Despite it’s difficult past, modern-day Albania is just the offbeat destination for this mom and a young Travel Belle in-training.
It is increasingly hard to find unusual or offbeat destinations globally, let alone a European capital that still seems overlooked by many travelers. That’s how I found myself on a flight from London to Tirana, Albania, with my five-year-old daughter, Estella. Half empty and full of noisy camaraderie, it was a pleasant change from the fractious, packed transatlantic journeys we have made so many times.
On arrival in the capital city, the passport control official asked us what the purpose of our visit to Albania was. When we chimed “holiday!” brightly, in stereo, there was a good 10-second bemused pause before she shook her head, smiled wryly and waved us through. This would not be the last indicator of how rare lone female leisure travelers with children are in Albania.
Things to do in a quirky city like Tirana, keeping your wits about you and why maybe Tirana isn’t the best place for the jet-setting “stroller set”
Virtually a closed shop for 40 years, the nation retains an air of slightly eccentric isolation. Amongst the edicts issued by the former dictator Enver Hoxha until the end of his life and leadership in 1985 were bans on all religions and … beards. Many follies of the Hoxha era remain, most glaringly The Piramida. It’s a ridiculous concrete and glass pyramid built at unprecedented expense in the Communist era. Today it’s derelict, though much of Tirana’s youth seem to enjoy risking their necks climbing it.
[pullquote]Tirana is far more a city for older children than babies and toddlers. Nothing would induce me to negotiate Tirana with a stroller, and I’ve walked the Via Dolorosa with one.[/pullquote]High-end Albanian hotel options are still very limited, and the Sheraton Tirana Hotel and Towers is the newest and best choice by a long chalk. Estella is happy bunking in most places but in a new and unusual city I opted for what seemed like a safe, central, luxury option. Though not cheap, rates compare very favourably with most European five-star hotels and the quality is the same. The huge rooms have notably comfortable beds and spotless large bathrooms. There is a basement swimming pool that provides essential unwinding time after rushing around the car-clogged city, and an ambitious restaurant with delicious local produce.
Many key monuments, including the Presidential Palace and the National Art Gallery, are within walking distance of the Sheraton, as it borders the main government district. Striking as these buildings are, it was at the tiny Archaeological Museum where we had our most memorable experience of a widespread Albanian phenomenon: genuine excitement and delight at tourists with children. The museum was deserted to the extent that the lights were switched on for us when we entered, and the two guides fussed over my daughter and gave her sweets. Given their enthusiasm, it would not have been very surprising if they had offered us our choice of precious prehistoric artifacts to take home, too. It’s a lovely little museum, stuffed with Neolithic tools and pottery offering genuine revelations about Albania’s ancient past.
Though strolling to these key sights from the Sheraton works fine, be aware that this is not a walking city like New York or London. Traffic is chokingly polluted, aggressive and reckless. Estella shrieked with terrified delight on our third day when an official vehicle mounted the pavement and drove along it at speed, scattering us and causing locals to amble grumpily out of its path. The incident had more limited appeal to me. Although traffic laws are not flouted to the extent that they are in, say, Moscow, you still very much have to keep your wits about you. For this and many other reasons, Tirana is far more a city for older children than babies and toddlers. Nothing would induce me to negotiate Tirana with a stroller, and I’ve walked the Via Dolorosa with one.
[pullquote]Estella shrieked with terrified delight on our third day when an official vehicle mounted the pavement and drove along it at speed, scattering us and causing locals to amble grumpily out of its path. The incident had more limited appeal to me.[/pullquote]Albanians seem to lay on an awful lot of outdoor activities on for children: there are funfairs and playgrounds all over the city, although it is fair to say that these vary wildly in quality, with a few very forlorn and rusty examples. There is a large funfair with numerous mini train rides, trampolines, dodgems and so forth adjacent to Skanderberg Square, the vast and ugly heart of the city. Nearby there is a street market, where Estella was horribly fascinated by live chickens crammed into tiny wire cages, and dozens of people selling secondhand shoes and antique cell phones. You’re never far away from rural poverty here, even in this most urban of environments.
Finding child-friendly indoor activities takes detective work, but they’re certainly around, often in unexpected places. There is, for example, a gleaming subterranean bowling alley and a great coffee shop housed inside the Regency Casino. This in turn is next to Tirana’s biggest public park, Parku Rinia. It won’t be giving the Tivoli Gardens a run for their money but it’s pleasant enough to roam in daylight. Amongst other surprises, downtown Tirana has modern pharmacies brimming with essentials for kids on most street corners. We liked the exotically flavoured toothpastes.
The charismatic former Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, is also an artist and he invested in numerous improvement ventures across the city. Perhaps the most immediate to small children is his repainting of many stark Communist era apartment blocks. They are now decked out in manically jaunty colour blocks, brightening up what was once a famously drab city. We whiled away hours remarking on dozens of peculiar pink and yellow or indigo and orange blocks to each other as we explored the city on foot.
One of Albania’s newest attractions was also the highlight of our adventure. The Dajti Ekspres cable car is a fantastic and easy excursion from downtown Tirana. We took the straightforward and safe option of booking an inexpensive taxi from our hotel, and, unusually for Tirana, there are also taxis on a rank waiting to collect you when you leave the mountain, although I would not bank on this option after dark. The vertiginous journey to the top of the mountain is stunning, and there are several lovely restaurants at the top with unsurprisingly wonderful mountain views. Though Tirana has been warm, there was snow on the mountain, and we joined in a big impromptu snowball fight. The Albanians we chatted to were hospitable, welcoming and eager to practise English.
This offbeat destination has very much embraced social media and it’s worth checking Twitter and Facebook to see what’s going on while you’re there as a supplement to asking your hotel, or skimming the relatively limited travel guides available in English for Tirana.
We condensed a great deal of activity into a few days without venturing far from Tirana’s city centre. There can’t be a much greater tribute to Tirana than my daughter’s declaration that she “only wants to go somewhere really nice for Easter: like Atlantis or Albania.”
Editor’s note about Albania and safety: Generally when you hear about safety concerns about traveling in Albania, the area that is being referred to is the country’s northeastern border with Kosovo. As Emma says in speaking about walking around the center of town, Tirana is defintely a city where, as with many busy capitals, travelers need to keep their wits about them. No, it’s definitely not Disney World! (But neither are London or New York City.) Sounds kind of amazing for that certain kind of Travel Belle, don’t you think? So glad Emma found us and shared her inspirational travel story.
*Photo credits: top photo by Quinn Dombrowski, others by Emma French, used with permission
** for more information see visitalbania.org