Leaving the Albanian capital, Tirana, for our next destination, proves to be a slightly confusing affair. The bus service seems to consist of vans driven by men in dark glasses, who wait to fill their vehicle before noisily departing with a motley crew of passengers – two teenage girls, a mother and her three teenage sons, and a woman in her mid-30s whose luggage curiously comprises three large, full plastic bags.
But the casual, take it as it comes nature is infectious. We have readily embraced Tirana’s quirky character after just two nights and one long day, which began when a simple query for restaurant suggestions ended up in our hotel owner and his wide grinned son shuffling us into the back of their beaten up Mercedes to drive us to their recommended place for dinner.
Like many locals we encounter along the way, it turns out our waiter, who is sporting traditional dress, has lived in London. “I miss a good curry,” he says wistfully, and understandably so, as the one curry house in Tirana is also the only one in all of Albania.
He suggests some local starters for us to try. They take up our entire table, which is for six, and there are just two of us. We gorge on cheese pie, spinach with cheese as well as grilled peppers with cheese, and by the time our mains come, there isn’t room for much else.
But we breathe deeply, roll up our sleeves and slowly but surely get through our beef kebab and lamb chops, which arrive in gargantuan portions fresh off the grill.
In the morning, the main square, Skanderberg, named for the national hero who led the revolution against the Ottomans in 1443, is buzzing with locals. The opera house and library which makes up one side of the square might have a faded facade held up by cement posts, but it’s packed with brunchers.
Others sit in twos, threes and fours, lining the steps that lead down to the street, smoking, chatting, watching, waiting.
Street vendors of all kinds sit outside the mosque, under the Skanderberg statue, in the nearby garden, selling paraphernalia such as cigarettes, pens, and freshly cooked corn on the cob, although there is more chatting going on than selling.
Done with browsing, we head back to Skanderberg square, where the famous Socialist-era mosaic above the National History Museum beckons us to its shady respite. We take in the years of Albanian history, with the biggest novelty being that we are the only visitors to be seen within the halls that echo with our boisterous comments.
It’s time to hit the outdoors, so we take a taxi to the Dajti Ekspres cable car, which will take us up 800 metres to a plateau beneath the 1,611 metre peak of Mt Dajti. We pass apartment buildings painted in zany designs, such as stars, spots, stripes, checkers, birds, swirls, in all kinds of colours. They look like trendy art projects but the new take on urban design emerged after the fall of Communism in the country in 1992, with citizens seeking a change from the grim concrete apartment blocks of the time.
As we ascend the stern looking cliff face, we spot the first of many of the infamous bunkers, hidden in the grass like grey mushrooms; around 800,000 of which were built by former dictator Enver Hoxha between 1950 and 1985 to deter an invasion that never occurred. While some have been converted into tourist accommodation, the ones we see stand derelict.
Visitors to Mt Dajti can choose from several restaurants serving Albanian cuisine, and can even spend a night in the luxurious Dajti Belvedere Hotel, which boasts stunning views. There are also plenty of hiking trails to get lost in.
Back at the hotel, the owner’s son greets us with his customary big smile. He says there is a wedding party on in the hotel and would we like to see, as if it is an exhibition we might find strangely entertaining. He ceremoniously opens the door to the function room, which reveals men and women dressed in 1990s style prom attire dancing furiously to Albanian disco beats.
Out in the main square, the scene is dominated by the call of prayers from the mosque. Local café-bars begin to fill up, with punters lured in by the smell of grilled meat cooking in the window. The buildings might have cracked walls and faded paint, but noone notices, or cares, and neither do we.
We flew British Airways from London to Tirana.