Albania. Perhaps not your average destination for a weekend break, I guess, but Mr D and I found ourselves with a spare long weekend and nowhere to go. Having checked our frequent flyer accounts we discovered the closest available weekend option was Tirana. Over the years we’re lucky enough to have travelled to almost everywhere within a do-able in a weekend 3 hour flight of London but Tirana was one of the few places we’d not visited.
When I floated the idea of a random weekend in Albania, Mr D was rather lukewarm on the idea. Why would we want to go there, he asked? I could sort of see his point. There is a view of Albania that is was a poor country, full of dodgy con men, littered with buildings constructed in a 1970s Communist brutalist style and with roads which are barely passable unless you’re driving a horse and cart.
How wrong can you be?
We realised as soon as we arrived at Tirana’s very modern airport that our preconceptions were very wide of the mark.
We’d arranged for our hotel to send a car to take us to pick us up from the airport. As we stepped outside the airport we were greeted with rows of flashy cars. What no horse and cart?
Our driver (who’d lived in the US for many years) gave us a brilliant introduction to Albania and its history in the car journey into central Tirana. As I looked out the window of the car another two of my myths on the country were shattered. The roads were good quality and on top of that, the roads were not full of horse and carts. They were in fact crammed full of Porsche Cayennes, BMW X5s and apart from those every other car was a Mercedes. And then a further surprise…many of the cars were carrying UK license plates. Hmmmm……
As we drove into the centre of Tirana our driver explained the history behind the multi coloured buildings which were everwhere. The former mayor of Tirana, who was an artist, had encouraged the residents of the city to paint their buildings in an effort to cheer up the city post-Communist rule. I liked the crazy tutti frutti style very much.
We ate dinner in the Blok area of Tirana. This small grid of streets – previously out of bounds to ordinary Albanians as it housed the villa of former dictator Enver Hoxha and the Communist party apparatchiks – is where most of the city’s nightlife and restaurants is based.
I really enjoyed the atmosphere. It was a warm balmy night and everywhere sat the city’s youth knocking back with a beer, smoking and, very much like Albania’s neighbour Greece, drinking a lot of coffee. Stroll around. It’s easy to find a bar you like the look of. I felt completely safe in Tirana at all times.
So how about the food in Tirana? Well, the places we ate in may not win any culinary awards but the food was very tasty and simple. Peppers stuffed with cheese appeared on many menus.
And similar to Turkey and Greece, it was easy to order simple grilled meats.
Unfortunately Coeliac Travel don’t offer cards in Albanian which is perhaps not surprising for a country of 3 million. So instead I used an online translation tool before we went to translate the English version of the card into Albanian. When we arrived at the hotel in Tirana, I asked the hotel receptionist to take a look at the Albanian. As you can see, the results of this method were not overly impressive!
Generally I found most staff in restaurants did speak some English. No-one understood what ‘gluten’ was though. Instead I tried various ways to explain what I could and couldn’t eat using simple words like “allergy” (since the route of this word is used in other languages even if it’s pronounced slightly differently), “no bread, no pasta”, and surprisingly “no farina” (for the same reason as using “allergy”) seemed to work well. I offered the translation card which had been scrawled on by the helpful receptionist to each waiter. In the restaurant where I ate the lamb chops above, the waiter proudly explained he’d got the chef to boil the potatoes and so they would be safe. A little bit of effort on both sides and we got there in the end.
Next post: 7 fun things to do on a weekend in Tirana. Really!