Tirana is one of those rare cities where the trees are taller than the buildings. A mountain country capital where history has been written.

When you see the mountainous topography of Albania, you understand better why this region is known as the Balkans, for ‘balkan’ is a word meaning ‘mountainous'. As much as the name may befit the region in which Albania is located, it’s the eagles that are most becoming to these craggy peaks. And although we call their country Albania, the Albanians themselves have another name for it: Shqiperi or ‘Land of Eagles’. They call themselves ‘Shqiper’. Both words derive from the Albanian ‘shqip’ meaning ‘eagle’.

Taking its name from the eagle, a symbol of power, freedom and valor, Albania greets visitors with majestic mountains, unspoiled nature, museum cities and a traditional way of life that continues today in some places. Having closed itself off for close to fifty years following a history of wars, Albania is enjoying the pleasure of re-opening to the world.

Regarded as the ancestors of today’s Albanians, the Illyrians in the 3rd millennium B.C. are known to have been the first comers to the present-day Albanian lands, lands on which the Albanians have lived for more than four thousand years.

The main trade route between the two major cities Rome and Istanbul passed through these lands during the Roman period, ensuring that a number of cities in Albania developed commercially. Old cities such as Durres, Shkodra and Kruja in particular derived their fair   share from this wealth and development, from time to time becoming the country’s capitals.

A relatively younger city, Tirana, has this distinction today. Founded by an Ottoman pasha, Sulejman Bey, in 1614, Tirana developed rapidly into a vibrant commercial city in which handicrafts were widespread. The interesting thing about it is that the name given to the city when it was originally founded was Tehran, which in time was corrupted to Tirana. Spread over a broad plain extending westward from the 1612-meter Mount Dajti, Tirana became the country’s capital in 1920.

Tirana is a very well laid out city in the sense of urban planning. Skanderbeg Square where the wide boulevards and avenues come together constitutes the city center. This large open space can be regarded as the heart of the city and is the first place any visitor must see. The square tells a brief history   of Albania in the language of architecture. The striking Ethem Bey Mosque and clock tower, built during the period of the Ottoman Empire, stand at one corner of the square, and immediately opposite them  are the museum and opera house. Structures built by the Italians, who have left their stamp on both the political and the architectural history of Tirana, can be seen on this large square as well.

The oldest structure on the square, the Ethem Bey Mosque appears like an oasis in the midst of the more impersonal architecture of concrete construction that surrounds it. This mosque with a single dome and single minaret was built in the second half of the 18th century. The front courtyard of the mosque, shaded by a red tile roof supported by columns that recall antiquity, welcomes Tirana’s Muslim residents at every hour of the day.

The elderly wait for the hour of prayer in the restful atmosphere of the courtyard whose walls are adorned with stenciled decorations. Not only the mosque’s facade and entrance but its interior and dome as well are adorned with stenciled wall paintings and motifs. It is worth visiting Tirana just to see the Ethem Bey Mosque’s magnificent decorations.

There are a large number of Ottoman period mosques in Albania. But of course the mosques are the only thing left from those days. Over a thousand bridges, dervish lodges, khans and hammams also remain as a legacy to the country. The clock tower that rises immediately next to the Ethem Bey Mosque was built in 1830. This date, which coincides with the Ottomans’ period of westernization, coincides with the years when clock towers began to be built in the cities of the Balkans and of Anatolia. Their dates of construction not far apart, the mosque and clock tower actually come together on Tirana Square to tell us a story: everyday life, which until that day had revolved around the Muslim call to prayer, changed with westernization when it was re-ordered according to the new clocks.

Another striking building on this square is the 1981-built Museum of National History whose facade is covered with a large mosaic panel. Dubbed ‘Albania’, the panel narrates Albania’s long history of warfare. Regarded as one of Tirana’s symbolic structures like the Museum of National History, the Palace of Culture is another building overlooking the square. Its construction begun in  1960 as a gift of the Soviet people, the Palace of Culture was only able to be completed in 1966 as the Albanians’ gift to themselves. A section of this building, which houses theaters, restaurants, cafes and art galleries, also serves as the National Library.

Starting smack in the center of town and stretching for almost four kilometers, the ‘Bulevardi Deshmorete Kombit, or Martyrs’ Boulevard, is Tirana’s longest and  broadest avenue. And the buildings along its length painted in bright reds, yellows and greens are like Tirana’s made-up. The facades of these buildings, most of which were built in the 1950’s, have been newly painted and the avenue, which is the city’s commercial district, given a facelift.

The boulevard extends all the way to the opposite bank of the Lana River that runs through Tirana to a quarter. This area taken over by luxury shops, bars and fast food restaurants today.

Tirana is one of those rare cities in which the trees are taller than the buildings. The parks in the city center and the nature areas in the outlying areas offer a rural atmosphere that affords the city’s residents a rich array of alternatives. Rising just outside the city, Mount Dajti has been declared a national park and is also a ski resort. Only 25 kilometers from Tirana, Mount Dajti is a favorite with skiers in winter and with nature lovers in spring and summer. There is a large amphitheater and a manmade lake in the National Park, or ‘Parku Kombetar', on Tirana’s south side. Known as Lake Tirana, this small lake is surrounded by tall trees such as cedar, cypress and pine. The exuberant nature around the lake lends the area a wild air. Hills thickly covered with verdure rise on one side of the lake, and the park boasts upwards of two hundred species of plants. Paddle boats are available on the lake in summer, a pastime that attracts Tirana’s residents especially on weekends. One of the leading cities of the Balkans, Tirana, as the capital of a mountainous country, can tell us a lot about Balkan geography in a very short time