Eric's thoughts are here). It went from an Italianate backwater in the 1930's to the headquarters of a North Korea-like paranoia state during the Cold War to lawless, anarchic gangland in the mid-ninetiess to . . . well, now it is very much a modern, cosmopolitan, very European city.
It's also full of candy-striped pink buildings, fortress-like apartment buildings, Mercedes-driving fruit vendors, and the most chaotic public square I have ever scurried across. Welcome to Albania.
The most striking thing about the city is easily that all of the buildings are painted in bright pastels. The mayor, a former professor of art, thought the city needed a little brightening up, and . . . well, see above. Communist block apartments, Italianate mansions, brand new construction - all of it is bright pink, green, purple or blue, and it's actually really beautiful.
Taking inspiration from Tirana, I suppose, there are a lot of these bright, gaudy buildings scattered around ethnic Albanian areas in Macedonia. They seem very much out of place among the gray, drab Yugoslav apartment blocks. But when the entire city is painted like an Easter Egg, it works. Who would have thought?
Albania also just recently joined NATO, which has been really important for this incredibly pro-American country. Before visiting, going only from news reports, I had no idea how they had reached that point. Just over ten years ago, the entire country collapsed into anarchy as a giant investment scheme wiped out virtually the entire GDP. The United Nations had to send in a stabilization force to restore public order. Now, the city is full of well-kept parks, clean streets, and modern steel-and-glass buildings. The area surrounding former Communist dicator Enver Hoxja's home is a hip bar/club/cafe district. There are some really fantastic restaurants. I could have been wandering around a pleasant downtown area in almost any European city. NATO accension made much more sense.
On the other hand, a good 100 kilometers of the road leading to Tirana was more or less a one-and-a-half lane village road. The electrical grid is prone to frequent collapse, as every pole has a spiderweb of illegal lines draining power from the main powerlines. The river flowing through the city is little better than a sewage drainage ditch, and the sewer system overall is in desperate need of upgrades. The water isn't all that safe to drink. Albania has the highest rate of traffic fatalities in Europe, and believe me, I now know why - and I think it deserves a separate post.
Overall, though, Eric and I were both incredibly impressed with Tirana. I plan on returning as soon as possible to Albania - beyond Tirana, there are some really spectacular beaches, archaeological sites, mountain villages, and all that great Balkan stuff. A few more pictures:
\Kolonat: I think Tirana is the only major European capital without a McDonald's - Skopje has three, plus another in Tetovo. Instead, they have 'Kolonat' which, as you can see from the 'broken arches', is a Bizarro-McDonald's. The setup, the advertisements, the Happy Meals, and the decor all stand in blatant copyright infringement. And they serve pizza and beer.
UFO University: This is a major Albanian university on the main square. It's pronounced "Yoofoe", and is an acronym for something in Albanian. Unfortunately, they don't have a paranormal studies department.