Albania was by far the craziest country on our European road-trip to drive in. Cars seemed to have complete disregard for anything in the way of driving etiquette. At one point, whilst en route to Tirana, we witnessed a group of vehicles defy the traffic jam which had developed and opt to drive around a roundabout the wrong way – all of which occurred in front of some rather relaxed looking policemen who were all gathered in a huddle having a good natter. The scene reminded me of being in Asia and it felt so far removed from anything I had ever experienced in Europe. If a space opened on the road there was sure to be a car ready to bully its way into it no matter how tight the gap appeared to be. Dusty roads and dense volumes of traffic weaving in out of each other without a moment to hesitate – it was exhilarating to be behind the wheel.
As we drove closer to the centre of the city, we approached the magnificent Skanderbeg Square which really dominates the central district. A large outer-ring style roundabout circulates its way around a very proud looking monument erected in the middle of the square. Pastel buildings encroach upon the square from all sides, with Ottoman and Soviet-era architecture being the main design influences. Early evening is the best time to take in this environment, as the sun slowly begins to set offering cooler temperatures in which to savour the sites, smells and sounds of the Skanderbeg Square.
We spent two nights in Tirana, staying at a great little apartment which we found using AirBnB, which also happened to be conveniently located not too far away from the city centre. It always shocks me how cheap certain parts of the world are, as here we were, checking into a well furnished two-bed apartment with a courtyard and balcony and it only cost us €35 per night. Let that sink in. You can barely get a bed in a hostel for that price in Western Europe.
Staying in the AirBnB also gave us a taste of how the locals live on the outskirts of the city centre. Although the surroundings may have looked a little run-down, there was a definite beauty hidden within the mess. I had just as much fun exploring the back streets as I did hitting the main tourist draws.
On the one full day that we spent in the city we decided to see as much as we could whilst also allowing for plenty food breaks along the way. We were determined to try some traditional Albanian food and so after searching on Google for an appropriate place we then spent what felt like eternity pacing the streets trying to find a poky little restaurant which was situated down a back alley which in turn was an off-shoot of another back alley. Tirana seemed to equal maze central at this point.
The hunt was totally worth it; however, as the food we got to try was simply sublime. The hostess was keen for us all to not choose the same dishes and instead sample a wide variety of meat and non-meat dishes. There was a heavy inclusion of goats cheese in a lot of the dishes that were served, as well as fresh vegetables, tomatoes, peppers and very subtle flavours. We were promptly informed that Albanian cuisine does not include many herbs or spices and instead focuses on the natural flavours of the core ingredients of a meal.
After our meal we continued to wander around the city which was slowly becoming even more alive ahead of the approaching evening. Earlier that day we’d spent most of our time exploring the main park within the city. The weather was scorching hot and it was a welcome relief just to get some shade under the trees.
The similarities between Albania and Asia weren’t only to be seen with the driving styles, there was also many subtle points that took me right back to days of swanning around Taiwan. For instance, I was rather surprised to find that in Albania it is just as common as in Asia to use a squat toilet rather than a conventional toilet seat that you would find in westernised countries. Other subtle reminders included an abundance of stray dogs wondering around the streets and in the parks – this is an all too common site in the east and it was interesting to see it here within the confines of Europe.
In terms of accessibility, Tirana offered many inclusive options, with disabled friendly toilets and ramped entrances to a lot of the cities main attractions, bars and restaurants. Many of the old style buildings do pose a bit of an issue when needing to use the toilet facilities in say a local eatery, but the vast majority of the major restaurants have perfect accessibility.
With accommodation it’s a similar story – for those who require access then it’s advisable to play it safe and stay in a hotel that is part of a recognised international chain, i.e. The Sheraton Tirana Hotel. You can also easily find accessible accommodation via comparison websites such as hotels.com which as a very handy feature that allows you to filter results and specify if you need a roll-in shower, in-room accessibility and/or an accessible bathroom. Having the ability to pinpoint exactly what you need ahead of arrival, in such a convenient manner, is a real stress reliever.
I would highly recommend considering Tirana as an alternative city-break. This vibrant city is full of interesting and hospitable people and you will also find prices to be quite fortuitous.