After leaving Montenegro, It’s time to continue our bus adventure through the Balkans and head to Albania. My good friend Alfred has talked about Albania on more than one occasion, so it didn’t seem right to us to be in that part of the world and not stop in. You’ll soon discover we were soaked with interesting things to do in Tirana.
If you don’t recall exactly where Albania is, we’ll lend a hand.
We certainly found some interesting things to do in Tirana. Many folks we’ve encountered in eastern Europe and the Balkans have told us that during the Socialist era of the 20th century, Albanians were affected more than any other people. Their dictator Enver Hoxha was a real bastard – pardon my French.
Because of this violent and totalitarian history, a lot of Tirana’s sights focus on the Socialist regime. What surprised us the most was how well the Albanians are displaying it. It was certainly one of most disturbing, more so than Romania’s live television execution of their president. Anyway, let’s get on with the sights, Socialist and other cultural ones.
We had to snap a picture in front of the man who united the Albanian tribes – it was a must.
At the beginning of our free walking tour we were lucky enough to take a picture with a couple of youths in traditional clothing, minus their shoes. The gentleman was wearing Air Jordans! Shortly after, we moved on with our tour.
The new Socialist president used to be a painter. He’s leading a movement to paint Tirana’s drab building to give them a little face lift. They all looked nice – great color selection. A painted building tour would be a super interesting thing to do in Tirana. Moving on…
After 1991 when Communism dissolved in Albania, folks quickly tore down the old statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other revolutionaries. Unsure what to do with these things, folks relocated them to this deserted lot.
The waist high statue (second from the right) was covered with a tarp until recently. People were afraid the image of their old president would inspire a similar dictator.
Seeing these abandoned statues was spooky. At one point, insulting these statues would have landed you in prison. Now they’re rubble.
Anyway, after the defunct statues we moved on to more defunct Socialist memorabilia. One of the most unique and interesting things to do in Tirana is check out these 2 person bunkers, designed to withstand bombing from the USA. Luckily the USA was not interested in Albania or its bunkers. Today, more than 100,000 of these bunkers litter the landscape of Albania – no one is quite sure what to do with them.
Berlin sent a section of the Berlin Wall to Tirana. The Albanians asked if the Germans wanted a couple of 2-person bunkers in exchange – Germany declined.
We’ve already done plenty of the most interesting things to do in Tirana, but this pyramid building was probably the coolest Socialist-era structure we’ve ever seen. It sat abandoned since 1991. Just recently the city decided to turn it into a school. It was originally intended to be a museum dedicated to the still living dictator. Who commissions a museum to themselves while they’re still alive? We told you Hoxha was a bastard.
And finally we ended up at the main square, gazing up at one of the largest Socialist murals constructed. Interesting note: Socialists and Communists hate royalty, so when this mural was made, depicting all of the important Albanians over the years, all kings and queens were omitted. Bummer for them.
The museum inside is one of the more interesting things to do in Tirana. It’s a history museum going back the prehistory. No air conditioning, though – but overall well worth the visit.
We watched Croatia defeat England. While many English watched the game, many, many more folks cheered for Croatia (including us). Small neighboring countries need to stick together and cheer each other on!
Hayley took me out for my birthday. We went to an American-style restaurant called Duff (an homage to Homer Simpson’s favorite beet) for burgers and onion rings (my favorite). Interesting to note their onion rings weren’t rings of onion. The onion was minced and then reformed into rings and deep fried. Kind of weird but tasted good.
House of Leaves
This place was super duper spooky. During the Socialist regime, the Albanian Ministry of Intelligence had a vast network of informants and spies who regularly kidnapped, tortured, and interrogated Albanian civilians. Citizens were paranoid about being heard and the ruling elite were paranoid of a 5th column.
Out of all the interesting things to do in Tirana, the House of Leaves was the most so. The House of Leaves is so named because no one was ever seen entering or exiting the mansion – the only sound from the house was the sound of leaves falling from the trees. Everyone knew spies were conducting business in it, but it appeared empty. Empty, though, it was not. People were regularly brought here for torture and brainwashing. After weeks of interrogation, they often gladly declared their guilt in a court of law for crimes they almost certainly never committed.
Anyway, the House of Leaves is now a museum detailing the extent to which the Albanian Socialist government terrorized their own citizens. This is where you begin, in a simple interrogation room.
I’m a huge fan of obsolete technology. I love the idea of comparing modern behavior to how it was done back in the day. So seeing all these receivers and reel-to-reel recording devices was so cool. It felt like a 1960s spy flick.
I’m also a big fan of propaganda posters and artwork. It stuns me when I think about how governments use art to produce a certain loyalty and mode of thinking among the populace.
As we continued on, we explored plenty of rooms that detailed the number of spies, informants, “criminals”, and folks who just vanished one day.
Next we wandered into my favorite room. It displayed a collection of high and low tech listening devices. This was a blast to explore. Note the cheeky sign above the door proclaiming this a bugged room.
Spies used a variety of tools, including radios with microphones built in. Sneaky.
Monitors and audio mixers made sure they could keep track of different targets audibly and visibly.
Classic Canon and Pentax SLR camera – they seem to be making a big come back these days.
Telephoto lens for getting way, way up close and personal.
These monster reel-to-reels made sure everything you said was recorded and archived away for whenever they needed information against you.
They used a lot of recorders. These are all receivers with built in reel-to-reel tape recorders.
The bugs below are one of the most interesting pieces of technology. When you see a spy movie and they’re talking about a “bug”, they mean something like this. A small device they can install in-line with your telephone or affix to a surface to transmit radio waves to a local receiver. They were small in the 70s and 80s – just think how small they are today.
The House of Leaves also had their own photo lab. Walking through here reminded me of the WSU lab down in Phelps Hall – and then it terrified Hayley and I.
The museum used empty reel-to-reel cases as wall art. It looked nice!
This is when the whole exhibit hit me the hardest. When we made it to the second to last room, we encountered this setup. In the picture below you can see the top, left receiver is turned on. It’s on because it was recording and playing back audio from a room on the first floor. Remember that room that said “This room is bugged”? Well, it was. We could listen in on the conversations of people in that room. Disturbing.
The way this worked was the bug in each room ran to the blue mixer on the table. From there the mixer sends the signal to a corresponding receiver/recorder. Whomever was operating this mixer could be listening in on 4 signals at any given time. The room had 4 or 5 of these set-ups, and their targets included all the fancy hotels in Tirana.
We left this museum with a new found respect for people getting spied on and living in a totalitarian regime. Visiting the house certainly made us reevaluate and contemplate how technology tracks our movements and behavior. By the way, after talking about New Balance shoes one day, Hayley’s iPhone started serving her New Balance ads. Total coincidence, right?
Random Bobs and Bits
While not one of the most interesting things to do in Tirana, this guy was grilling sweet corn on a piece IKEA furniture. His grill is really just a zinc-coated wire shelf. I’m not scientist but I’m sure his customers were getting some level of zinc poisoning. People always lined up by his little shack – maybe zinc adds a little flavor…
The City of Tirana has these signs up all over the place. If the city records you peeing in public, they will upload it to YouTube.
This lady below was pushing a stroller, trying to sell the puppies in it.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mentioned how friendly Albanians are. They have got to be the nicest people we’ve met on our trip. Whenever we were having trouble or looked lost, someone would always come and help us. Once an old lady saw our confusion about where to go in a construction area, so she waved us along and talked in Albanian while leading us to safety. She was great.
Everyone, everywhere was super friendly and kind to us. Kudos to them for not letting dictators crush their spirit.
Well, Albania was a big eye-opener. We didn’t know what to expect but left pleasantly surprised. People were great, food was pretty good, the history was enthralling, and we found many interesting things to do in Tirana.
Public transportation isn’t very strong here and the driving is chaotic. We also felt that once you soaked up all the history there wasn’t a lot of our type of recreation available. With all that said, it didn’t feel like a place we needed to visit again unless our friend Alfred was showing us around.
So with all that said, we give Tirana, Albania…
Have you been to Albania? Did you love it? Did you hate it? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments below.