With no line at immigration, and no real customs whatsoever, we exit the airport and begin our search for the buses to downtown Tirana. There are taxis, and no Ubers, so we found a lead on cheap airport transportation the old fashioned way: the Internet’s many travel forums.
From there, we stopped at one of the city’s squares, which housed a carnival and ice skating rink for the Christmas season, a curiosity in a majority-Muslim country. From there, we walked by the city’s mosque, and city hall which was decked with a giant red ribbon attachment. After that, we stumbled upon a group of teenage girls in black, posing for what was in retrospect likely a tacky instagram photo inside the city’s abstract cloud sculpture. I hoped it was a band photo for their death metal, or perhaps Balkan Punk group, but I did not ask. Now, I feel like it was probably the band thing, but one of the girls was wearing cat ears, so it really could have been either.
Next, we approached Tirana’s “pyramid,” an eerie piece of Tirana’s cityscape, and a must-see for the urban adventurer and boring history-nut alike. Near the city’s center sits this abandoned, late Soviet-era glass-and-concrete pyramid which was built in 1988 to commemorate Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha. Three years later,with the fall of communism, the building was abandoned and has remained as such ever since. While we were there, several groups of teenagers and young adults came to the pyramid to climb up its graffitied incline. I joined them, and caught some of the city’s beautiful post-Soviet, pre-sunset views. As I dismounted the structure, the sunset began to paint the mountains pink like rocks of Himalayan salt.
For the next hour, famished from walking for most of the afternoon with naught but half a Viennese airport pretzel in each of our stomachs, we browsed, then perused, then finally scoured the majority of the city, from the center to the international bus station to our hostel, in search of dinner. We soon discovered that in Albania, all is quiet on New Year’s Day, aside from the carnivals, the cafes, and the bars who all serve coffee, tea, and juice ut somehow find it against the spirit of the holiday to sell a morsel to eat. We finally settle for a bar that has a series of specials out front, all with carefully illustrated chalk-art of alcohol and sandwich pairings. Inquiring inside, we learn from the bartender that he can make us “some of the best sandwiches in town.” We sat in a corner table, and watched as the crowded smoking room filled with locals sipping cans of seltzer and the occasional coffee, but eating no sandwiches. When we got the menu, we were informed that, of the four types of sandwiches on the menu, only one was available. It was starting to seem more clear that not only would these be the best sandwiches in town, but perhaps in noncompliance with some strange New Year’s food ban these were the only sandwiches in town. We ordered quickly. When the sandwiches came, we were satisfied by the bread, which was a toasted sesame seed roll, and underwhelmed by the remainder of what appeared to be a turkey sandwich with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on it.
Nonetheless, we were near-satiated and were ready to pay the bill of about four dollars, for the two sandwiches and bottled waters, and turn in for the night. We had stopped at the bus station earlier and were informed that our bus tickets would go on sale, and the departure time of the bus would be revealed at around 11 am, so though we were still rather hungry, we left the Noel Bar and two doors down there was none other than a small, Albanian restaurant with a rotisserie and grill that was cooking the most intoxicating-looking kebabs and chopped pork pieces. Having just finished our lackluster dinner, our eyes met and we stepped inside wordlessly, then ordering five kebabs and a plate of pork before grabbing two beers from the fridge and sitting down.
The meal of primarily meat was delicious, and we were given an oily bread, some pickled vegetables, and a heavy sour cream to pair with the meats. While not a fantastic meal, it was good to have something that was arguably local after nearly a day of constant travel. We returned to the hostel and found that the door to the building was left open, the lobby a frigid 30 degrees. Our room was slightly warmer, and we piled blankets on our beds before hunkering down for the night while introducing ourselves to Serkan, a Turkish twenty-something who was the only other guest at the hostel, as far as we could tell. Exhausted from being awake for a day and a half, I curled up and fell asleep, only to be woken several times by the entrances of new guests coming in for the night. By midnight I had slept a few hours and found it difficult to sleep further in the near-freezing room. Four hours later, I had again grown tired enough to permit my sleeping, and I went under until about 9am. I had gotten nearly eight hours of unconsciousness, stretched over a 14-hour period which was more than enough.
I awoke approximately three minutes after breakfast was to be shut down, and hurried to the kitchen to find that just the three ominous bowls of lettuce that were there the night before remained on the table. What was the story of this lettuce? Was it for a long-forgotten salad, abandoned by some New Year’s Eve backpackers who received word of sandwiches across town and bolted in that direction, not thinking of the romaine that remained?
That day I had an exam to take in my online class, which I finished in an hour on the cold hostel porch. Guests walked in and out, and my father brought me a cheese and bacon pastry. I completed the exam and we headed to the bus station, intent on catching the noon bus to Skopje. On the way to the station, we stopped by a Roman-era mosaic and stopped in a convenience store to buy some provisions for the road. They were running a special on a brand of potato chips that sold two types: ketchup and oregano. We purchased two of the oregano chips, some tissues, and waters and ended up using the last of our Albanian money (Leks).
Next, we had to stop for more cash for the bus, and my dad happily volunteered his no foreign transaction fee credit card to make the withdrawal while urged that I stand watch. I did, though I could tell he was struggling with the machine and, as I waited, the machine dispensed a large pile of cash. I thought nothing of it until we attempted to pay the bus station cashier the 52,000 (400 Euro) Leks we thought she asked for, only to find that it was 5,200 Leks (40 Euro) instead. I looked at my dad’s face, which was quickly turning into a sheepish grin. We stepped outside, and my dad went to the bathroom while I googled nearby exchanged. Albanian Leks, unsurprisingly, are not usable anywhere else. What’s worse, they generally cannot even be traded outside Albania, being a closed currency. In the twenty minutes before our bus left, we spent roughly 18 trying to find some place to exchange the money for the more versatile Euro. We finally found a travel agent that would take them, and got back 483 Euro, keeping a few Leks for our return to Albania. We entered the bus (a converted van with three seats in each aisle and four in the back) with a couple minutes to spare, but were forced to sit in the back, tightly sandwiched between a young Albanian man and the wall. I ate my Albanian oregano chips in silence.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.