Mary Gostelow heads to the ever-evolving Albania

"To be honest, I had absolutely no idea what to expect in Albania's capital, Tirana."

To be honest, I had absolutely no idea what to expect in Albania’s capital, Tirana. Come to think of it, how many people have been there or even know anyone who has been there? Yes, there are tourists, many following in the footsteps of Lord Byron, who was so impressed by his visit in 1809 that his resulting poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ catapulted him to fame. And there are plenty of international business people coming to town, and Albanian diaspora coming back to see the family (they like showing their success, apparently). The mighty Kastati group, whose widespread portfolio includes hundreds of gas stations, recently bought the city’s most significant luxury hostelry, Sheraton Tirana Hotel & Towers: outside, today, is a pansy-framed olive tree, presented by the Embassy of Israel on 27 January 2017.

Well, Sheraton moved out two months ago and the 151-room MakTirana, as it is now, is run by kind GM Elsi Keko, who has been with the hotel since leaving school. One of the outstanding features here is his charming team. All 150 of them speak impressive English, and they genuinely want to help. A maid came within 10 minutes of my calling guest services to ask if someone could do my room, and when she arrived she seemed to know exactly how I wanted things put (room number 634 is particularly nice as it has an extra alcove, forming a semi-private bedroom area). The Club Lounge, by the way, is on the fifth floor.

Another great plus for staying here is the fitness centre, with a spacious Technogym that is open 24/7– though if you work out before it is light, when you have views of the snow-capped mountains around, you only have Albanian television for company. There is an indoor and outdoor pool as well, and for many months of the year you can indeed sit, if not swim, outside. I look forward on my next visit to dining out there as service comes from the adjacent indoor Infinity Bar, which seems to be one of the hotel’s two hubs. The other must-do is the buffet breakfast in Metropolitan, the main restaurant. Try such local foods as pirozhki-like spinach-filled pastries, or get the egg chef to cook the dark-yolked eggs exactly as you want ’em.

With the exception of slight challenges when it comes to beef, Albanian produce appears to be first-class. Think Mediterranean and expect, correctly, to find fabulous fruits, olives and olive oils, and such local wines as Kallmet, which comes from a cherry-flavoured grape prevalent throughout the Balkans (the main Albanian vineyards are in the Berat area). You will live well in Tirana, and you have the luxury, too, of real value prices – even in the hotel, a large glass of wine is the equivalent of $2 – and the air outside is clear, the streets meticulously clean, and you have a treat when it comes to Tirana’s old and new architecture.

I obviously wanted to find out what makes Albania – and its capital – tick. The best spokespeople for this city of two million are its determined Mayor, Erion Veliaj, 37, and his equally-charismatic Chief of Staff, Anuela Ristani, who aborted her Fulbright scholarship marketing PhD in the USA to come back home to support the effort. Tirana is determined to get into the EU by 2025, and wants to be considered one of Europe’s megacities. This means it needs international investment to revive railways and other infrastructure, and to attract luxury hotel brands. There is land available, says Anuela Ristani, and her office can help with connections – and long-term tax incentives are available.

The municipality office is just one of Tirana’s dozens of fascinating buildings, some centuries old, others bang up to 2018 with architecture and colours that make you say “wow” (a display in the MAKtirana lobby shows how design company Triqita produces covetable ties and scarves based on some of the modern architecture). The municipality building’s central stairwell, with striking roof-hung lanterns, has murals based on past rural scenes, and costumes like the skirted garb that some associate with portraits of Lord Byron.

But the past, the days when Albania was considered the North Korea of Europe, must not be overlooked. Communist Head of State Enver Hoxha built over 173,000 crisis bunkers across the country between the 1960s and his death in 1985. Some were underground, some above-ground, some only held two people while others were considerably more spacious. Two of the surviving bunkers in central Tirana have been educationalised as Bunk’Art; Bunk’Art 2, two minutes from the municipality building, is particularly poignant. At the above-ground entrance, the rabbit-warren that was originally built for the Ministry of Interior Affairs was opened in 2016 as a memorial to the estimated 100,000 who lost their lives during Hoxha’s rule. In one room down there is a life-size photo of someone hanging. Another room has fluttering sheets suspended from the low ceiling, listing over 5,000 names.

Today, the sun is shining. Let us think present and future. Albania is – says my new friend Mike Walker – an Englishman married to an Albanian – the next Riviera. Over a typical Albanian lunch of Greek-type salad and meatballs in tomato sauce, he raved about the country’s potential. Already there is great nightlife and dining (Mullixhiu is run by Noma alumnus, Bledar Kola). A second airport, in the south of Albania at Vlorawere, is planned to complement the existing and out-of-capacity Tirana airport. This is Chinese-owned and it has absolutely the best business lounge anywhere (where else do you see so much living greenery, including a mature olive tree atop the service counter?) This autumn Mike Walker opens what will be Tirana’s only global-brand hotel, Hilton Garden Inn, with a 24/7 Technogym and two big ballrooms to hold two meetings or parties simultaneously. This is important as Albanians like nothing better than celebrating, and this includes five-year birthdays as well as new decades. Talking of five, by the way, Mike Walker predicts that by 2023 there will be at least a handful of real luxury hotels here in Tirana.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com

 

 

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