23 April 2012

Lunching Around Tirana

Parking lots full of cars, tables groaning with meat, mugs of beer (and highballs of raki!), lamb on the spit, trout darting in ponds, postprandial diners almost snoring in their seats... Tirana is a great place to eat, but you can't get any better than what's around the capital. On the weekends, if you want to lunch like the locals, you head out of town. Anyone with the money and the transport makes their way out into the countryside, into strange little worlds of pastoral fancy and gimmicky eateries.
Not far from the city limits, on a stretch of scenic road that leads up into the Kruja foothills, a string of "country" restaurants tempt Tirana's wheeled set. Signs for places like "Ura e Lizes" (Liza's Bridge) and "Iliria" point to wooded retreats where empty swimming pools and grubby plastic tables are arranged in the shade. The place we ate is called "Natyra e Qete," which, unsurprisingly, means "nature and quiet." With grandiose brick towers and a large playground, it might have been better named "theme-park castletown."
The promise these places make is carnivorous, the diners are there for meat - ribs, liver, lamb's head, paving stone steaks, stuffed tripe - with maybe a side of potatoes and a pitcher of red wine. Patrons arrive in their Sunday or Saturday finery, usually in family groups, sometimes as boisterous bunches of men. They smoke and eat and sit for hours, the dim, cavernous halls giving them some sense of nature, no doubt, that they simply can't find in town. Every weekend feels like a special occasion.
At Natyra e Qete, we ate more modestly than most. A table near us was served two enormous trays of beef ribs, which the diners set about dismantling with greasy hands and sharp teeth. Another table received something akin to a stack of steaks, like a small burial mound constructed of meat. Rebecca had frog legs (a pondful, approximately), which arrived battered and fried but still delicious. I had "baked goat," which was very tender and toothsome - as you can see, there was nothing but the kid on the plate.
After the last raki of lunch has been finished, the idea is to drive tipsily up the road towards Elbasani - a twisting and mountainous route with few guardrails and fatal drops. The views are spectacular. Here, it really is the countryside.
In another direction (upwards this time), one can find another slew of weekend eateries. The restaurants on Mount Dajti - which soars, rocky and immense, above Tirana's skyline - are of much the same type as the ones on the Elbasani road, but they have much better views and the added bonus of a cable car ride. Servicing a national park on a high plateau, the lift up really does feel like an escape from Tirana.
At the bottom station of the cable car we were sold tickets and handed a brochure for the gondola company's own restaurant, located in the unsightly cylinder called "Tower." At the top, (after a fifteen minute ascent), we were met by a man selling pony rides - a youngish woman sat unhappily (shrieking, actually) on the rental steed while her friends took pictures. Rows of drivers and vans waited to whisk customers to their woodland tables. These men work for individual establishments, so it's best to know which one you'd like to go to beforehand, as the competition among them can be overwhelming.
Our driver maneuvered carefully enough along the top of a long cliff, where the more scenic restaurants are arranged. The day was fine, but the peacefulness of the park was somewhat offset by the aggressive techno music our young chauffeur played for us.
We ate our Sunday lunch at Gurra e Përrisë, which has a trout farm on the premises but still seems to be geared towards redder flesh. Typically, Tirana diners eat on the late side - we arrived at one, but it wasn't until about three o'clock, when we left, that the restaurant began to fill up. A fire roared beside red draperies and plushly set tables. The waiters wore vests and ties. The tablecloths were heavily starched and cigarette burned.
(A note: I should mention that smoking is actually prohibited in Albanian restaurants, but the law is completely disregarded by everyone over the age of 16.)
We ordered trout, which came admirably cooked and were filleted at our table by two men who concentrated very hard but seemed unused to the work. My broccoli soup was mostly cream, but was actually quite good.
For two large trout, soups, a large salad, grilled vegetables, beer, wine, a free car ride, formal service and terrific views, the price was about thirty-five dollars, with a heftier tip than what's normal in Albania.
We walked back to the gondola, passing men in suits and women in heels, all of us moving slowly in the spring sunshine. In a mostly atheist country it's a kind of ritual, this weekend lunching, playing a part in the social calendar that otherwise might be filled at church or the mosque. The idea is to leave the city, perhaps, for a carefully curated "natural" experience - one that can be enjoyed mostly by sitting down. It's relaxation. It's reveling in the ownership of a car or the technology of a ski lift.
The ride down the mountain is precipitously steep and blissfully quiet. A few thin, high waterfalls cascade down the cliffs nearby, their watery crashing plays wonderfully through the open window. The city is colorful and blocky below.

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