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New Europe

Day Twenty-four: Tirana

Michael Palin - New EuropeSkanderbeg (real name Gjergj Kastriot) is Albania's national hero. He won fame for rallying his country's resistance against the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century and in the square that bears his name he is commemorated by a handsomely fierce equestrian statue set atop a chunky stone plinth. The fact that all his courage and tenacity was ultimately wasted is gently rubbed in by the building next door to him, the small but perfectly formed mosque of Et'hem Bey, one of the Ottoman Turks who, after the death of Skanderbeg, ruled here for 434 years, until Albania was finally granted independence in 1913.

The rest of the square is a mixture of communist and fascist, from the wide triumphal boulevards built by Mussolini's architects in the 1930s, to the National Museum with a fine Social Realist mural above the entrance and the mighty columned Palace of Culture, currently home to a touring version of Madam Butterfly by Opera Macedonia.

Tirana appears much less dysfunctional than I'd expected. There are cafés where a cup of good espresso can set you back a lek or two and a street named after Lord Byron. (He spent time in Albania in the early 1800s meeting, among others, Ali Pasha, according to Robert Carver's book The Accursed Mountains 'an enthusiastic lifelong pederast and paedophile' who boasted of personally killing 30,000 people. Byron found him very charming, with a beautiful singing voice.)

What impresses me most is the way in which the post-war concrete housing blocks have been quite strikingly painted, not just in one colour but with a real artistic touch, mosaics of primary colours, chequerboards, diamonds, stripes and triangles picked out in washes of red, yellow and green. Little bays have been built onto the facades to break down the monotony of the outline.

The man most responsible for this grooming of Tirana is the socialist mayor, Edi (pronounced 'Eddie') Rama. Recognising that he can't afford to demolish all the dull and soulless housing of the communist era, he came up with a policy he has called art in building. In consultation with the occupants he has put a team of artists to work on decorating whole neighbourhoods.

In 2004 Rama was voted World Mayor of the Year.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-four: Tirana
  • Country/sea: Albania
  • Place: Tirana
  • Book page no: 59

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