Ten years ago I was in Tirana and if I squinted I might have seen this article coming. I was working on a project for the United Nations Development Programme, focused on the Prespa Lakes Basin, and the visits in Tirana were like a time warp. In a good way, as it is now more easy to see:
In the Albanian capital of Tirana, the country’s strange history and bright future collide.
Over the past five years, Albania has been discovered by travelers as that rare thing: a largely unexplored corner of Europe (one with some 265 miles of coastline). The small Balkan country sits just across the Adriatic and Ionian seas from Italy’s heel and a mere 45-minute ferry ride away from the Greek island of Corfu. It’s recently gotten its first high-end waterside resorts, and as the beach town of Sarande and the seaside city of Vlore have become more comfortable, so too has Tirana — the country’s capital, about 22 miles inland with a population of over half a million — grown more cosmopolitan, with new restaurants, shops and galleries joining the almost surrealist pastiche of testaments to the city’s past. For a good example of the way eras collide in Tirana, just visit Skanderbeg Square, recently renovated with new fountains and rosy granite paving, and home to an 18th-century mosque and minaret, a domed Albanian Orthodox church opened in 2012, a set of government buildings that echo the fascist architecture of Mussolini’s Italy and a Brutalist monolith that houses the National Historical Museum.
Initially settled by Illyrian and Greek tribes during ancient times, Albania spent over four centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire. After 1912, it became a fascist-leaning monarchy, and then, in the wake of World War II, a Communist state ruled by the infamous dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1991, a full year behind many of its Eastern Bloc neighbors, the country saw its first democratic elections, as well as murmurings of a cultural awakening. Tirana may not have a robust avant-garde scene, but it does have a gritty, iconoclastic edge — the Pyramid, a large monument to Hoxha in the center of town, is now popular with skateboarders — and a joie de vivre that’s enticed many former expats. “There’s so much potential,” says Flori Uka, a local winemaker who trained in northeastern Italy and now specializes in vintages made from organic Kallmet grapes grown just outside the city. “We were isolated for so long, but today it’s possible for creative people to do what they love. The place has become very receptive to the new.”
The Plaza Tirana
Opened in 2016, this luxury hotel is housed in a 24-story skyscraper with a geometric facade of zigzagging glass and terrazzo. Located just east of Skanderbeg Square, the building shares a skyline with Tirana’s famous clock tower, built by the 19th-century poet Etehem Bey Mollaj, and, since its completion in 2016, has become a landmark itself. Inside, the 190 rooms have oak parquet floors and battleship-gray walls that manage to feel stately, not drab. Guests can relax at the spa, which includes a room lined with Himalayan salt, thought to improve breathing, or at one of the three restaurants — Panevino serves excellent pasta. plazatirana.com
The Rooms Hotel & Residence
This partly solar-powered hotel is a short walk from the Blloku, which was once a residential district off-limits to all except the upper echelons of the Hoxha regime but is today lined with lively bars and restaurants. (Don’t miss the cape gooseberry sours at Colonial Cafe, whose Albanian mixologist recently moved back to the country after three years in Brooklyn.) The hotel’s 23 rooms are a study in Milanese-inspired minimalism, with white walls and linens, gauzy beige curtains and Nespresso machines. They’re also close to the city’s Grand Park, which has four miles of paths for jogging and walking. therooms-hotel.com…
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