Carol Pucci is the former travel writer and Travel Wise columnist at the Seattle Times. She is a contributor to The Seattle Times, Portland Oregonian, JoeSentMe.com, Virtuoso Life magazine and Northwest Travel magazine.
Our flight from Atlanta to Rome and onto Tirana came off without a hitch. No volcanic ash this far south.
Albania's come a long way in the 20 years since it opened to the outside world. Mother Teresa Airport is modern and efficient. We passed on the $26 taxi ride into town and took the $2.50 bus that leaves on the hour. When the driver saw us running to catch it, he met us halfway and carried my bag.
We've heard a lot about Albanian hospitality, and to experience from total strangers is surprising and refreshing. We checked into our room at the Stephen Center, a B and B run by a Christian ministry next door to mosque and a big outdoor market, then went across the street for beer and a vegetarian pizza. The man sitting across from us struck up a conversation in English by saying he could tell we were Americans by the way we were dressed, and then asked if we had a t-shirt we might like to trade. Apparently American t-shirts are in demand here. Dang! I should have thought of bringing some to give away. He said he spent some time working in the U.S. during the Kosovo war, and earned enough money to pay for his engagement. Then he said he had to leave, but wanted to buy us an espresso. Tom explained he doesn't drink coffee. "Beer then,'' he said, and went in and told the waitress our drinks were on him.
Tirana is an odd mix of leftover communist-style architecture (notice the buildings above livened up with coats of bright-colored paint), big, wide streets built by the Italians for their military parades, a few old Ottoman-era buildings and modern sidewalk cafes. A lot of the streets could use repairs and the smog and traffic are pretty intense. The food is a blend of middle eastern, Balkan, Greek and some Italian. We found a little restaurant last night tucked into an alley near our hotel where we sat at low tables and ate stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers with rice and thin pie stuffed with goat cheese and spinach.
No McDonald's or Starbucks yet, but we did spot this local knock-off- Kolonat. It was across the street from where the lady below was selling her homemade, knitted all-wool socks. I wished I could have thought of a reason to buy a pair.