Balkans Day 6: Kukës to Tiranë

Another early start saw us again having breakfast in the Hotel Gjallica before heading off for Tiranë, Albania‘s capital city.  Learning from our mistakes of the previous day we had a sensible amount of bread and cheese and none of the sticky, syrupy ‘jam’ we over-ordered before.

Thanks to Jeta we’d found out that ridiculously low-priced scheduled buses left Kukës early in the morning so we headed towards the street they left from in plenty of time to secure seats as we hadn’t booked in advance.

Setting off through the streets of Kukës we soon left the town behind and joined the main Prishtina – Tiranë highway crossing the bridge we’d seen the night before and wending our way through some spectacular mountain scenery.  The higher mountains eventually gave way to some lower foothills before emerging onto the plain where the city stands where the landscape was dominated by agriculture in what seemed already to be a more prosperous region than that around Kukës.

The more agricultural area around Tiranë with the foothills and mountains in the background.

Hitting the outskirts of the city itself we could already see that it is a city of contrasts.  The outer suburban area has a few large houses and more modern apartment blocks while a little nearer the centre we could see extensive areas that contained the same crumbling communist era blocks that were all too evident in Kukës but multiplied many times over.

Further into the city there was a curious mixture of ultra-modern developments, both industrial and residential, juxtaposed with functionalist, dreary, drab Hoxha-era buildings.

Despite being the capital city with a population of over half a million Tiranë, in common with all Albanian cities, has no formal bus station so we were dropped near a large roundabout at the side of a main road with virtually no signposting to identify where we were.  Taxi time again.

After stopping a couple of times to find out where he was going our driver eventually managed to find the hostel we were staying in during our trip and we were welcomed to the hostel by an American guy and the Albanian who owns and runs it and shown our room which was clean and comfy enough although the shared toilets and showers weren’t exactly to our liking.  Still, it was cheap and central which were the main factors.

Having dumped the rucksacks it was time to take off into the streets to explore and get our bearings, something always best done on foot. We grabbed a map from the reception and set off for the main Skanderbeg Square area from which all else could easily be found.  We also had the bonus of being right next to the TID tower which is the city’s tallest building at 85m (279ft) and was a great landmark.

The TID tower, Tiranë’s tallest building.

Passing the tower we came up towards Skanderbeg Square where we could see our first historical landmark, the Clock Tower of Tiranë built in 1822 by the same man, Haxhi Et’hem Bey, who also completed the mosque next to the tower.  Both of these lie at one side of the city’s main square, Skanderbeg.

The Clock Tower of Tiranë, constructed in 1822.
The Et’hem Bey mosque in the heart of the city.
The statue of Skanderbeg with the minaret of the mosque behind, in Tiranë’s main square.

Leaving the square behind we set off down one of the main boulevards running off it past an area of Italian style buildings and towards the Rinia Park area where there is a pleasant open space which hosts the Summer Festival in March of each year and has fountains and restaurants surrounding it.

Italian style buildings near Skanderbeg Square and Rinia Park.
A tree-lined street in the Italian section of the city.
A monument in Rinia Park.
The fountains in front of the Taivani building with its restaurants and bars.

From here we carried on in the same direction crossing a bridge over the Lanë stream and the Boulevard Zhan d’Ark heading through a fairly affluent area containing some of Tiranë’s foreign embassies, plush hotels, restaurants and bars en route to the Big Park.

Upstream on the Lanë looking towards the mountains around the city.

Walking on for a few blocks we soon found our way to Tiranë’s biggest park known as Big Park (Tiranë Park on the Artificial Lake).  This is a huge 230 hectare park on the southern side of the city and sits on an artificial lake and contains many monuments such as Saint Procopius Church, Commonwealth Grave and the Presidential Palace.  It is so large that we missed many of these but still had a wonderful time exploring some of its nooks and crannies and walking along the shores of the lake.

Palm trees and conifers line one of the wider paths in the park.
The memorial to 45 Commonwealth soldiers who died in Albania during WWII.
A view across the lake in the Big Park, a peaceful haven in the city.
Another view of the lake where you can see some illegal buildings near the shore which are still a blight on Tiranë.

Coming along the lakeshore we turned up again into the park past more monuments and an outdoor gym and quickly found ourselves back where we entered the park.  We set off back towards the city centre, stopping off at some shops to pick up a couple of souvenirs on the way.

We came back up to Skanderbeg Square again and took in a couple of the sights nearby including the Opera and the National History Museum.

The National History Museum with its mural ‘The Albanians’.
Tiranë Opera building, Skanderbeg Square.

Getting a bit peckish by this time we decided to grab a bite to eat before chilling out in the evening so we set off in the direction of the hostel hoping to find somewhere nearby for a meal.  In the Rruga Luigj Gurakuqi, parallel to the street where our hostel was, we found a small restaurant run by a Tiranë native who had worked for years in Athens so we both opted for souvlaki which was excellent washed down by local beer and wine.

Satisfied after a decent meal and an hour or so of watching the world go by we headed back to hostel but not before Mrs M purchased a bottle of the local plonk since the bar in the hostel had run out.  We spent the rest of the evening relaxing in the hostel’s pretty courtyard where Mrs M drank her awful wine and I had several beers at 120Lek a half-litre (around £0.80/€0.94/$1.25) and slept quite well!

Evening in the hostel courtyard.

10 thoughts on “Balkans Day 6: Kukës to Tiranë

  1. Okay so let me start with two questions. One sensible and one a bit weird:
    1–what do you think that Jam was made from? I’m intrigued.
    2–This is the weird one. What does it smell like? I’m always struck by (a) the sheer age of Albania and (b) the lack of real love that the people seem to have for their land. They don’t show true stewardship for the place. It does not fit.
    So does it resemble a place that’s just too polluted and dying, dormant and gathering strength or growing and vibrant?
    I think I may have mentioned this before you left but I have a friend who resided there during the worst of what happened in the late eighties through the late nineties. Today he lives in London helping the displaced people of Albania so your visit holds special interest for me. I get to re-live what Gary told me about so long ago.


    1. The jam was unidentifiable but might have been made from grapes!

      You did mention you had a friend who was there years ago but it’s no doubt a different place now.

      As for Albanians attitude to the environment I think it stems from the fact that the country under Hoxha was just about the poorest in Europe and people just didn’t see any reason to care. The regime at the time was content to do the bare minimum to care for the people. Shoddy housing, weak infrastructure (poor roads, sewage, electricity supplies) etc. so I think the national mindset became one of ‘they barely care, so why should we?’ That seems to have become ingrained into the national psyche and it remains to be seen if the increasing investment in the country will bear fruit outside of Tirana and the coastal cities with links to Italy/Greece. Perhaps if the people see that life and conditions are improving they will feel the need to keep it that way but they have a long way to go to turn around their mentality. From what I saw despite the appalling condition of some of the housing stock people make their homes as nice as they can inside. They just need to extend that attitude to the world outside their front doors. It may take some time. All this of course is just my opinion but that’s the impression I got.


      1. Interesting… I wonder if the Albanians who are here in the UK will make a difference when they go home having seen a different way of life? The Albanian people I’ve met always seem so jolly and friendly, and some of them want to return home with lots of money to build a house for them and their family.


        1. Cash from the diaspora is hugely important and is one of the main sources of national income away from Tirana and the coastal cities. 😀


  2. Can I use the photo of Tiranë Opera building in a project for a non-profit organisation, please? Thanks.


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