We managed to get to Vlorë, the port town north of Orikum very easily, and the bus was only half full! Then a quick walk up the road to reach the other bus terminal to catch our bus to Tiranë, Albania’s capital city.
On the way we passed a rather heroic sculpture reminding us that Vlorë is the place where independance from Ottoman rule was declared in 1912.
The 2½ hour journey to Tiranë took us to the main north/south bus terminal on the outskirts of the city. The terminal was a piece of mayhem that seemed to just about work, with buses arriving and departing all the time in a general melée. There was the usual scrum of insistent taxi drivers trying to get fares.. However we knew the city bus was a flat fare of 40 Lek each (around 35p) for the 3.5km ride into the city centre, so we headed for the bus stop on the main road outside. A bus arrived quite quickly so we got on… however after about ½km we realised we had caught the bus in the wrong direction! Off we got to get the bus in the right direction (for another 80 Lek.)
Once installed in our accommodation we began exploring and orientating ourselves. Conveniently, not far from where we were staying, in Skanderberg Square, there was a ‘free’ walking tour of the city centre starting at 6pm. The idea is you pay what you can or feel is right.. at the appointed time there was a group of around 40 so assembled so the 2 guides split the group between them.
Our guide was a very knowledgable historian who was resident in Tiranë but was actually an American. As we visited each feature we were given very interesting background information, not only on the building or sight, but also some contextual history.
The tour lasted around two hours and helped us more easily navigate Tiranë during our stay and decide on the places we might want to visit.
One of the features of the tourism ‘offer’of Tiranë is the focus on the leftovers of the postwar Hoxha period when Albania isolated itself not only from surrounding countries but most of the rest of the world, bar North Korea and China.
The major sites include Bunk’Art and Bunk’Art2. The original Bunk’Art is 4km or so from the centre and is also quite close to Tirana’s very own cable car which can take you 1,000mtrs up into the mountains that lie to the north. So we combined a visit to both places. Bunk’Art is reached either by local bus @40Lek or a taxi ride likely to be anything up to 20 times that, and probably in Euros as well.
Local bus was fine, but was also well used, so it somewhat inevitably meant standing for the 20 minute ride.
The guy at the ticket office for Bunk’Art helpfully pointed out that we were both entitled to an older person’s discount, which was around half price… he then pointed out we also could buy a combined ticket for BunkArt2 at the reduced price, and this meant we had entrance for both sites at a little less than full price ticket for one site.
Walking to the entrance tunnel to, what is esentially a cold war nuclear bunker buried deep in the mountain, was a weird feeling, especially since just outside the tunnel was a very old and rusty children’s playground.
As you went through thick airlock after airlock the temperature fell to the steady 16C temperature that the site has all year round.
You then passed through room after room in the huge underground complex, each filled with exhibits that tell of Albania’s history from the time it was free from Ottoman rule in the early part of the 20th Century, through the time Italy annexed the country in the 30’s , to the second world war and Nazi occupation, the communist post war period and almost up to the present day.
Walking out of the lower entrance you passed an eerie armed gas masked statue of a soldier before re-entering normal life in the outer suburbs of the city… then a short walk through the backstreets to the pretty modern Austrian made cable car complex, where loads of tour coaches and taxis were parked up, either having just dropped off their passengers or waiting for their returning sightseers.
The 15 minute ride in the cable car gondola was well worth the €10 return fare. Travelling high above trees, the odd house dotted about, cliffs and outcrops it was very peaceful, since the cable car was almost silent. You could hear birdsong, and water coursing down an unseen stream through the open window vent as the cabin climbed ever higher.
The top station, where we had our lunch sitting on a bench facing a panoramic view of Tiranë was rather an anticlimax, apart from the view of course. There was a collection of amusement activities, including go carting, crazy golf and a shooting arcade. None of which seemed to be attracting many customers. It was possible to seek out some paths away from this into the wooded mountainside but, unusually for this part of Albania at this time of year it had been raining and there were some low clouds scudding about so it may not necessarily have been that pleasant.
Back down again, we continued our wanderings, taking in an attractive produce market, the “Pyramid” of Tiranë and the outside of the city’s oldest building, the 14th century mosque which looked particularly attractive. We weren’t able to go inside, sadly, and admire the architecture, for it was a very busy mosque for worshop so had restricted visiting hours for tourists.
We climbed the “Pyramid” and admired the cityscape from the top. This included very bold architectural forms, together with the familiar older architecture of mosques and churches.
We rounded off the evening at a very good restaurant that had been recommended to us which served good quality Albanian cuisine. Unfortunately the Albanian dancing to accompany the dining was only presented at weekends, and this was Thursday!
The following day we wanted to leave Tiranë at around 2pm to catch one of the many buses that connect the capital city with the country’s main port, Durrës, so we had a little more time in the morning to see a few more sights. This included Bunk’Art2 which was very close to the main square. This was entered via a recreated “mushroom” bunker which mimicked the design of the hundreds of thousands that Enver Hoxha had built across Albania.
It caused some controversy when it was built some 7 years ago, since some people who had lived under the paranoid dictatorship thought it amounted to a celebration of the brutal period in the past. Having visited it, it provided a sensitive record of the thousands of people who lost their lives who were regarded as traitors or were shot for leaving the country. All this housed in an extensive nuclear bunker in the city centre which was designed to maintain some form of elite government after nuclear attack.
And so to Durres to catch our ferry to Bari.
Following our previous visit when we arrived we thought we might see if the town was more attractive than we thought previously… after all it had a Roman amphitheatre!
The few hours spent before our departure confirmed our previous assesment. There was little to appreciate beyond a long tree lined promenade… and the amphitheatre barely could be discerned from the pile of stones we could see beyond the boundary fence.