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 Albanian Tourism @ New York Times
August 14, 2005
Albania's Capital Gets a New Coat

Correction Appended

WHEN the Communist regime in Albania collapsed in 1991, Albanians rushed to Tirana, the capital, to occupy any free space they could find, and the parks and public spaces there virtually disappeared under a maze of makeshift kiosks and flimsy illegal buildings. "Everyone created their own small 'America,' " Tirana's mayor, Edi Rama, said one afternoon in May as he relished the sautéed eel at Rozafa on Luigj Gurakuqi Street. "Anarchy became the energy of the city."

Mr. Rama was living the artist's life in Paris back then; now, in five years as mayor of Tirana, he has led a civic rebirth. The city has demolished the unsightly structures, relocated squatters and reclaimed public spaces. Four thousand new trees line the streets, the banks of the Lana River and the grassy knolls of Parku Rinia. Communist-era buildings, once grim and gray, now dance with wake-up colors - orange, lime green, sky blue - in stripes and bold patterns, creating a carnival atmosphere downtown. Mr. Rama recruited student volunteers to paint them and has enlisted European artists and architects, including Olafur Eliasson of Denmark, to provide designs. "I want to create an open-air contemporary art gallery," Mr. Rama said, "so that no one will leave Europe without passing through Tirana."

Tourism is picking up. Cruise ships stop at Durres, 20 miles away on the Ionian Sea, discharging day-trippers to Tirana. Kutrubes Travel, based in Boston, (800) 878-8566, www.kutrubestravel.com, offers tours in Albania. A well-appointed Sheraton opened last year in Tirana. The transformation is most evident in 10 square blocks near the old Communist Party headquarters, where ground-floor cafes, bars and restaurants spill into the streets. At Era, on Ismail Qemali Street, local businessmen eat pizzas and traditional Albanian dishes. Berlin, on Vaso Pasha Street, serves good German food. And farther down the street, Bar Rovena, owned by Rovena Dilo, an Albanian torch singer, has outdoor tables under a grape arbor; the owner herself sometimes sings there on weekends.

Tirana still poses challenges for the traveler. Few people speak English. Most bars and restaurants refuse to take euros, dollars or credit cards, insisting on the Albanian leke. Newly installed street lights haven't made it to all of the small streets.

The best place to get a sense of Albania's character and complex past is the Skanderbeg Square area, where national museums and cultural buildings are clustered. The National History Museum, (355-4) 228389, displays artworks and archaeological artifacts from a Hellenistic head of Apollo, a legacy of Albania's days as a Greek colony, to a Byzantine embroidered altarpiece. Its gift shop sells traditional wool vests handmade in mountain villages. More artifacts are in the Institute of Archaeology in Mother Teresa Square (355-4) 240713. Mother Teresa was Albanian, and the veneration for her extends to the naming of Mother Teresa International Airport.

Facing one side of Skanderbeg Square is a rare preserved historical building, the richly decorated Ottoman Ethem Bey Mosque, built in the early 19th century. Closed (along with the country's churches) under Communist rule, it was reopened without official permission on Jan. 18, 1991, when thousands of people dared to enter it. Now visitors are welcome if they remove their shoes.

To leave the city's construction dust behind, hire a car (about $35) and go to Mount Dajti, a 4,839-foot peak just northwest of the city that provides a sense of what the rest of this mountainous country is like. On the way, you will pass the $100,000 homes of Tirana's emerging business elite.

Just before a military roadblock restricting access to the peak is Gurra e Perrise, (355-68) 2060720, a restaurant set amid the tall pines where patrons are invited to catch their entrees in four cascading fish ponds. From the terrace on a clear day, you can see the new face of Tirana, its rising skyscrapers and newly planted parks, reaching closer to the ancient port of Durres. One day, it is thought, the two cities will merge into one.

Correction: Sept. 25, 2005, Sunday:

The Surfacing column on Aug. 14, about Tirana, Albania, referred imprecisely to the country's history. While there were Greek colonies along its coast, Albania itself was never a Greek colony. The history was called to The Times's attention in mid-August by a reader, whose message was delayed when it reached a vacationing staff member. This correction was further delayed for discussions with the reader and the writer.

Copyright  The New York Times Company

Last Updated ( Friday, 28 October 2005 )
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