I wasn’t in Tirana but 90 minutes and I already wanted to go home. It was that rare but poisonous combination of being my very last stop (I was exhausted), raining cats and dogs (enough to have soaking wet sneakers), having just left my favorite country on the trip (Montenegro was absolutely stunning) and being really hungry and not able to find anything appealing to eat. It all added up to one Crabby Carl.
You have to understand, just 24-hours ago, I was swimming in the emerald water off the coast of Montenegro. Now I was lost in a big, crowded and very wet city. It’s not that I don’t like crowds, but add in wet socks and the fact I hadn’t eaten all day, and you have a recipe for grump.
I guess I should touch on how I arrived. I woke up that morning in Ulcinj, Montenegro, which is one of the southern-most coastal towns in the country, very close to Albania. I left around 8AM, without breakfast. Before you know it, I came upon the Albanian border – its checkpoint and officers. The crossing was painless and quick and soon enough I was on my way to Tirana. I was hungry already, promising myself I’d stop in one of the towns I’d pass through for breakfast, but never found any place that looked appealing enough to stop. I ended up driving straight to the Tirana Airport to drop off my car, then taking a taxi to my hotel in the city. And now here I was, looking for a meal. I’d gone so long without food that I didn’t wanna just settle for anything–I’d starved myself for too many hours to concede to a mediocre meal–so I walked and walked looking for something that would actually excite me. It came down to principle now. Finally, I heard the angels sing, shortly after I turned down Rruga e Barrikadave, one of the main streets of Tirana, and found a joint selling breakfast items plus Nutella. Table for one please!
Statues, Buildings and Things
After filling my belly with much needed carbs, sugar and coffee, I spent the rest of the afternoon dodging rain showers in an effort to see what I could. Squares, signs, a clock tower, then down a long pedestrian walkway – I was starting to warm up to Albania little by little. I’d finish off the night trekking over to a fancy sushi joint for dinner. I was soaking wet by the time I arrived – this was the kind of rain that fired at your horizontally, so trying to stay dry with my newly purchased umbrella would prove futile.
I Can See Clearly Now
My second (and last day) in Tirana would be much better, as the rain would let up a little and I’d even see some sun as the day progressed. By late afternoon do I dare say I was really enjoying the city and imagined what it would be like in the Spring or Summer and how much more ground I could cover, and fun I could have, on a completely dry Tirana? In other words, I came to the conclusion it was the weather tarnishing my view of any otherwise awesome city.
My first stop was back to Oriele Bar for more Nutella-infused breakfast plates, but the chef had slept in late and food wasn’t available yet. I settled for coffee and juice and then made my way over to Meduza’s Irish Pub for a hearty English breakfast. It was the fuel I needed.
Next up was a place called Bunk’Art 2, one of two underground museums utilizing some of the countries many bunkers. The stop was fascinating and told the story of how hundreds of thousands of bunkers were constructed in Albania during its heavy-handed communist regime – an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometer. That’s insane! The museum turned the dozens of rooms inside the tunnels into separate exhibits, outlining the history of the country’s brutal dictators. Each room told a different story and included timelines of leaders, the story of the bunkers and–what I found most interesting–exhibits about “spying,” audio bugs and state intelligence. I could’ve spent hours at Bunk’Art – it really is a thorough course in Albanian history. Later during the day, I noticed random bunkers throughout the city during my walk. Really cool. The history of Albania’s Communist regime is just fascinating. And scary, too.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here again: My favorite part about travel are the completely unexpected surprises that you are sometimes lucky enough to stumble upon. It doesn’t happen at every stop and it’s never guaranteed – but sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes, you experience the real magic in-between the popular travel guide points of interest – it’s when I’m walking from one famous park to the museum; or from a monument to the big market. It’s the random record shop or antique store I just happen to walk by and notice…or the hidden, locals only diner on a second floor, with no sign outside and old men playing dominoes upstairs without a tourist in sight. You don’t find these places in the guidebooks or travel blogs – it’s pure serendipity when you’re lucky enough to happen upon one of these surprises, and often the most lasting impression from a trip, even it’s something as simple as a special lemonade stand.
Today’s find was nothing short of a miracle. I was on the way to the Albanian McDonald’s when I spotted a sign for massage. My flight was the next morning and I’d been looking for a place to work on my back and loosen me up for the long flight home. I stepped into an alley to get a closer look at the “massage” sign that was on the side of a building. As I was turning to get back onto the main street, out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice a small, red neon sign that read, “radio.” As a radio personality, this immediately piqued my interest. “Radio what?,” I wondered. “Radio station?” “Radio store?” “Radio equipment rental???” Color me intrigued. I just had to investigate.
We’re Goin’ In
Truth be told, if I was a betting man, I would’ve guessed radio “station.” Probably a small one. To my complete surprise–something I never would have guessed in a million years–this place called “radio” was actually a bar! Inside, were vintage radios occupying almost every inch of place. There were old radios on the walls, on tables and stacked high on shelves. From the big, old-fashioned wooden radios, to the retro, colorful, smaller transistor radios of the 50s and 60s – there were units from every decade leading up to the 80s. Also on display: reel-to-reel machines, old TVs and classic movie and music posters.
I’m not a big drinker. In fact, this would be only my second drink of the entire nine-country trip – but how could I pass up the passion fruit daiquiri served in an Art Deco glass? It was hard to choose–the menu was filled with creative cocktails–but I’m a sucker for passion fruit anything. It was really good…and had me feeling really good. It’s amazing what 24 hours can do. I was ready to go home this time yesterday – but now, I was truly enjoying the city and wondered what other fun secrets Tirana had to offer. Sadly, I was out of time.
Final Orders of Business
I finally found the massage I was looking for. Huge shout out to Golden Spa Relax which goes down as one of the best massages I’ve ever had. This place is seriously first class with very reasonable prices. The facility was really nice and my therapist was just phenomenal. I’d been racing around nine counties on countless planes over the last 12 days and sleeping on a few really bad beds. This was just what I needed to loosen up before the long journey home. I highly recommend Golden Spa Relax.
Before I turned in for the night, I was on a mission to find the “Albanian McDonald’s.” Kolonat was an unlicensed, completely counterfeit and “fake” McDonald’s…and I just had to see it! I’m not gonna lie, the thought of an American-style burger and fries from a fast food joint excited me – I’d been away for two weeks and was craving something–anything–American. Sadly, it looked like Kolonat’s McDays were over. When I arrived at their address, in the restaurant’s place stood a new drug store. I even inquired with a worker inside, and she confirmed that her store occupied the land where the wannabe McDonald’s once served “Big Marks” and “Filet-‘n’-Fishes!” I’m afraid I’d never get to meet their mascot, Donald McRonald.
Every Vacation Has Its Last Day
With no Kolonat in sight (I walked to a couple listed locations and never found one), I conceded to a pizza before heading back to the hotel for an early tuck-in. I would be able to only catch a few winks before my 2AM taxi would arrive to take me to the airport. Every vacation has its last day. Today was mine. After a whirlwind two weeks of intense, mid-pandemic travel, ducking in and out of countries who, for all intents and purposes, didn’t want (or even allow) me – it was time to head home. What a journey! I enjoyed every stop, even Albania, which grew on me quickly once the rain stopped. I was so grateful for such a safe and fruitful experience. Thanks for coming along with me!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: I stayed at the modest but modern Hotel Boutique Villa Verde in the city. No frills, but updated, clean and comfy. I needed to watch my wallet, and this place was perfect for that, without compromising comfort. I recommend if you’re looking to save money but still need a nice place!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Goloso was located inside a big food court called Rruga Barrikadave Galeria. It’s kinda tucked away, but worth finding – it offers a bunch of nice cafés and restaurants, all together.This entry was posted in Europe