in a fragile state due to the mountainous roads, we were not feeling good at all once exhaust fumes were added to the mix. Luckily, those went away once we started moving more than 10 mph, but there was a good 5 minutes where I was starting to panic. Then we took off through the mountains on the way to Albania where we resumed twisting and turning and climbing and descending and twisting and turning some more. It’s a fucking miracle that neither of us threw up.
Frequent breaks helped, as we had to all exit after about 45 minutes to cross the border. That was a much welcomed 30 minute respite while everyone got stamped out of Montenegro and into Albania. Another 45 minutes later, we arrived at our first Albanian stop in Shkodër and enough people exited that no one needed to stand in the aisle anymore. In addition, the luggage now fit properly which meant that the back doors could finally close completely. So while the rest of the trip wasn’t great, it was at least bearable. I can state with absolute certainty that the likelihood of us getting on another minibus anytime soon is zero. And ideally, it’ll never happen again. That trip was a total nightmare, but we made it. Barely!
Like much of SE Asia in the winter, the humidity levels in Tirana were extremely high. During the day it wasn’t too bad, usually somewhere in the 50-60% range, but at night it rose considerably. At one point it hadn’t rained for 2 weeks, and yet my weather app said it was 96% humidity when I checked before going to bed. That *had* to be an error, so I looked at a few other sources and they all confirmed. The extreme humidity meant that our clothes dried quite slowly and there was always some condensation on the windows. We also noticed the start of a mold problem in our living room corner by the time we moved out too.
Where We Stayed
We rented an apartment near Skanderbeg Square and Pazari i Ri (the New Market). The market itself felt mostly a tourist trap, but the surrounding area had a lot of good produce for sale. We liked the neighborhood as it had a local vibe. Our apartment was a large 2 bedroom 2 bathroom place on the 5th floor. It was decent with a fair amount of space and a good kitchen, although the bed just wasn’t that comfortable. And as mentioned before, it did develop a bit of a mold problem in the corner of the living room. But that’s one of the benefits of nomadic living. If there’s an issue, we just move on and let someone else deal with it.
What We Spent
For our 5 week stay in Tirana we spent a total of $1986. The majority of that was our apartment at $1058 for 35 nights. Adding in our monthly bills for things like health insurance and blog fees, our total spending in Albania was $2201, or about $63/day. We were continually amazed by how cheap it was to buy fresh produce and local cheese and we ate well for under $15/day.
Somewhat surprisingly, at no point did we visit an official site or museum. There are not many available, and what Tirana does have is mostly centered around life under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. We had visited a couple of similar museums dedicated to the horrors predicated by different fascist regimes in previous stops, so we decided to skip them this time. Instead we spent our time wandering around town looking for colorful buildings, buying produce, and trying to find the best bakery.
Overall we enjoyed our time in Tirana. The differences compared to our other European stops were a welcome change. The fresh produce was really impressive, especially for the winter. We fell in love with the delicious baked goods and abundance of local cheese. And it felt good to be in a place where the people were very excited to have us. That said, the traffic, air quality, and humidity issues did start to bother us after a time. So while we liked our stay, we were also ready to leave. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that if there’s a next time, we’ll definitely be arriving by plane.