Monday, June 29, 2015

Tirana day two

On Sunday, we headed out to see a little more of Tirana before our Albanian road trip began. We stopped off first at the Et'hem Bey mosque because we had read it had nice frescoes outside. A couple of friendly guys outside told us to go in, and helped us rouse the attendant inside. Inside was covered with beautiful paintings, including landscape views which are apparently rare in Islamic art. I'm no expert in Islamic art, but the decoration in general looked more obviously floral and less abstract than other examples I've seen. We were the only people in there, so it felt really special. We had to have a whispered discussion upstairs about whether a tip to the attendant would be insulting or appreciated - we went for it, and got a bow with his hand over his heart, so seems that was the right move. 

Outside, one of the friendly guys got talking to us and explained that this was Tirana's most beautiful and famous mosque, built by Et'ham Bey, who was the vizier in charge of Albania at one point during the 500 or so years it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. His tomb is outside. He offered to take us on a tour, and although it's dumb to set off without setting a price, timeframe, etc, we thought "what the hell" and went for it. 

It was a pretty good decision, we learnt a lot more about Tirana than we would have alone, and he was an engaging guy who didn't sound like he was just reciting from a script. He knew his stuff though, down to the exact day, month and year of events. 

Unbelievably, this house, built by Et'ham Bey's successor as vizier, is the first "official" house in Tirana - dating alllll the way back to 1837. Before that, people just lived in small huts. So this place was an impressive palace - which housed the vizier's harem. 

Mother Teresa, although born in Skopje, had Albanian parents and is very much regarded as one of their own. I had to stifle a giggle when the guide claimed that this mosaic was in y he Guinness Book of World Records as the "most beautiful mosaic of Mother Teresa made out of seashells".  I've never seen a mosaic made out of seashells before, so the competition might not be all that stiff. 

A trip to see the mausoleum of the dictator Enver Hoxha was definitely on my list. Hoxha was the communist dictator for 40 years, from the end of World War Two until his death in 1985. His daughter, an architect, built this pyramid for him to lie in state, Lenin-style, but by the time it was ready, he only spent one year within its walls before his successors decided to move him for fear it would become a focal point for dissent, and then of course communism fell. 

It was in a much more dilapidated state than I had expected - it's apparently made out of marble, although you wouldn't know that by looking at it now. There was talk of tearing it down, but apparently they've decided to keep it and restore it as a unique feature of the Tirana landscape. There were people walking up its steep sides, but we were both too scared to do that! 

This is the first (for me) of over 700,000 bunkers built by Hoxha, who was paranoid about the prospect of an invasion by the UK and U.S.  Given the population at the time, there were enough bunkers for one per every three inhabitants. Of course, this wasted a ton of money and were never used. Behind the bunker, the jungle-gym thing is actually an example of the torture devices used in the communist prisons. Dissidents would be tied by their wrists to the frame, left there for three weeks, and flogged. 

I forgot to say last time that we had dinner in "Bloku" (the block), which in communist times was an entire neighbourhood off-limits to all but the top Party members. Today, it's a very verdant and pleasant area full of bars and restaurants. 

By midday, we were ready to move on, and our road trip began! First stop, Berat - tune in next time for that. 

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