Sightseeing in Tirana - Part 1
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We rounded off four weeks of travelling slowly through Albania, with five nights in the capital Tirana, staying at the centrally located Oxford Hotel. This meant the vast majority of our sightseeing could be done on foot.
We had a day trip to Elbasan and Shelcan but found plenty to see in the city. Bearing in mind, Albania was under communist rule from 1946 to 1992, the country is refreshingly open about its horrific past. To gain an idea of life during this time from different perspectives, we visited: Bunk’Art 1, Bunk’Art 2 and the House of Leaves – I’ve reviewed these separately as they were so fascinating.
We also had a guide for a half-day city tour and this review, “Sightseeing in Tirana – Part 1”, covers the areas seen with our guide.
SKANDERBEG SQUARE – is a large open area of land in the heart of the city. Named after Albania’s national hero, it naturally contains a huge statue of Skanderbeg on horseback by Odhisë Paskali. However, the statue of Enver Hoxha was pulled down when communism ended (we later saw this ‘dumped’ behind the National Gallery of Arts). We were told the square has had various redesigns over the years, as city mayors have all wanted to put their stamp on it. In 2018, it was renovated with multi-coloured paving made with stones from different parts of the country. Surrounding the square were a number of tall buildings. On the northern side were the National Historical Museum and the Tirana International Hotel with its 15 floors, which had at one time been the tallest building. Other sides were dominated by ornate, yellow, Italian-designed government buildings whilst the Chinese had a hand in the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet which was unfortunately closed for 3 years for refurbishment.
MOSQUE OF ET’HAM BEY – was also closed for renovation, but baksheesh changed hands and we were allowed in: we saw this happening several times during our short visit and thought the security guard must be coining it in. It was built in 1793 and designated a “Monument Kulture” by the communists during the Atheist period, and therefore protected, unlike many religious buildings. There was scaffolding both inside and out, but we could just see the frescoes which were said to be unusual as they contained still life, birds and animals.
NATIONAL HISTORICAL MUSEUM – this is a huge museum with a beautiful coloured mural above the entrance. The exterior walls had basic damage to the plaster, caused by the minor earthquake which had happened a few weeks before, whilst we were in Korça. The exhibits were laid out over three floors and we were given permission to take photos quietly. The spread was vast from Antiquity on the ground floor, through the Middle Ages and Second World War to the communist period. We saw two of the most noted artefacts: the Goddess of Butrint (we’d seen the replica earlier in our trip when visiting Butrint), and one of the first mosaics discovered in Albania featuring a woman’s head known as the Belle of Durres. There was lots of information about Mother Theresa, who the Albanians like to call their own, although she was born in Macedonia, and also King Zog. The museum’s layout and design were excellent, both spacious and light, and we were told it had been a collaboration of experts from all the various fields of expertise. One temporary exhibition we didn’t have time for were the entries into the annual Tirana Photo Festival. However, a lovely lady let us in two days later, as we’d retained our tickets.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ARTS – here the second floor was closed due to health and safety concerns over damage incurred during the earthquake. Downstairs a few pictures were followed by a series of videos that didn’t make too much sense. They included Chinese people chopping a cabbage, interspersed with others cutting a block of marble and four TV screens of faces showing people crying. More interesting, was the collection of communist era statues behind the building which included Lenin, Stalin and Hoxha, plus three idealised workers and Shote Galica, a heroine of Albania’s struggle for independence.
NATIONAL MARTYRS CEMETERY OF ALBANIA – a short drive out of town and overlooking the city, the cemetery contained the graves of 900 partisans and the imposing 12m statue, Mother Albania with her raised arm. Representing the country as a mother guarding over the eternal slumber of those who gave their lives for her, the monument was designed by Kristaq Rama, the father of Edi Rama, the current Prime Minister. Beside the statue were two graves. The first was a young partisan, Qemal Stafa, the founding member of the communist youth movement. He was killed in 1942 aged 22 and regarded a national hero, although it was pointed out if he’d lived, he’d have been a compatriot of Hoxha. Originally Hoxha was buried here, but in 1992 the body was exhumed and moved to the public cemetery. It was later replaced by Azem Hajdari, leader of the student movement that led to the fall of communism, who was murdered in 1998, aged 36.
TANNERS’ BRIDGE – a beautiful18th-century Ottoman stone footbridge built near the Tanners’ Mosque. It was the route by which livestock and produce entered the city and crossed the Lanë stream near the area where butcher shops and leather workers were located. The bridge fell into disrepair when the Lanë was diverted in the 1930s but was restored in the 1990s for use by pedestrians. It had been recently planted with grass to replace the inevitable rubbish and stones underneath.
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