It’s a pleasant surprise to find that Tirana is considerably different from the one I imagined or read about; Parallel to the remnants of an isolationist regime are a people who are open to the world and sincerely hospitable. Alongside the detritus of destruction of the post-communist and post-pyramid scheme collapse is pride in ownership in the shape of well-kept family run hotels and bars.
Tirana has become modernised to the extent that western advertising billboards dominate the once sparse Skanderbeg Square in the centre of town. If you’ve ever seen any pictures of Albania, they almost certainly would be of here. The statute of Stalin in the centre has long since been torn down and replaced by kiddie rides and fountains. Though I’m amazed that any children are playing there given that traffic is horrendous and crossing the six lane untraffic-lighted roads takes a fair bit of risk.
We are staying at the Tirana International Hotel on Skanderbeg Square which offers spectacular views from the rooms. Once it was the tallest building in Tirana but is now a bit run down, but the parquet floored rooms are okay. Though you will be woken by the maids if you’re not up before 8am.
A stroll around the surrounding streets show that Tiranians have become as much of a consumer society as anybody. Though all the CDs and videos are fakes, none of the sport shops stock the Albania kit, and souvenir shops are big on sabres and knives. Italy is the nearest major country and its influence is very evident in the restaurants here. Pretty much every eatery is Italian, though they will serve Albanian food it you ask. Western fast-food joints have yet to make an appearance in Albania, but the counterfeit ‘McDonalds Fast Food’ on Rr. Deshmoret is in trouble when it does.
The backstreet bars are a good way of mixing with the locals. Most are no more that converted front rooms, but the drinks are cheap (a round of 7 costing about GBP5.00, a third of hotel bar prices) and some have dubious satellite link ups to watch England’s jammy win over Turkey. Language hasn’t been a problem either, I learnt a few phrases before I came. Though most folk speak some English, my fluency in the international language of pointing and miming is tested on those who don’t. Especially as I have to remember that here, shaking of the head means ‘yes’ and nodding means ‘no’.
The National History Museum on Skanderbeg Square is worth a visit, if only to escape from the stifling heat (a complete contrast to Georgia, though we shouldn’t have been surprised given Albania is a Medditerranian country). Due to repeated looting, many of the exhibits are of dubious authenticity. And all mention of Enver Hoxha is strangely absent.
The match was at the Qemal Stafa stadium, a lovely 15-minute stroll from our hotel down the tree lined Boulevard of the Martyrs in the evening sun. When we got there however, the atmosphere turned quite ugly. Many forged tickets where in circulation (not that it matters because no tickets were checked) and riot police were batoning the locals to keep them out of the 15,000-capacity ground that was full an hour before kick-off. We had to squeeze past police vans and climb over barriers as home fans were also attempting to get into our section and were beaten back. At one point it got quite scary and I thought we had another Hillsborough on our hands, but we somehow all made it in unscathed.
In an intimidating atmosphere, Albania dominated and a repeat of their win over Russia on Saturday seemed likely. But Ireland scraped a fortunate 0-0 draw which we were happy with given the circumstances. Afterwards there was full scale celebrations in the square, with fans climbing on cars, blaring horns, waving flags and setting off fireworks. What would they have done if they have won?
Tirana was an eye opener. Judging from the building works on the road from the airport, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes fully westernised into a fully-fledged holiday resort. In a way that’s a bit sad because for now, Tirana still has some of that – for want of a better cliché – old world charm/east meets west crossover. It’ll be a pity when it’s gone.