Albania’s Exceptional Architecture and Cuisine

photography by: Omri Westmark

In recent years the Balkans has experienced a surging number of tourists, drawn to the region’s picturesque mountainous landscape, medieval walled cities and pristine Mediterranean beaches, yet one Balkan country, Albania, managed to stay out of the spotlight despite its strong appeal. I’ve traveled for five days to this intriguing land, awing at the flamboyantly colorful architecture while gorging in superb restaurants, admiring both its old and modern facets, coexisting elegantly wherever I went to.

Tirana

Albania’s capital and by far its largest city, Tirana, reflects the country’s turbulent communist past and its recent resurrection as a market economy, where fashionable cafés and bistros exist alongside monumental edifices, forming an interesting mosaic that tells the story of a nation.
Another aspect of its aforementioned nature is the fact that unlike typical communist cities, much of its original street layout was kept as it was prior to the socialist rule, resulting in the construction of communist style housing along narrow streets, many of which installed a commercial façade during the last two decades, contributing much to its urban lively vibes.


Named after Albania’s most prominent military commander who successfully rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, Skanderbeg Square is the beating heart of Tirana and the place from where most visitors start exploring the city.
The square is dominated by an iconic statue of Skanderbeg himself, while also being surrounded by many nationally significant building such as the Palace of Culture, the national history museum and the bank of Albania, interestingly, its proportions are gigantic relative to Tirana’s overall size, especially when compared to other main squares throughout Europe.

photography by: Omri Westmark


In 2010, the square was thoroughly face lifted by the then mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, including the installation of a new fountain utilizing rainwater to slake the thirst of passersby.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Considered as one of Tirana’s most outlandish monuments, the Pyramid of Tirana, also known as the International Cultural Center, was partly designed by the daughter of Albania’s late dictator, Enver Hoxha, as a mausoleum in honor of her father. It has been estimated that the Pyramid is the single most expensive building ever to be constructed in Albania.

photography by: Omri Westmark


In recent years the pyramid became a symbol of negligence, as many of its glass panels and tiles were stripped off from its façade, resulting in a rather dilapidated appearance, contrasted only by the TV and radio stations which operate from the rear part of the building.

photography by: Omri Westmark


During his time in office, Edi Rama, the mythological mayor of Tirana, who currently serves as the prime minister of Albania, launched a beautification policy aimed at transforming the city’s myriad communist style buildings by colorfully painting their façade, ranging from simple monochromatic dyeing to flamboyant murals.
While the buildings themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, the widespread coloration is probably Tirana’s most striking feature.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Beside the endless array of color patterns, the city is home to a hodgepodge of different architectural styles, whether it’s a modern residential tower featuring wave shaped balconies or a low rise building embellished with eclectic façade.

photography by: Omri Westmark


When it comes to the painting of architecturally dull housing in Tirana, the level of creativity is sometimes exceedingly surprising, like this mundane building whose façade coloration was inspired by the Dutch “De Stijl” art movement.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Nestled along Durrës Street, Hotel Colosseo and the nearby plaza stand out as a European style corner of the city.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Fortress of Justinian, or Tirana Castle as it’s locally known, has just few extant remnants dating back to the Byzantine time, most notably the perimeter wall built by the Ottomans. In attempt to revive the area and attract more visitors, a pedestrian shopping street was recently opened, offering traditional dining options next to souvenir shops.

photography by: Omri Westmark


As already mentioned, communist style buildings in Tirana are one of a kind, hosting large array of shops, restaurants and cafés in their ground level, forming an exceptional urban experience like nowhere else in the world.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Maybe it’s the lack of regulation, a cultural facet, a need to financially survive or a little bit of both, but it seems that cafés and shops are popping out all over the city in an unregulated fashion.

photography by: Omri Westmark


During the last decades many of Tirana’s neglected public spaces were refurbished and redesigned to accommodate the growing number of city dwellers, subsequently creating pleasant and vibrant places to stay in.

photography by: Omri Westmark


For old people in Tirana the street is still the main way to socialize as elegantly exemplified in the picture below.

photography by: Omri Westmark


During his reign of power, Enver Hoxha, the former communist ruler of Albania, engaged in an isolationist strategy, cutting ties with almost every country worldwide, including the Soviet Union. His personal unsubstantiated fear of invasion by foreign powers led him to divert enormous resources to construct hundreds of thousands of bunkers, known collectively as the bunkerization. In fact, a total of 173,371 bunkers were constructed all over the country, resulting in a staggering average of 5.7 bunkers per square kilometers.
Following Hoxha’s death and the ensuing modernization process, most of the bunkers were left forgotten, while others have been repurposed, the most famous of which is Bunk’art in the outskirts of Tirana, serving today as modern art gallery and history museum, providing an authentic glimpse to a literally state of the art bunker, including the private room of the late dictator, which he never actually used as the project was completed after his death.

photography by: Omri Westmark


When I made my way into the bunker, I bumped into a group of goats gorging on the abundant vegetation around, while a masked soldier mannequin was greeting me as I entered inside.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Serving as the city’s main green lung, the grand park of Tirana covers an area of 289 hectares, divided between flora-rich woodland and an artificial lake, created as a measure to combat seasonal flooding. While this body of water was supposedly designated for a functional purpose, in reality it’s a great recreational hot-spot, attracting swimmers and fishermen alike.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Besides being home to Albania’s presidential palace and all sorts of monumental sites like an amphitheater, the park’s lakefront is a great place to gaze into the water or even sip a coffee in front of a splashing fountain within the lake itself.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Tirana is home to plenty of small greengrocers, offering a large medley of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Suffice to say, due to limited use of chemicals and genetic modifications, the produce tends to be authentically organic, albeit without the label.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Interestingly, some hawkers decided to sell their products from a makeshift booth hilariously decorated with tempting tablecloth, overshadowing the fruits and vegetables themselves.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Also known as Pazari i Ri, the New Bazaar is not only the name of the newly constructed market in Tirana downtown, but also the surrounding quarter, historically famous for its old bazaar which stood at exactly the same location where the current marketplace operates.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Bazaar itself offers a large plethora of Albanian staple products, ranging from fruits and vegetables, nuts and dried fruits to the national alcoholic beverage, the Raki.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Built in 2005, the Dajti Express, an Austrian manufactured cable-car, links a suburban neighborhood of Tirana with the mountainous resort of Dajti, from where hikers venture out to Dajti National park, named after the massive mountain which dominates this natural speck of the capital.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The way upwards is breathtaking by its own right, as unique aerial views of tiny villages dotting the forests are abundant throughout the 15 min journey. Once at the top, Dajti resort has a lookout with spectacular panoramic vista of Tirana, enjoyable also while sipping an Albanian red wine at the nearby restaurant of Ballkoni Dajtit.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Beside the appealing sight of Tirana and its surrounding forest, Ballkoni Dajtit also offers a local dining experience of traditional Albanian dishes such as pan fried sheep cheese and cottage cheese stew with peppers.

photography by: Omri Westmark


In recent years, Tirana has seen a growing number of modern fashionable bistros popping out virtually anywhere in the city, yet the quarter of Blloku probably outshines the rest of city when it comes to its mind-boggling culinary scene. I’ve decided to dine several times at Çoko Bistro, a pleasant western style restaurant incorporating classical dishes with local interpretation, like this pike fillet complemented by a creamy sauce and steamed locally grown vegetables.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Accompanied by Brussels sprouts and cauliflower puree, even the salmon fillet, which isn’t natively grown in Albania, was absolutely gorgeous.

photography by: Omri Westmark


One of the most prominent remnants of Albania’s shared history with Italy is the numerous Italian restaurants found in the capital, which in contrary to many parts of the world don’t solely focus on pasta and pizza. I’ve spent one of my evenings in Panevino restaurant, gorging on tasty croquette and tender chicken fillet.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Another great Italian restaurant is Artigiano, this Blloku culinary hot spot has really good value dishes, one of which is the duck confit with scrumptious citrus sauce, absolutely yummy!

photography by: Omri Westmark


Saturated by the plenty of international dining options, I wanted to try the renowned modern Albanian cuisine, thus went to the chef restaurant of Mullixhiu. From a prime location in the grand park of Tirana, this unique place offers a plethora of interesting culinary bites inspired by traditional dishes. For a starter I took the excellent tempura-style deep fried zucchini flowers.

photography by: Omri Westmark


As for the main course, I ordered a chunk of goat meat accompanied by a stew of baked potatoes and carrots, and while the dish was interesting, scrapping the meat out of the bones was pretty challenging, definitely not suitable for the lazy eaters among us.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Berat

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Berat is perhaps one of the most historically significant cities in Albania. For centuries the city functioned as a crossroad between several empires, consequently making it an indispensable strategic stronghold which countlessly changed hands between military powers.
Berat’s rich past is well reflected in its many layers of architecture, culminating in the uphill fortified citadel overlooking the entire area. I’ve spent here couple of hours, exploring this fascinating place while enjoying its laid back atmosphere.


At a 120 Km distance from Tirana, the bus journey from the capital takes between 2-3 hours and ends at Berat bus terminal, from where it’s roughly 15 min walk to the city center, divided between the old uptown and the new downtown, mostly dominated by uninspiring communist style housing. Luckily, the municipal park of Lulishtia Deshemoret e Kombit provides a pleasant break before ascending to the historic part of Berat.

photography by: Omri Westmark


There are two main ways to reach the old fortified town, through a wide asphalt road or alternatively via the hillside quarter and set of unpaved paths. I’ve chosen to climb my way up through the narrow alleys around Dardha Street.

photography by: Omri Westmark


At some point the cobblestones make way for unpaved dirt road, crossed by a tireless donkey bringing groceries home.

photography by: Omri Westmark


As you climb upwards, the area becomes more sparsely populated, dominated by single homes with larger land plots, surrounded by stone walls, one of which was guarded by a cute adorable, yet angry, dog.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The unregulated path is bestowed with great panoramic view of the town and its surrounding mountains.

photography by: Omri Westmark


While many people probably won’t find the communist style downtown visibly appealing, the aerial angle coupled with the blooming flowers somewhat making it less of an eyesore.

photography by: Omri Westmark


After 35 min of intense walking, I’ve finally reached Kala, the old fortified citadel of Berat, the undoubted crown-jewel of the region.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Kala’s main gate is a formidable piece of medieval architecture, damaged and rebuilt over the course of several centuries, it holds a clearly visible mosaic of different historic layers, whereas the most recent part is attributed to the Ottoman rule.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The castle remnants are a marvelous relic of the town historic significance, a silent evidence of a once vibrant cultural, religious and military center. Currently topped by the Albanian national flag, the castle’s walls are partly climbable albeit extra caution is needed.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Many local residents make their living by selling traditional souvenirs, most notably Albanian style tablecloths, elegantly hanged along the main street.

photography by: Omri Westmark


An old Albanian woman curiously watches the passersby in a hope to catch their attention and make ends meet.

photography by: Omri Westmark


While old Berat main street is pretty wide and spacious, the citadel mostly features cobble-stoned narrow alleys, sometimes roofed by vine sheds.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Interestingly, some modern houses are built on top of much older layer, merged together to form an inter-generational townscape.

photography by: Omri Westmark


While some ancient remnants are utilized as foundations for new housing, others are left untouched, slowly consumed by nature, beautifully covered by a flowery green carpet.

photography by: Omri Westmark


During a notable period of its existence, Berat citadel was predominately Christian, evident by the handful of Orthodox churches, some of which date back to the Byzantine era, like the red roofed church of St. Theodore.

photography by: Omri Westmark


The church has a limited access, but for the ones lucky enough to enter inside, a couple of magnificent frescos await.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Throughout the old town, vendors from the surrounding villages sell their produce, including jams, olive oil, honey, sour green plums and sweet cherries.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Tempted by their reddish tint, I’ve decide to buy a cup of cherries and stroll along the walls, suffice to say, the cherries were absolutely scrumptious, brimming with flavors and sweetness.

photography by: Omri Westmark


I often talk about the downsides of mass-tourism, yet it surely has it bright sides too, for instance, thanks to the growing number of visitors, Berat has plenty of excellent dining options that otherwise wouldn’t exist, one of which is Temi Albanian Food, a great place to experience traditional Albanian cuisine. I ordered Fërgesë, a stew made of cottage cheese and peppers, Albanian spinach pie and small eggplant bites stuffed with peppers.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Just before making my way back to the bus terminal, I sipped a Turkish-style coffee accompanied by a strawberry jam while gazing into the picturesque alley.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Shkodër

The fourth largest city in Albania and the regional center of the country’s northern part, Shkodër, aka Shkodra, is a great place to enjoy a day trip from Tirana or alternatively as a gateway to explore the myriad interesting sites around.
Surprisingly, whereas Tirana is still overwhelmingly dominated by its communist past, Shkodër has many well preserved architectural marvels, particularly the Venetian style buildings along Rruga Kolë, located in the heart of the historic quarter.
Besides being architecturally appealing, Shkodër is also bestowed with a giant lake, named after the city itself while its northern half is part of the republic of Montenegro.
Outflowing from the lake, the Bojana River is famous for being a charming corner of the city, where locals and visitors alike stroll and relax.


The historic neighborhood of Gjuhadol is home to a large number of Venetian style buildings, standing out nationwide as a place reminiscent of Central Europe rather than a typical Albanian townscape.

photography by: Omri Westmark


A large portion of the double-storey buildings host cafés, restaurants and bars at their ground level, further adding up to Shkodër’s foreign vibes.

photography by: Omri Westmark


On my way southward to the lake, I bumped into this hectic pigeon aviary, catching the attention of curious strollers.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Considered as one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, Buna Bridge links the two banks of Bojana River.

photography by: Omri Westmark


Frequently being crossed by strolling pedestrians who wish to catch a glimpse of the river and its green banks, it also serves as a gathering spot for local fishermen, attracted by the river’s plentiful fish.

photography by: Omri Westmark


You can’t really visit Lake Shkodër without trying a plate of freshly harvested fish, preferably accompanied by a local white wine. There are numerous restaurants along the lake, offering guests with fresh catch and lakefront views.

photography by: Omri Westmark