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Dark tourism in Tirana

Tirana day two

View Tirana 2023 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Taxi drivers in Blloku

In Quo Vadis

We had a bit of a lie-in today to catch up on sleep after yesterday’s early start. Once we were up we went for breakfast at the Quo Vadis bar/café near the apartment block, as we’d noticed croissants advertised on the menu outside. These proved to be large and chocolate-filled. My double espresso was good, but Chris’s cappuccino had hardly any coffee and was more like hot milk.

As we ate my eye was caught by the surprising sight of a couple of old Newcastle Brown Ale adverts on the wall near the door. While we were photographing these on our way out a man sitting at a nearby table spoke to us, in excellent English. We explained why we were so interested, and he told us he'd visited London twice but so far not been anywhere else in England. A lengthy conversation ensued, partly in English and partly in German, which he also spoke well. He talked about his time studying in Paris and Graz, his views on British and French colonialism (the former being preferable, in his view), the education system in Austria, English football, and his British diplomat friend, author of several spy thrillers. We enjoyed the chat but eventually found ourselves edging towards the door, keen to get on with some sightseeing! He allowed us to leave but not before showing us his Facebook profile and encouraging us to message him for links to his published articles.

We popped back to the apartment to drop off an unwanted jacket as we could tell it was shaping up to be a warmer day than yesterday, then set out. Our first photos were taken just across the road, the former residence of Enver Hoxha. This isn’t open to the public but is worth seeing.



Enver Hoxha's house

Postbllok Checkpoint

A short distance away is the Postbllok Checkpoint, a memorial to those who suffered under the Communist regime. It consists of an entrance to an old bunker, a piece of the Berlin Wall, and some concrete supports from the mine at the notorious Spaç forced labour camp where thousands of political prisoners suffered between 1968 and 1990.

This bunker is one of hundreds of thousands across Albania, constructed between 1967 and 1986 under Enver Hoxha’s ‘bunkerisation’ (bunkerizimi)policy. According to Wikipedia, the bunkers were:
‘intended to establish defensive positions across the entirety of the country. Smaller ones were laid out in lines radiating out within sight of a large command bunker, which was permanently manned. The commanders of the large bunkers would communicate with their superiors by radio and with the occupants of the smaller bunkers by making visual signals that could be seen through slits…

Bunker and mine supports at Postbllok Checkpoint

Berlin Wall fragment and street art on a nearby utility box

Citizens were trained from the age of 12 to station themselves in the nearest bunker to repel invaders. Local Party cells organised families to clean and maintain their local bunkers, and civil defence drills were held at least twice a month, lasting for up to three days, in which civilians of military age of both sexes were issued with rifles (but no ammunition).’

The bunkers still dot the countryside and city streets of the country. A few have been repurposed as museums, cafés, storehouses, housing for animals etc., but most lie derelict.

St Paul's Cathedral (Katedralja e Shën Palit)

From here we walked towards, and crossed, the Lana River. I'd hoped to visit the iconic Tirana Pyramid but that has been closed for restoration as a children's centre and was almost completely hidden by hoardings.

On the far side of the river we visited the modern Catholic Cathedral, partly to check for mass times on Sunday but also to admire the architecture.


St Paul's Cathedral

Mother Teresa statue

And it didn’t disappoint, with a striking design, beautiful stained glass and a statue of Mother Teresa outside. It was built between 1993, the cornerstone having been laid by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Albania that year, and 2002.




Inside the cathedral

Tirana at play

We passed the Cloud, Reja, a Japanese art installation on a grassy patch studded with lovely wildflowers.

Reja or the Cloud

Beyond it we found a street lined with tempting open-air cafes, busy with locals enjoying what we suddenly realised was Orthodox Good Friday. We took a seat at one so that Chris could get the coffee he'd missed out on earlier while I refreshed myself with some water – the morning was warming up.



In Shëtitorja Murat Toptani

We explored the rest of the street and the nearby remains of the medieval castle which now house cafes, restaurants and shops, resolving to come back here for lunch.


But first we visited the nearby Bunk’Art 2, the former bunker of the Ministry of Internal Affairs now devoted to a museum about the country’s secret police, the Sigurimi, before and during the Communist era.

Most of the small (almost claustrophobic) 24 rooms in the bunker contain photographs, artefacts and descriptions covering the period from 1945-1991. They describe the creation of the Sigurimi under Communism and the state’s means of persecution of its citizens as well as foreign visitors.

Border control dog

Room dedicated to all who lost their lives due to torture, imprisonment and execution

One exhibit described how the brothers and sisters of the then Pope sought shelter in the Italian Embassy. They were there for five years while the embassy was effectively put under siege by the authorities, surrounded by 800 soldiers and policemen. The Sigurimi bugged the embassy, as officials there knew they would, and the bugs were easily found and disabled – apart from one. This was hidden in the handle of a broom used by a maid who had been recruited as a spy by the Sigurimi.

Bug in a broom handle

Another covered the bugging of five hotels used by foreign visitors to Tirana, showing video footage captured in one of a woman bringing illegal Western ‘luxuries’ into the country in return for payment. A poster described how foreigners whose appearance went against the norms of the ‘socialist aesthetics’ would be stopped at the border and forced to conform or be denied admission. These outlawed styles included men with ‘long hair like women and exaggerated sideburns’, and women with ‘mini and maxi skirts’.

Yet another described how the Sigurimi created a network of local spies, recruited to monitor the behaviour of their neighbours in a manner that reminded me of the North Korean system of inminban (community) leaders. There was a mock-up of two neighbouring apartments with tiny holes in the wall between them through which a camera and microphone could pick up activities.

Mock-up of an apartment surveillance set-up

A few rooms retain the appearance they would have had in Hoxha’s day. This is the suite of rooms intended to serve as the office of the Minister of Internal Affairs, with a meeting room, office, bedroom and bathroom. It was never used for its intended purpose.

Minister's office

Exit from Bunk'Art 2

Skanderbeg Square

After our visit to Bunk’Art2 we retraced our steps to enjoy a nice lunch in one of the restaurants we'd spotted earlier, a mixed snack platter to share (cheeses, meats and potato wedges), washed down with a beer. We then returned to take more photos in and around Skanderbeg Square.

Statue of Skanderbeg

The square is named for Albania’s national hero, whose statue dominates its southern side. This monument was inaugurated in 1968 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death. Skanderbeg was an early 15th century Albanian feudal lord and military commander. He led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the region that today encompasses Albania along with several other countries.

In Skanderbeg Square

My panoramic shot shows two sides of the square. Among the significant buildings are:
On the far left, the National Historical Museum, the huge mosaic on the front of which was undergoing restoration when we visited, covered by scaffolding and a fabric reproduction of what lies beneath.
Left of centre, some new construction dwarfing the white block of the Tirana Hotel, once infamous for the bugging of rooms occupied by foreign visitors.
Right of centre, the Soviet-style Palace of Culture, housing the Opera and Ballet Theatre and National Library, which replaced the city’s old bazaar.
Far right, the Et'hem Bey Mosque and behind it the city’s clock tower, a well-known local landmark which was built in 1822, its design influenced by that of the Campanile San Marco in Venice.

The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (Katedralja Ortodokse 'Ngjallja e Krishtit')

Next we visited the Orthodox Cathedral. This was opened on June 24, 2012, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church. Outside there is a small Chapel of the Nativity to one side and an impressive bell tower to the other. The latter was designed by Archbishop Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana and Durrës and head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. The design is composed of four candles which symbolise the four Evangelists. These surround the central column with its spiral staircase leading to two open floors holding sixteen bells.

Cathedral, bell tower and Nativity Chapel

The bell tower and neighbouring modern architecture

Inside there are some beautiful mosaics, frescos and icons, while the dome is shaded in blue with a central painting of Christ Pantocrator.


Inside the cathedral

Our visit coincided with that of a group of teenagers, whose teacher (I assume) encouraged them to sing something, which was lovely to hear in that setting. I took a video to capture it, then stupidly deleted it having wrongly thought I’d downloaded it along with my still photos of the trip – I hadn’t!

Street scenes

Heading back towards the apartment we found a useful currency exchange and some interesting small shops, as well as some good street art opportunities.

Bridge over the Lana River



On Rruga Ibrahim Rugova

We supplemented our lunch with an ice cream from the same café as yesterday and then returned to the apartment to relax for a bit, catch up on emails and messages, sort photos etc.

More street art in Blloku

Evening in Tirana

In the evening we went to Restaurant Era, just up the road, on the recommendation of a Virtual Tourist friend Claus. They serve lots of traditional Albanian dishes and we were both really pleased with the meatballs with yoghurt and pistachios that we'd chosen. Afterwards we enjoyed a nightcap raki on the terrace of a nearby bar/café, Laveen.

Meatballs in Era

Posted by ToonSarah 18:03 Archived in Albania Tagged food history statue square city museum cathedral tirana albania street_art street_photography

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Hello, Sarah! Thanks for your detailed and interesting story! You have managed to see and to experience a lot! Good for you!

by Vic_IV

Albania is on our maybe list for next year. It's only May but we are already researching ideas for next years adventures. Albania has been one of top choices.

by littlesam1

I'm always interested in historical sites even if they reflect a depressing and unpleasant period in history. I'd have been interested in all the places you visited.

by irenevt

Thank you all 😃 Larry, it's great that you and Mark are travelling more again. I hope a VT meet will be on your agenda soon, it's so long since I saw you! And Irene, I totally agree, and I have another fascinating if dark Tirana museum to share when I post about the next day of our stay.

by ToonSarah

What an interesting day. I really liked what you discovered on you trip and Although my last trip towards the country wasn't such a good one, I am definitely thinking of visiting more places in the upcoming years. Now I know what to visit!

by Ils1976

Tirana is very different to the rest of Albania from all I've heard

by ToonSarah

The modern architecture building next to an bell tower reminds me of an Torni Hotel in Tampere :)

by hennaonthetrek

I always like this sort of contrast Henna :)

by ToonSarah

I am definetely going to remember this since the country is still on my wishlist to go to and discover it for more than just a day!

by Ils1976

I think you would like Tirana Ils, and it's perfect for a weekend trip if you don't have longer :)

by ToonSarah

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