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Balkan Odyssey Part 4: Drinking in Tirana
Tirana is not the place to go if you want to cut loose and go a little crazy. Nightlife here, which really didn't exist under communism, is calm and relaxed and very mellow. Dancing on tabletops and getting visibly drunk is just not done.
That's not to say there is nothing to do in Tirana. An entire section of town is basically dedicated to nightlife. The Bllok (The Block) is crawling with bars and cafes. What makes this part of town utterly unique, however, is that this is the neighborhood where the communist elite lived prior to their downfall. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to step foot in this part of town; armed guards were posted at the entrances and the whole area was blocked off, thus the name which still sticks today.
The arrival of capitalism and western-style decadence (albeit low key) is particularly ironic in this former communist hotbed. Nowhere is this more apparent than the street of Ismail Qemali. On one side is the former home of dictator Enver Hoxha--a dictator so paranoid about the outside world that he severed all train lines that crossed the Albanian border. On the other side, directly across the street, sits dozens of cafes and bars. There is something irresistibly pleasing about lounging on the outside patio of Insomnia--an American owned bar--with a cold Heineken in hand, gazing across the street at Hoxha's old house.
There are other great watering holes as well. My favorite, Capriccio, is a just a couple of blocks away on Brigada e VIII (see above photo). It is modern, swank, and oozing with a great atmosphere. I would never have guessed I was in Tirana had you blindfolded me and dropped me off there.
Flex, on Dëshmorët E 4 Shkurtit, is similar in style and feeling and also worth a visit. Slightly more pretentious, with artwork on the walls and dour-faced posers sipping coffee, is Quo Vadis (Ismail Qemali 27). My favorite place to hang out during the day was the top floor of Bar Select. This rooftop café is nestled amongst pine tree three stories above the busy streets and is a wonderful place to slowly sip your drink and watch Tirana pass you by.
Certainly the bar with the very best aerial view is the Sky Club Café (Dëshmorët e 4 Shkurtit 5). Capping the top of Tirana's tallest building, the Sky Club has amazing views of the Blloku as well as the surrounding city. Like building-top bars of similar ilk throughout the world, the ambience is cheesy and the drinks expensive. Go for the view and then duck out.
Lastly, I can't write about nightlife in Tirana without mention the Living Room (Punëtorët e Rilindjes 16). Everything I read before going to Tirana mentioned how this was the hottest bar in the entire city. I stopped by twice and it was as dead as Tirana circa 1974. The interior is really quite cool, modeled after a very nice living room complete with stuffed sofas and bookshelves, but for whatever reason the bar seems to have fallen way off the "What's Hot in Tirana" list.
Although I was the Ugly American who drank lots of Coca Cola in the Bllok, the resounding drink of choice in Tirana is coffee. Tiny espresso cups litter tables everywhere I went. For those wanting something a little harder, most of the upscale bars serve a variety of imported drinks, but not much else. There is very little domestically produced alcohol in Albania. Be sure, however, to try the local beer, Birra Tirana, which is light, hoppy and decently tolerable. And don't leave Albania without ingesting a shot of raki. If you like swigging kerosene or other types of fuel normally poured into small motors, this is the drink for you.