Albania was thought of as the bad egg of Europe for a good many years. At the time, Tirana was regarded as one of the worst – if not the worst – capital city in the continent. But Albania’s time as an isolationist communist nation is over. The country is in a process of re-discovering itself, and Tirana is the nation’s sounding board.
Settlement in the region dates back to the Palaeolithic era (stone tools found in the Cave of Pellumbas near the city are thought to be between 10,000 and 30,000 years old). The Illyrians and Romans were here too; both civilisations left a few cultural relics behind for you to admire. But the history of Tirana as a settlement does not begin until the city’s founding in 1614.
Even then not all that much of interest happened for the next 300 odd years. Things didn’t really start to kick off until 1920, when Tirana was made the temporary capital of newly independent Albania. And when the search for a more satisfactory capital city came back empty-handed, Tirana’s position as capital was made permanent.
In 1939 the National Fascist Party of Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, invaded and captured Tirana. The capital was soon given a makeover, with new government buildings designed in Neo-Renaissance style, and new, rather-Italian-looking city squares.
Albania, not surprisingly, was unhappy under Fascist control. Resistance groups formed and unified under the banner of the national communist party. When the fascists were ousted in 1944, the communist party took control. Enver Hoxha became the new leader (and ruled until his death in 1985).
Albania entered its isolationist phase. Historical buildings were knocked down in Tirana to make way for new communist buildings. Churches and mosques were bulldozed; religion was stamped out.
‘The only religion for Albania is Albanianism,’ Enver Hoxha famously declared.
Communist rule ended in 1992. In 2000, Edi Rama, Tirana mayor, gave the capital its third brutal makeover. More buildings came down, streets were widened, new apartment blocks went up. This time a palette of pastel shades was used to spice up the city: yellows, pinks, reds, purples – a palette which came to be known as Edi Rama colours.
And thus, the city of Tirana that you see today, was made.
Skanderbeg Square, Tirana
Skanderbeg Square is named after the national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti (whose nickname was Skanderbeg), a nobleman who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the mid 15th Century.
The square once contained a statue of Jospeh Stalin, and at a later date one of Enver Hoxha. Both were done away with at the fall of the communist regime.
The Pyramid of Tirana
The Pyramid of Tirana, completed in 1988, was designed by Enver Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law. It once contained the Enver Hoxha Museum, and was a tribute and memorial to the iron-fisted leader.
The Pyramid is in pretty bad shape these days, its main use is that of a graffiti wall and gathering point for local youths. There are various plans going around to knock the structure down and build something else in its place.
I for one hope they change their minds and decide to keep the Pyramid. It’s a unique, interesting, and instantly-recognisable building. It also cost a fortune to construct in the first place, and has great historical significance. I understand that some may look at the Pyramid as a reminder of an unhappy past, but perhaps this could be combatted by re-appropriating the building; turning it into a funky exhibition space for instance, or an outlandish office for a stylish, innovative IT start-up. Or even just a museum depicting Albania’s communist past?
Is Tirana worth a visit?
The days of Tirana being the worst capital in Europe are long gone. Today the city is a vibrant, cosmopolitan centre. And while there isn’t much in the way of must-see tourist attractions in the city, Tirana is the beating heart of the nation, and if you want to get the full picture of Albania then a stop here is a must.