Albania: Lots of people never heard about, here is what to see and do on a weekend break in Tirana

It may be over a quarter of a century since Albania opened its borders, but mention you’re off for a weekend in the capital Tirana, and eyebrows will flex.

Under communism, Albania was an isolated state. It was the preserve of hardy travellers, with Americans, journalists and “men with long hair or a full beard” all barred from entering. Now its beaches are considered some of the best in Europe, and its alpine “Accursed Mountains” one of the continent’s most pristine landscapes.

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As for Tirana, a compact centre belies a metropolis of 750,000 people, and around one in four of all Albanians lives there. There is a growing café culture, a clutch of international-standard hotels and a cuisine that shatters preconceptions. Tourism still feels like a work in progress, which, along with the fact it is fantastic value, all adds to the charm. March 14 is Spring Day in Albania and a party atmosphere takes over Tirana, with concerts in parks, street performers and open markets.

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies directly from Gatwick to Tirana four times a week (Wed-Sun), with prices from £140 return. Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers a three-night stay at the Rogner Europa Park Hotel in Tirana from £445 per person. The price is based on two sharing on bed and breakfast basis and includes return flights.

Where to stay

Special Treat

The Plaza Tirana (00355 4 221 1221; plazatirana.com) at Rruga 28 Nentori (1 on map above) is the city’s newest luxury hotel. There’s a wellness spa and a choice of three Italian-influenced restaurants. Doubles from €140 (£120), including breakfast.

Mid-range

The Rogner  (00355 4 223 5035; hotel-europapark.com) at Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit (2) boasts an outdoor pool set amid palm trees. Doubles, with breakfast, from €99.

Budget

The Hotel Nobel Tirana (00355 4 225 6444; hotelnobeltirana.com) at Blv Zogu I (3) has a great central location just a few minutes from Skanderbeg Square. Doubles from €37.

On arrival

If you have a good head for heights, climb the 90 steps of the clock tower  on the edge of the central Skanderbeg Square (4) for superb views over the city. An easier option  is a drink on the first-floor terrace of the nearby International Hotel (5).

“Day one

10am

You can cover Tirana’s key sites – which largely run along the Boulevard of the Martyrs (Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit) – in a few hours, either on your own or as part of a guided tour. Try Past & Present Journeys (00355 4 237 3957; pastandpresent.al). Begin at the National Historical Museum (6) on Skanderbeg Square. The building is famed for the mural above the entrance depicting the march of Albanian history. Inside, the country’s past is covered in minute detail, with the final rooms offering a sobering reminder of the horror of communist rule.

11am

Crossing the square, past the Mosque of Et’hem Bey (7),  one of Tirana’s few remaining Ottoman buildings, and the ministry buildings built during Mussolini’s brief control of the city, is the National Art Gallery (8). Alongside temporary exhibitions, there’s an excellent collection of socialist realism, an art form that proved a crucial propaganda tool, with its depictions of muscular factory workers and smiling children.

A few hundred yards further on is the crumbling edifice of the Dajti Hotel, one of the most important buildings of the communist era, where party chiefs met to scheme and plot. Close by is Tirana’s famous Pyramid (9), designed as a memorial museum for the dictator Enver Hoxha. Now derelict, it’s still worth taking time to marvel at kids climbing the steeply sloping walls.

Noon

There’s a huge Italian influence among Tirana’s restaurants, and alongside pizza and pasta, there’s a good fish menu as well as some Albanian specialities at the Juvenilja Castle (10) 1010, Rruga Skerdilajd Llagami behind Mother Teresa Square (00355 4 226 6660). Alongside the crenulated tower, there’s a roof gallery and terrace overlooking Tirana Park. ”

“2pm

You can walk off lunch with a stroll around the park, and there are plenty of paths through the woods, which echo to the clack of dominoes. There are several cafés overlooking the artificial lake and a British Memorial Cemetery honouring the 40 British and Commonwealth soldiers and airmen who died in Albania during the Second World War.

4pm

Blloku (The Block) is made up of a dozen or so streets that were once the sole preserve of communist party officials. Now it’s the centre of Tirana’s bar and café culture, and the Colonial Café (11) at Rruga Pjeter Bogdani 3 (00355 69 580 8447) has a reputation for excellent cocktails. Hoxha’s modest home stands nearby.

7pm

Sitting on Skanderbeg Square, the city’s main opera house (12) is a huge attraction in Tirana. The auditorium has seen better days but it still gives you a taste of Soviet-inspired interior design. With tickets costing just a few pounds, it’s a family affair, so you’ll need to be prepared for the rustle of sweet wrappers and the glow of mobiles.

9pm

Oda (13) is a small, family-run restaurant tucked down a side street off Rr Luigj Gurakuqi, not far from the opera. There are just two small rooms, one with a traditional sofra – a type of low dining table. Here’s where you come for some of the best traditional Albanian food in the city: a good selection of vegetarian dishes, such as peppers stuffed with cottage cheese, alongside meaty fare such as the offal-based kokorec (00355 4 224 9541).

Day two

10am

Catch a taxi out to BunkArt (14) on Rr Fadil Deliu (00355 67 207 2905; bunkart.al). Hoxha was a paranoid leader, convinced invasion was imminent, hence his programme of bunkerisation, which saw 750,000 concrete redoubts built across the country. He also oversaw the creation of this vast underground bunker as a safe haven in the event of nuclear war. It’s a slightly unnerving experience as you peer into Hoxha’s quarters, and pass through massive air locks, amid the flashing lights and the crackle of Geiger counters. Many of the rooms house haunting displays of daily life under communism.

Noon

Close by is the Dajti Express,  a cable car (closed Mondays) that takes you on a 15-minute journey to the Dajti National Park (15). Unfortunately, the summit is a mess, but if you’ve got time, various trails head off into the woods, or you can book a guided hike to the Cherry Pass with Outdoor Albania (00355 4 222 7121; outdooralbania.com).

1.30pm

If the lure of ancient beech woods doesn’t take your fancy, take a window seat in the Ballkoni Dajtit (16), where a few Albanian specialities jostle for your attention alongside pizzas and pasta dishes. But it’s the views as much as the food that sell this mountaintop restaurant, with Tirana and, haze permitting, the Adriatic spreading out before you.”

Tirana is the capital and largest city of Albania and as well the heart of Albania’s cultural, economic and governmental activity. It is located on the western center of the country surrounded by hills with the Dajti Mountain on the east and a slight valley opening on the north-west overlooking the Adriatic Sea in the distance. The city is located some 700 kilometres (430 miles) north of Athens, 290 km (180 mi) west of Skopje, 250 km (160 mi) south-east of Pristina and 160 km (99 mi) south of Podgorica.

Tirana is a city with a rich history dating from the Paleolithic times back 10,000 to 30,000 years ago to the present day. The oldest settlement located in the area of the city was the Cave of Pellumbas, in today’s village of Pellumbas. As argued by various archaeologists, Tirana and its suburbs are filled with ancient Illyrian toponyms as its precincts are some of the earliest regions in Albania to be inhabited. One of the ancient monuments, the Tirana Mosaic is believed to have been part of a 3rd century ancient Roman house. Later, in the 5th and 6th centuries, a Paleo-Christian Basilica was built around this site. Tirana was founded as a city in 1614 although the area has been continuously inhabited since antiquity. An almost unimportant centre until the beginning of the 20th century, theCongress of Lushnjë proclaimed Tirana as the capital of Albania, which had acquired Independence in 1912.

Tirana is one of largest cities in the Balkan Peninsula ranking 7th with a population of 800,000 and the largest Albanian-speaking city in the world. The municipality, has a total population of 800,986. It is also the biggest Metropolitan area in Albania and the only one with a population of over 800.000. Being Albania’s primate city, Tirana is the leading political, social and cultural center of Albania. Almost all of the largest companies, media and scientific institutions have their headquarters in the city. The city is ranked in the Top 10 of the sunniest cities in Europe with a total of 2544 hours of sun.

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