It seems Albania & Kosovo have rather close ties, this came clear to me as we were waved through the border post with not a glance at anyone’s passport, soon enough we were thundering down the brand-new highway, heading towards the capital city of Tirana.
I feel like I’ve talked about buses and scenery way too much in the last nine parts, though this is mainly because I spent half my time in the Balkans sat on buses staring out of the window, so let’s just jump to my arrival into the city of Tirana. A city which no one ever seems to think about, ever, but which unlike Pristina, actually has a fair few sights to see, and some bloody great ice cream.
Taking risks in life is in my view, one of the most important things you can do, even if disaster strikes, as long as you don’t go bankrupt you can learn from it and evolve. Never taking risks can lead to a dull and boring life where the most important decisions are made for you. Now the reason I bring this up is not that I’ve suddenly started listening to corny motivational speeches while travelling, but because throughout my short life I’ve met so many people who seem absolutely petrified of risks.
By this point, I was around halfway through my trip through the Balkans and was in a reflective mood as I made my way down the busy bustling streets of Tirana. I’d heard plenty of bad things about Tirana and Albania in general, that it was full of criminals and stolen Mercedes, the criminal one seemed to be a bit farfetched, but the amount of Mercedes on the streets, did give me pause for thought.
In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the city, and I quickly checked into my hotel/hostel/villa hybrid; this was a charming little house just off the main square which had been converted into around 3 or 4 cheap rooms by the jolly Greek/Albanian owner. Secreted up the back of a side street, it was a haven of tranquillity just a short walk from all the main sights.
My first impressions of Tirana was that it felt much more organized and city like than Pristina. A large open square provided the central focal point to the city, and on this warm summer evening, it was packed to the rafters with families, concerts and of course, skateboarders. This gave the city certain energy and life, which was missing from Pristina, and in a certain way missing from Skopje.
Actually, despite its reputation as one of the poorest countries in Europe, the capital seemed to be surprisingly full of life. Busy restaurants and packed bars provided a Barcelona like backdrop and was completely different from what I had expected. You see, the reason I mentioned taking risks before was related to this. Nearly everyone I had spoken to about Albania advised me to miss out the capital, to avoid its dangerous streets and extremely dull atmosphere. Most people were also pretty sure that I’d get robbed murdered or both, but in fact, everything had gone pretty smoothly, so far at least.
I relaxed and enjoyed the evening, buying some fantastically tasty ice cream and chatting with other travellers about what brought them to Tirana.
The next day, eager to explore more of this city, I headed out super early to have a little wonder around. Once again, to my utter surprise, Tirana completely charmed me, with its large squares, grand streets and fantastically cheap cafe’s. Maybe once again it was the weather that helped, it was a beautiful quiet summer’s day, and I am sure in the depths of winter, the city doesn’t have the same magic.
I spent the entire day exploring the city, headed up to the main park, with a beautiful pristine lake and discovered some of the most amazing burgers at some random roadside cafe. Everyone I met was so friendly and kind and compared to some of the other places I had visited, there weren’t many tourists about. To be fair it’s not really a touristy city, there’s only a couple of what would be classed as tourist sights. Mainly the old WW2 bunker and a couple of museums.
Personally, though, I prefer this, not every city needs to be stuffed full of tourist sights to be enjoyable. Sometimes, I just like to explore a cities nuck and crannies on foot, and often I discover gems that with a lick of paint and the right marketing, could easily be world class tourist hot spots, but for now are just little houses or old flats, full of people going about their ordinary business.
Of course, though, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to indulge in the odd tourist sight, as Tirana has one of the most interesting sights you can possibly imagine. You’ve probably already heard of it, or even seen pictures of it if you’ve ever googled Tirana, I am talking about, of course, the Pyramid of Tirana.
With the sun slowly setting, I decided to do as many others had before me and climb up to the top, now this might look either super easy or supremely difficult, depending on your fitness levels. Trust me, it’s both more dangerous and more difficult than you first think. It’s a lot more slippery than it actually looks, and my first bit of advice is unless you’re a ninja to go up on the ones furthest away from the front.
They all look like they ascend at the same rate, but that is just a bit of an optical illusion, in fact, the ones at the front of the pyramid are ridiculously steep and the only people who seemed to be able to climb up them were a couple of homeless kids.
If needs be, and you’re not too concerned about hygiene, you can also take your shoes and socks off, this also helps rather a lot, and gives you some proper grip. Once you get going, it’s pretty easy to make it to the top, as long as you keep focused and don’t slip. If you do slip, there’s nothing to hold onto to stop yourself from falling all the way down. Also watch out for sudden drops, which both sides have a couple of.
To be honest, I’ve probably made this sound way scarier than it actually is, in fact, it was pretty easy for me, but I did see a fair few people attempt it, and then abandon it when they were around 1/3 of the way up. Kids seemed to be able to do it a lot easier than adults.
Without really any concern though, I quickly made it to the top and was handsomely rewarded by one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen. I was joined by a couple of homeless kids, who spoke excellent English and we talked for a while about everything from Football, to what the hell I was doing in Albania.
Soon enough though, with a rumble in my belly, it was time for me to head down again, the kids headed down the steep bit first, like super quick ninjas. I then headed towards the easier bit on the side of the Pyramid, it was then I realized, as my foot slipped forward, going down was going to be much more difficult than going up…
Stay tuned for Part 11, where I get on a mini bus driven by a member of the Albanian mafia, and to see if I finally make it down from the Pyramid…