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Culture shock is hard to experience within the comfortable confines of Europe. Equally, a properly immersive experience of local tradition is often difficult to attain for the everyday European traveller. This isn't the case in Albania, a small, but not insignificant nation not far from the southern-most tip of Italy. The second one enters the country, the new currency and new language hits you hard.
Visitors usually enter Albania via Rinas International Airport in Tirana, the modern capital city of an otherwise largely rural nation. Urban Tirana is hospitable to all its visitors, from the budget-oriented to the luxury-seeking, offering a wide range of activities for the curious tourist. I would advise anyone visiting to ensure they take advantage of the free walking tour offered by the city, as the local guide will escort you through local landmarks and narrate the bittersweet history of Albania to which no guidebook can do justice. All you need to do in return is remember to tip.
Bunkers are dotted around Tirana, their preservation serving as a poignant reminder of the nation's past, with some being converted to museums. Thankfully, new construction projects juxtapose the militaristic elements of the city, such as the newly modernised Skanderbeg square. Unfortunately, many of these projects are still underway after years of development, or have been abandoned due to issues pertaining to Albania's general problem with corruption.
Adjoining the square is a must-see museum, chronicling most of the nation's past, from its Roman roots to its communist capitulation. Suspiciously omitted from museums and exhibitions throughout the city are comments on Albania's history under the Ottoman Empire. To seek out such comment, one should visit Et'hem Bey Mosque due to its sheer historical signicance, and observe the magnicent religious frescoes within.
Unique souvenirs include the different styles of Albania's take on the fez hat, the "Qeleshe", and traditional carpets. Unlike many Western European countries, much of what is on offer will be made by hand, making purchases even better value for European visitors considering the generally low prices. Without a doubt, Tirana is easy to enjoy even on a modest student budget.
Food in Tirana is excellent overall. Stuffed vegetables, casseroles, and pastries resonate most with me from my visit. Personally recommended restaurants would be Oda Restaurant and Era Blloku, both serving fantastic traditional Albanian dishes.
Tirana presents an incredible religious melting pot united by a distinct cultural identity. Historically unique, the statue of national hero Skanderbeg in the main square exemplifies the story of the Albanian people: one of maintaining their unique identity in the face of great struggle, and of perseverance despite crippling corruption, which is symbolised by an abandoned high-rise building that fittingly shadows the view of this imposing statue.