Of all the countries in the Balkans, Albania was the one I was most intrigued by, and most eager to visit. And it didn’t take more than a few minutes inside the country to see this is still a land adrift from the bulk of Europe – I stopped off in its fascinating capital, Tirana.
From the Macedonian border, you descend into a ramshackle town at the foot of towering mountains. Half the buildings look half-built; most of the rest look half-destroyed; a few crumbling tower blocks lie dotted around the hillside in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. Further down the road, our bus stopped for lunch at a restaurant which served incinerated but surprisingly tasty lamb.
It’s hard to learn much about a country in just a few days, but you’d think a National History Museum would be a good place to start. Not so in Albania. The Lonely Planet lists this as one of Tirana’s top sights, but it may be that this says more about the rest of the capital than the museum itself. It was uninformative, confusingly laid out (there isn’t even any signage on the front of the building to tell you what it is) and, at least on this particular day, ridiculously stuffy. Hardly anything is in English, and the museum devotes a whole floor to pots and sticks from millennia gone by (great), but hardly any space to the four recent decades of communist insanity. This is a shame, because that’s when all the interesting stuff happened, like the building of 700,000 military bunkers around the countryside (one per every three citizens of Albania) to address a mystery invasion threat.
Perhaps a more entertaining account of the communist years was once housed in the Pyramid, a ridiculously awful piece of architecture built as a museum-shrine to the tyrannical dictator Enver Hoxha (it was designed by his daughter). After the regime fell it was converted into a nightclub (obviously…), but now lies derelict and graffiti-strewn. A short walk from the Pyramid lies a monument to the victims of communist rule, with a piece of the Berlin Wall and one of Hoxha’s Military bunkers, fully preserved.
Further attractions in Tirana include the café-bar area Biloku, the Grand Park with its man-made lake, and Mother Teresa Square. The last of these contains little relating to Mother Teresa but, bizarrely, hosts a Ferris wheel and a polystyrene model of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. It’s a fun little city, and it has a nice buzz in the evenings, but it’s the sort of place that’s easily covered in 2 nights.
With a few exceptions, hostels can be broadly divided into three categories: party hostels, chill-out hostels, and shit hostels. Obviously there are many ways hostels can be shit – dirty, smelly, uncomfortable, dead, theft-prone, unfriendly, overpriced, or in the middle of nowhere – but such places are rare and obviously to be avoided. Huge variation in style and experience still exists within the two categories but on the whole a good trip will include of a mixture of party and chill-out hostels.
In Tirana we stayed in Trip’N Hostel, which was really a chillout hostel trying hard to be party hostel. It had a bar in the communal area, and the owner was doling out free shots of rakia, but it just wasn’t quite easy enough to meet everyone. This is the moral of the story – tiny differences in a hostel’s design can lead to huge differences in the atmosphere created.
If a hostel wants to be a vibrant social mixing-pot, there are various things it can do. It can force strangers to meet through organised events – bar crawls, barbeques, beer pong and the like. This clearly works well but is usually reflected in a higher price, and also removes the romance of travellers mingling organically. If a hostel wants its guests to meet and party together on their own accord, subtle pieces of social psychology come into play.
What such a hostel needs is a way for people to meet each other whilst pretending they don’t really want to. Most individuals won’t just go up to someone in a communal area and start talking to them – that would make them look desperate and needy (the ultimate shame…). Instead, they want to find themselves standing or sitting in such proximity to strangers that it would be rude not to say hello. The most obvious place where this happens is in the dorm, which is naturally the beginning place of many a friendship. But dorms can only breed small groups; for a true party atmosphere, you need an area where people circulate and interact with lots of different groups.
Trip’N Hostel couldn’t accomplish that for the simple reason that the layout was wrong. Whereas Hostel Mostel, a true party hostel, had a few long tables and large couch areas, Trip’N Hostel’s bar and seating area consisted of many small tables, unable to fit more than five or so people. They were separated by awkwardly large gaps which made chatting to other groups impossible. In addition, the dorms had curtains around the beds – they’ve correctly identified this as a nice improvement to guests’ privacy and sleep quality, but also removed some of those precious ‘shit, I’m going to have to actually talk to this stranger’ moments. These are vital for most of us to leave our comfort zone.
Surely leaving your comfort zone and meeting new friends is the whole point of travelling? So it’s great that certain hostels and their careful layouts can help us with this. Hopefully the trend will spread…