Seedy Characters outside Hotels (Don't Panic)
I read a warning on here about seedy characters hanging around outside the main hotels. I noticed this too, but I think I have an explanation. There was a group of five seedy looking characters hanging outside my hotel. They turned out to be the hotel guard and his friends, who were all very friendly and helpful. It turns out that official hotels in Albania are required by law to post a guard, presumably armed, outside the hotel. I guess it's a hangover from the days when life was less stable in the capital.
It doesn't mean that a seedy character hanging outside your hotel is actually a nice guy looking out for your interests, but don't immediately be concerned if there's some shaven headed, rough and tough looking dude with some of his friends watching you as you enter and leave the place.
Despite Albania's Wild West reputation, Tirana proved to be a very relaxing city. People were curious, and I caught many people staring at me, and then quickly looking away when they saw that I'd noticed, but whenever I interacted with anyone, they were always incredibly friendly. A surprising number of Albanians also spoke English.
Even late at night I didn't feel like there was any threat, at least on the main streets where it is well lit and busy long into the night. Off the beaten path there are some empty and badly lit streets that might well be safe, but felt a bit edgy at night.
Lonely Planet Guide
LP is well below its usual high standards in regards to Albania, as is the rest of the West Balkans guidebook it forms a part of. Unfortunately there are few alternatives to this less traveled part of the world. However, if you find yourself getting cheesed off at the fact that half the restaurants it recommends are no longer in business, and its maps are about as useful as a pinning a tail on a donkey, get yourself an In Your Pocket city guidebook.
While they tend to be a little over enthusiastic (everything is FANTASTIC even if it is a bit average) they tend to be more up to date, complete, and accurate than their rivals. You can even download the Tirana guide for free at their website, or buy the full Albania guide book. They also cover other parts of what we used to refer to as East Europe.
There seems to be a problem with shops selling fake brands in Tirana, so be careful what you buy. I bought a 35+ Nivea sunscreen from a pharmacy near the train station. Despite it being a greater strength than I'd normally use, I got quite badly burned. When I then examined the bottle, I realised it was a fake. The bottle was covered in spelling mistakes, including "fil tering" and "iereland".
No Road Signs
Tirana is an incredibly difficult city to navigate around. There are almost no road signs anywhere. That plus the fact that there are very few, if any, good maps of the city, and the Lonely Planet one was pretty poor, and you'll find yourself getting lost a lot of the time. My recommendation: even if a place seems pretty close, you might find yourself saving a lot of time by getting a taxi. They know where the places are!
Driving in Tirana
Tirana has wide streets with several lines for each direction. However, there are very few markings on streets, so you never actually know in which lane you are driving. But, I have to admit that local drivers were very considerate when they saw car with foreign registration plates, and I had no trouble driving around.
However, pedestrians love to cross the streets just about anywhere, so be careful.
Police officers are scattered through the city, coordinating traffic during renovations in the city center. That really helps a lot, specially when you're foreigner.
Despite the many warnings posted on VT about them, nothing prepared me for the state of the pavements in Tirana.
As well as missing drain covers, holes & missing paving stones, quite a few of them were just gravel. There are often gaps between them & the road, also at night not all of the streets are fully lit.
Albanian Defence System - Potholes
Albania defends it's city and town centres from foreign incursions in an economical and ingenious manner. Every major road entering every town or city is riddled with stupendous potholes, filled with muddy water, denying rapid entry to foreign interlopers.
The national fleet of vehicles (90% of which seem to be 2nd hand Mercedes) are so banged about that they drive these roads without fear
- Road Trip
Just careful during the night
Foreigners have never been a real target to attack or steal. However, just like in every other european city, be careful when walking alone after midnight in the suberb areas of Tirana. The center is rather safe anytime.
watch your step
while walking around in the city, especially at night... watch your step.
The city's pavements are being rebuilt and there are smaller and larger potholes everywhere. If you are not being careful you are found to fall, sooner or later.
- Road Trip
Though the vast majority of people in Tirana are friendly and hospitable. Be careful when taking pictures, since selling a digital camera could probably buy food for a couple of week. Keep in mind that some of the monuments are hang outs for unemployed day laborers. My suggestion is when taking pictures, outside the Skanderbeg Square area, be quick about it and when not using a camera put it away in a bag.
Pavements in Tirana
Being a pedestrian in Tirana can be kind of dangerous- the pavements often had gaping holes in them (~ 1m square, 1-2m deep...) with no covering or warning whatsoever.
At other times, the pavement would simply stop, leaving you to carry on walking in a mud/gravel mixture....
Tirana, and Albania in general, is VERY safe. Virtually no street crime exists, as the Albanians are extremely friendly and hospitable people. The one thing to always keep in mind is the fact that very few Albanians have established driving histories, since the former dictator banned personal automobiles. This means that the most seasoned drivers in Albania have only been driving for the past 8-10 years (most, FAR less). This manifests itself in very poor driving, so BE CAREFUL ... even on the sidewalks.
Don't assume that a green light gives you the right of way, because it doesn't. Always keep an eye out!
- Road Trip
An "Area of outstanding natural pavementing"
A lot of the pavements in Tirana are in a very bad state of repair - you will have to watch your step. Similarly if you are stepping off the pavement into the street, care should also be taken. Many streets have quite a drop, and in places, there are missing manhole covers or drainage grates. Proceed with care!
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