What do you get when you cross five Albanians, five Macedonians, five Frenchmen and five Portuguese, add in a couple of round the world travelers, give them an open room, a few microphones and some powerful speakers?

A trippin’ Tiranian experience made even more eclectic.

National History Museum - Tirana Albania in Black and White - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
National History Museum – Tirana Albania in Black and White – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – http://www.MissMaps.com

Albania’s capital, Tirana, is an expansive city covering over 1000 square kilometers . Home to communist era pyramids and multicolored apartment buildings decorated with painted-on laundry lines, it is a dynamic city. Like much of Albania, the city’s roads are known to be strewn with garbage and heavily laden with potholes. Yet somehow the city has managed to install stoplights superior to any others I’ve seen. Not only does the light turn from green to yellow to red, but the light’s curved post shines brightly in the same bold color so cars know what to expect as they approach from a distance.

Between the state of the art stop signs is a central park proudly boasting a bronze sculpture of national hero Skanderberg. Nearby is a large mosque with an interior covered in golden calligraphy. A 400 square meter ceramic mosaic of Albanian Socialist Art looks over Skanderberg Square, taking its place above the doors of the National Historic Museum.

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A few blocks away is a large pyramid shaped building of the communist era: The International Center of Culture was once a museum dedicated to communist leader Enver Hoxha. It now stands nearly deserted and is used mainly as a playground and graffiti hotspot for local youth. Farther down the road is an old rusted bunker and a piece of the Berlin Wall serving as further reminders of victims of the communist regime.

The city’s side streets are likened to those of northern India with its assortment of kiosks each specializing in its own product. One sells lamps, one sells boots. Another is lined with shelves of remote controls. Men stand in open door frames and talk the day away, each dressed in dark jeans and black or grey overshirts. Women are seen working in bakeries or selling fruit out of wooden crates. The fruits are protected from sun and rain by plastic tarps but at the same time are exposed to every toxin imagineable from passing cars’ exhaust pipes.

Could it get any more strange? Absolutely. Because when you add those 20-something odd travelers and musicians given microphones, plant them all in the same hostel and advertise a rap showdown on a Thursday night, you know things are about to get real.

In the very best of ways.

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I checked into Trip’n’Hostel in Tirana and found the twenty musicians preparing for a performance set to take place that night. I was introduced to many of them while eating french toast and drinking french press coffee at breakfast, and was told about their upcoming show. While I got lost and found in an attempt to find all of Tirana’s quirks, they were putting final touches on their rap lyrics. Young men with dreadlocks, young women dressed in a black dress, black nylons and hiking boots, all speaking a language different from their neighbors, the musicians helped the hostel come alive. After watching one of the most spectacular amateur travel films I’ve ever seen being edited to its final version by an Aussie lad who’d been staying in the hostel before me, I received an invitation to lunch from two of the Macedonian musicians.

Nearby a hidden restaurant opened its doors at 3pm each day for a very particular crowd. In the basement level of a three-story building, a woman in a white dress, white apron and white bonnet served up traditional Albanian food. Those who knew to open an unmarked mirrored door were welcomed in from the busy street every day at the same hour. For the next thirty minutes, old men shuffled in and sat at a few tables, while a combination hippie/hipster crowd filled the rest of the space. Everyone was served le plat du jour, an Albanian meal chosen by the chef and changed daily.

On that particular day, a bottle half filled with rakia was brought out from someone’s rucksack while the table exceeded capacity with excited members of the restaurant’s secret society. I declined a glass of the powerful drink and when an undistinguishable plate of food came out, I had to decline it as well.

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Excusing myself, I promised to catch up with the crew later and left instead to try Tirana’s cevapi. There may or may not be an addiction forming here, but that’s a story for another time. I was not disappointed by the small kebabs nor the fresh bread and yogurt served as accompaniments, and filled up enough to last to the night’s performance of quadrilingual rap music.

Spotlights danced back and forth as music pulsed and untranslatable lyrics spilled from the lips of the hardworking artists into my ears, deaf to their meaning. The crowd was alive and strangers instantly became the best of friends as cheers rang out in celebration of each person’s dedication to his or her own work. When the concert was over, musicians and guests alike emptied the small warehouse, gathering in streets and taverns in the neighborhood. A late night and little if any sleep made the next morning come exceptionally quickly. I woke to say goodbye to all these lovely people and au revoir to a city strange, a city colorful, quirky and spectacular.

As  I hugged everyone goodbye I had no idea that I was just beginning adventure that would be the most memorable part of my trip thus far.

Downtown Tirana Albania in Black and White - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Downtown Tirana Albania in Black and White – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – http://www.MissMaps.com

Ready to plan your own trip to Tirana? Check out Dave’s Travel Pages for your first 48 hours’ itinerary! You’ll see some familiar sites, and loads of new ones. Gëzuar!

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