Trail of the Unexpected

Less rubbish, more progress

When the England fans descend on Tirana on 28 March, for the first World Cup match against Albania since 1989, they will find a football-crazy city that has few obvious tourist attractions. Albania itself has lots of things worth travelling to see - wild mountains, unspoilt beaches and some of the best archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, including Butrint, just a short ferry trip across the Ionian Sea from Corfu. But Tirana? Not for the sights.

When the England fans descend on Tirana on 28 March, for the first World Cup match against Albania since 1989, they will find a football-crazy city that has few obvious tourist attractions. Albania itself has lots of things worth travelling to see - wild mountains, unspoilt beaches and some of the best archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, including Butrint, just a short ferry trip across the Ionian Sea from Corfu. But Tirana? Not for the sights.

True, there is Skandenberg Square, a vast expanse at the city's heart. Where a giant statue of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator, once stood there is now a little Ferris wheel - a sort of scaled-down version of the London Eye. And there is the zoo. It does not have many animals: in the lean years of the 1990s, zoo-keepers stole the meat rations of its two lions and, according to local legend, fed the unfortunate beasts on the weaker animals in the collection. When they ran out, the keepers resorted to grass. "Now we have the world's only vegetarian lions," Tirana folk tell you.

The city's charm lies mainly in the unexpected. Drive in from the airport and you glimpse a half-finished apartment block (one of many) with a string of garlic dangling from a bare cement wall to ward off the evil eye. In a yard, a man sits in an ancient red brocade armchair, getting his shoes shined by a small boy. Elderly Mercedes parked by the curb carry a notice saying "Shitet": not a comment by their owners on their condition, but the Albanian word for "For Sale". And the tourist shops sell miniature marble models of the mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers which Hoxha built all over his impoverished country, to defend it from invasion by the supposedly envious West.

As the England fans will discover, the hardest thing to find in Tirana is not a pint. There is Murphy's bar, although it sells Austrian Gösser beer, not Guinness, on draught. Nor is it a good meal. There are enough people in the town on expense accounts from UN agencies and embassies to support several smart restaurants such as the Ambassador - frequented by, you guessed it, ambassadors. Younger ex-pats gather at the Stephan Centre for a hamburger or a BLT. Locals seem to prefer places such as the Pizza Berlusconi or Kevin's Fast Food (a café's name is a good guide to the country the owner's relatives chose to emigrate to).

No, the hardest thing to find is a rubbish bin. Buy, say, a banana - sold on every street corner from little stalls for 25 lek (20 pence or so) apiece - and where can you put the skin? Most Albanians have an easy answer, as the slippery little black heaps on the pavements demonstrate. With a GDP per head of barely £500, Albania is by far Europe's poorest country. So rubbish disposal has not been high on the agenda. Dogs and chickens scavenge on overflowing containers in the back streets. The windows of the Hotel Palma, the city's nicest family-run hotel, overlook a school playground that has a vast rubbish dump in one corner. The fields on the outskirts of town are speckled with scraps of white and blue plastic.

But things are on the up in Tirana. The city has a charismatic young mayor, Edi Rama, a former basketball star who became an artist and painted in Paris for a few years before coming home to go into politics in the late 1990s. In his first job, as minister of culture, Mr Rama spruced up some of the fine old Italian buildings at the entrance to Skandenberg Square. As mayor, he has cleared the clutter of kiosks from the city's main boulevard, a tree-lined street laid out by the Italians in the 1930s for fascist parades. The city's broken pavements are slowly being patched up. And yes, outside the mayor's office, shrouded in plastic sheeting while it gets a facelift, there is a row of shiny, new green rubbish bins, the first and only ones in town. So now, the fastidious eater of a banana in Tirana will have somewhere tidy to deposit the skin.

* Frances Cairncross paid £330 for a return flight on Austrian Airlines from London Heathrow to Tirana, via Vienna, booked through www.justtheflight.com (01481 242 200). Cheaper fares are available on Malev, via Budapest

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