Rebirth of a Nation
Before I touched down at Tirana International Airport, my knowledge of the Balkan enclave of Albania had, embarrassingly, been restricted to its history of isolationist Communism and the fact that it is where Mother Teresa traced her roots. As the plane’s wing swept over the Adriatic Sea’s prismatic cerulean blues, I experienced a quicksilver wave of nervous-yet-excited energy. It’s unusual for me to visit a place sight unseen; I’m usually neck-deep in research, restaurant lists and random facts. For lack of time, I had to hand over control to my travel partner, leaving my imagination to give form to this vague territory. But the images and narratives it managed to summon hardly came close to the layered story of a European anachronism: the continent’s poorest country once disfigured by authoritarianism and closed to outsiders, reshaping itself as a cosmopolitan democracy and preparing for the inevitable tourism boom.
In the small and efficiently run airport, we’re flagged down at the baggage claim by made-up women in miniskirts offering SIM cards and other forms of connectivity, their red-lipped smiles meant to reassure us that civilisation need not be abandoned on arrival. And I can attest to free Wi-Fi being everywhere. Whether for surveillance or convenience, we didn’t complain…. After a 45-minute ride with a jolly, English-challenged cab-driver (he proudly ambushed his son, who coincidentally lives in Lyon, with a phone call to get translated directions from my French companion), we pull up to the misnomered Hotel Antigone. It’s unassuming and minimally accoutered but far from tragic. The five-member staff’s eager-to-help friendliness is almost suspicious in its constancy, although I appreciate this sincere national trait as the antidote to foreign cynicism. We hurriedly perfect the pronunciation of faleminderit, ‘thank you’, because it’s a handier phrase than expected. Besides with the cab-driver, however, we didn’t face a significant communication barrier in Tirana; English is commonly understood if not spoken. When needed, mainly further south, my rusty Italian helped us get by since it’s a second language for many Albanians.
The hotel is located in Blloku, the capital’s cool, art-minded neighbourhood, amidst a cluster of new late-night bars and restaurants with names such as Tribeca, Nouvelle Vague and Bunker 1944 Lounge. With only Staten Island’s Albanian diaspora for context and the intense curiosity of a first-timer, I uncharacteristically subject the young Tirana residents that collect here to the cringeworthy prolonged gawk of The Tourist. Hard to distinguish as playing fashion catch-up or reflecting 2019’s favourite throwback trend, their style belongs in a ‘90s MTV music video. I watch as Lycra-clad bodies hop freely from one electropop-thumping venue to the next and reclaim this sector, formerly blockaded for the Communist elite. Today, its buildings, particularly in Wilson Square, are enlivened by technicolour paint and eccentric murals, a typical sight throughout Tirana. An officially-appointed graffiti artist, Franko Dine, roams the city’s streets, which also hosted the first MurAL Fest, Tirana last year. A 2013 project called PostBllok incorporates a 2.6-tonne piece of the Berlin Wall, the domed top of an atomic bunker and remnants from a forced labour mine, the miscellany of bleak ‘sculptures’ sitting in a park metres away from murderous dictator Enver Hoxha’s erstwhile home and a KFC. Though the area evokes some apparent global counterparts: Bandra, Botafogo, Malleswaram, Bushwick, Vitry-sur-Seine, their specific raison d’êtres make it naïve to assume too much more than a superficial kinship, I know. In blatant contradiction to the energetic Blloku, the nearby Mother Teresa Square is a desolate and static expanse, bordered by the sternly arranged beige stone blocks of academic institutions, a real-life fascist version of Tetris.
The unpredictability of what lies ahead stalls the onset of heat-induced sluggishness, keeping me going until the next eccentric landmark. A short walk away, The Pyramid of Tirana — built to commemorate Hoxha’s powerful rule from 1944-85 — rests forgotten and dilapidated, of service only to skaters or bored teens who clamber up the dingy tile-covered beams. The absolute absence of tourists, even in this peak season for the rest of Europe, is striking. I catch sight of the peeling flamingo-pink entrance that used to lead to Mumja Nightclub’s original location inside the pyramid during the ’90s, and I realise that it’s an unnatural reality in which there are no phones pointed at something which clearly qualifies as an Instagram pitstop. It’s also worth mentioning that I spotted only one other Indian tourist during my entire time in Albania, a detail that enhanced the atmosphere’s parallel dimension-like complexion. Across the Lana River, a skinny strip of mountain-sourced water that bifurcates the city length-wise while transporting sewage, and the over-300-year-old Tanners’ Bridge, is Reja (The Cloud). The geometric, interactive 3D installation by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto is temporarily set up outside the National Gallery of Arts, and it is uncrowded too — my thoughts turn to the fates of the tragically hip Dubrovnik and Reykjavik, whose besieged people are likely plotting a return to inconspicuousness. In the central, recently-made-car-free plaza, Skanderbeg Square, the Opera House stands with the National Museum of History. A commanding socialist mosaic mural aptly titled The Albanians overtakes the latter’s façade. These conquering warriors face the equally dominating statue of 15th-century rebel military leader Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, and the surrounding architectural make-up is a visual tribute to Albania’s cultural mashup and atavistic instinct for religious tolerance. The Kulla e Sahatit, a 19th-century clock tower, mixes Ottoman and Western styles as a result of numerous renovations — it currently houses a Chinese-made clock — and keeps time over Skanderbeg with the square’s eponymous mountains undulating behind it. To its right, the spindly minaret of the Et’hem Bey Mosque (the majority of the population is nominally Muslim) probes the skyline. Designed contemporaneously by the same architect as the clock tower, it reopened in 1991 after being closed under Hoxha’s dogmatic agenda disguised as atheism. Capping off this medley are the five yellow stars atop a monolith of concrete pixels, the Plaza Hotel, Tirana’s tallest building that rises from the foot of a memorial to the city’s founder, Suleiman Pasha. A 2012 addition is the dramatic Resurrection Cathedral, an Orthodox Church just beyond Skanderbeg’s periphery. At night, the square is a socialising site for locals; children splash through illuminated fountains that spout from the ground without warning, hawkers hawk flashing electronic toys as couples indulge in PDA and groups of cigarette-smoking teens infiltrate the Venetian-inspired carousel.
If these signs of life going on laissez-faire made me forget it, Bunk’Art 1 and 2, below the surface, are trenchant reminders of the grip Hoxha had on civilians until not much longer than 40 years ago. As the whole truths of his punishing regime are in the process of being disclosed, the many who were old enough then to remember it, bear the accumulated strain of an existence that is entangled in the still-overlapping tales of the diverging Albanias. The rooms of the two massive Cold War-era nuclear bunkers have been converted into tech-forward art galleries and museums that recreate life under the pre-WW2 Italian invasion and then Hoxha. The somberness of the past lingers in each space, in these (incidentally, never used) fortified labyrinths constructed for one megalomaniacal man’s paranoia; an estimated 170,000-750,000 bunkers are scattered throughout the country’s terrain. Such markers of the chasms between realities continually interrupt us, another being the glass-front multi-storeyed Toptani Shopping Center (not unlike Mumbai’s first major signifier of capitalist consumerism — Crossroads Mall, now Sobo Central). It’s a three-minute walk away, through Rruga Murat Toptani which is a public promenade designed as an urban Utopia, once we emerge from the chilling darkness of Bunk’Art 2.
A pleasant surprise is the consistently enjoyable food and varied choice of places to eat and drink in, not to mention the startlingly affordable prices. For an average of 1200 Lek, less than 800 rupees, we dine on satiating three-course meals, including the native wine (finding its feet, but certainly better than some California blends I’ve tried). While the best of what we sampled was the home-cooking further south in the UNESCO-protected towns of Berat and Gjirokaster, we are able to familiarise our taste buds in Tirana. Breakfasts are comfortingly simple; varieties of home-made bread served with the ubiquitous feta-adjacent cheese, treacly jams, fresh fruit and mountain flower-steeped tea, and the drive down the coast didn’t see it modify much. Fresh Garden near Antigone is an introduction to the good-quality pizza that Albania is intriguingly known for, a dish that diffused into its cuisine from the neighbouring Italy and is arguably divorced from the historic turbulence between the countries. A peek into the restaurant’s namesake market tempts a comparison to India’s Nature’s Basket, thanks to its use of the same recognisable aesthetic strategy of globalised grocery shops: homespun-yet-ultramodern. And to fulfil any overwhelming cravings for a hearty Italian meal, the snug, ‘nonna’s kitchen’-modelled A La Santé is the best bet. Komiteti Kafe-Muzeum is an air-conditioned, Wi-Fied oasis close to the Pyramid and recommended in every guidebook and blog. Although, the advantages of coming to Tirana in this transitional moment are that it doesn’t possess the air of performed authenticity that most tourist-savvy destinations display and nothing has been dismissed as overdone or cliché…yet. We sink into a couch in a dim alcove decorated with antique Communist artefacts and test out the local beer, Korça.
The quiet afternoons pick up after sundown, when the tchotchke-crammed bar-cafe-museum entertains a crowd that, I like to imagine, makes up a 21st century equivalent of the Parisian Enlightenment salons — the name fittingly translates to ‘committee’. We’ve heard that Albanians welcome conversations about the state of things, and the extensive raki (a burningly strong indigenous alcohol made from fermented fruit like grapes, mulberries, plums) selection here is probably an effective debate instigator. The 20-something bartender readily shares both information and her amusement at our fascination, a reaction that we have come to expect. Despite their firm patriotism, the citizens haven’t developed the collective self-esteem to fully fathom why anyone other than vacationing Italians has an interest in Albania let alone wants to come here. Radio Bar’s Instagram page (which announces it as ‘the lovechild of GREAT DRINKS, NICE MUSIC and AUTHENTIC DÉCOR’) is a good point of reference for Tirana’s position as a soon-to-be international hotspot, corroborated by the rare concentration of multiple languages my ears pick up in the actual venue. The Mad Hatter-ish interior design, also appropriating Communist paraphernalia as objets d’art, could universally be marketed as eclectic, and it gives off a vibe of casual abandon that’s contagious. I easily lose track of the number of drinks ordered, especially consumed by people-watching in the primary-coloured patio which has been assigned its own genre of industrial-tropical chic.
When unable to settle on a preference, we head to the facelifted Pazari I Ri (New Bazaar) neighbourhood. It’s essentially an extended open-air marketplace hosting fruit, vegetable and meat vendors, and the perimeter is lined with coffee shops, gelatarias and a diverse set of bistros. The nearby Oda, a hidden-away restaurant in an Ottoman-style house, provides traditional Albanian cuisine with a flavour of home life, but they can only accommodate us for a cup of tarry Turkish coffee and byrek (flaky sheets of pastry with a warm filling, usually cheese and spinach). We jealously watch the man on the next table extract chunks of perfectly-cooked lamb off the bone, wishing we hadn’t arrived too late for lunch. Possibly sensing our stares, he turns to chat with us, and we learn that he’s an American actor with a theatre production company that uses the medium to work with people in areas of conflict. By this time I’m suitably equipped for such peculiarities.
To make our foray into the slow food, fine dining scene, it’s Mullixhiu. The farm-to-table restaurant is at the entrance of The Grand Park of Tirana, a tiered plot of nature ironically circling the city’s gleaming Artificial Lake and the lone jet of water that erupts from underneath it (there’s a noticeable obsession with seemingly ad hoc fountains in Tirana). It’s dark by 6:30 p.m., but this appears to be when the mood is the liveliest, so we take the opportunity to cover what we can until our 7:15 p.m. reservation. One of the most popular recreational hubs, the park is the epitome of modern municipal efforts to focus on the citizens through these all-you-can-do pedestrianised zones. Strewn across its 289 hectares are an amphitheatre, children’s playgrounds, three gyms, biking and running tracks, an indoor pool, a zoo, botanical gardens and of course, a smattering of 19th-century structures. At the packed Mullixhiu, Bledar Kola, though clearly frazzled, hospitably hands us a complimentary glass of tart cherry juice followed by wine while we wait for our table. The 35-year-old chef counts among Noma’s many alumni, and the inspiration is evident when you walk into the low-ceilinged wooden interiors, reminiscent of a Nordic cabin. It’s meant, however, to evoke an old mill, simpler times. A small enclosure to the side of the entrance is a primitive-looking bread-and pasta-making room, where dough in various stages, prepared from scratch, is laid out or hung. Jars of glossy jams and compotes are for sale in baskets near the bar, and they come from Mrizi i Zanave, an agrotourism destination in the northern village of Fishte, which is also where the restaurant gets a daily supply of meat and vegetables. The seasonal tasting menu — at under 2500 rupees — has a rugged edge, relying on staple ingredients of the pre-industrial diet. But traditional dishes are reinvented with the flair of an avant-garde kitchen: quail with a reduction of a region-specific sour plum, handmade petka or durum wheat flour pasta, with duck meat and porcini, dessert that incorporates both dehydrated and fermented maize, all served with intentionally crude crockery and mismatched cutlery. Mullixhiu distills the fusional quality of this city where I began to relate, in some way, to those who perceive time as non-linear.
It’s a curious sensation, to feel a muscular oneness with a place that was so nebulous until 48 hours ago. But the process of acquiring this internal proximity involves more than an exploration of streets; it’s compelled by a deeper personal expression. Having the privilege to take off from my immediate surroundings often, I’ve wanted to, at the very least, consider this expression and objectively question what it is I’m looking for when I travel in order to gain a broader awareness. I turned to more articulate nomadic souls like Pico Iyer, Peter Mayle, Kiran Desai and Edith Wharton to help put these particular sentiments into words, and encoded in their sentences, as I interpret it, is the human desire to see ourselves reflected back to us as we’re poised to be immersed in the unknown, willingly or not. But also the desire to resurface transformed. Perhaps it’s that the underlying, very precise angst of the city’s journey towards self-actualisation spoke to my own mid-thirties voyage. Perhaps there was a solaceful lesson in its acceptance of imperfection and polarities, in its people’s immutable trustingness despite suffering at the hands of one of their own. Perhaps in two years an entirely contrasting place will be emblematic of my expectations. But this summer, similarly defined by introspection and willful optimism, I think I had been waiting for Tirana.