I stumbled across Komiteti back in October, the first day that I came to Tirana. Drawn like a magpie to its quirky and brightly coloured façade, I could not contain my curiosity as pondered what was hiding behind its doors. Since then it has become one of my favourite places to go for a coffee on a weekday afternoon, or a flavoured raki anytime of any day of the week.
Growing up in a house full to the brim with antiques and objets d’art, I feel completely at home within its walls, for this is not just any old bar or coffee shop- it is a museum as well. A veritable treasure trove of fascinating objects inhabits every possible bit of space and it creates an incredibly beautiful mishmash of colours, textures, designs, objects, and little parts of Albanian history, all displayed artfully in one place.
The Komiteti Story
The Komiteti story started around 5 years ago, when collector and history fanatic, Arber Cepani had the idea to open a museum to showcase the highlights of his 17,000-piece antique collection. Fascinated by Albania’s complicated history, he spent many years collecting little parts of history from every corner of the country, and abroad, to preserve the past for the benefit of future generations. His collection contains items that are hundreds of years old as well as many items from the communist period when the country began to manufacture everything itself after closing its borders to the outside world.
The problem with opening a museum was that whilst it was a good idea on paper, in reality it would be difficult for it to be profitable or to get the attention that such a collection would deserve. It was then that Arber had the idea of combining his museum with something that is almost considered a national sport in Albania, coffee drinking. As well as serving coffees and traditional snacks, Arber wanted to bring back and popularise another great Albanian institution- raki.
Making Raki Cool Again
At the time, raki was something which was not considered “cool”. It was something your parents made at home and drank excessively, it was not available widely and certainly none of the younger generation were interested in its existence. A man who appreciates tradition and all things Albanian, he wanted to change this by making raki a popular and fashionable drink once again.
He set about sourcing different types of base raki from around the country, all made in the authentic manner from grapes, plums, and other fruits, and then infused with herbs, spices, and flavours to create 60+ different variations on offer. Arber and his team aim to add a new flavour every couple of weeks or so, and from the look on his face as he talks about it, I can imagine they have a lot of fun coming up with new ideas for flavours, and of course, testing them out. The iconic Komiteti raki is a spicy, red hot chili flavour designed to be done in a shot that will leave your throat raw and your eyes watering, but my personal favourite is the cinnamon and honey version that is basically Christmas in a shot glass.
As Arber takes me on a tour of the Kafe, he points out some of the most special objects in the collection. An antique fan is mounted on one wall by the entrance- a gift from the Chinese government from the time when communist dictator Enver Hoxha aligned himself with China after relations with Stalin and the Soviet Union came to an end. Another point of interest is the photograph of a topless woman from the north of Albania. Called “The Mystery of the Woman from the North”, he explains it is a mystery because the image was taken circa 1870, and for a woman to appear topless there, at that time, would have been completely unheard of.
Albania’s Only Collection of Vintage Televisions
Arber then proudly shows me his collection of old televisions- one of the only complete collections in Albania and one of the hardest items to find in good condition. Then, showing me into the sofra room that is modelled on a traditional pre-communism living space, he points out some intricately embroidered felt dresses (Xhubleta’s) that hang from the walls. These beautiful garments are more than just mere outfits, the embroidery on each one tells a unique story about the wearer and their family and it functions as a sort of history book where tales and stories could be preserved for future generations.
It would be impossible for me to detail every single item that Arber has painstakingly collected and displayed and whilst the layout is eccentric and full to the brim, make no mistake that every single bit of décor has been carefully considered. Every item has a story, a meaning, and a reason for being there. Whether it is to remind people of the brutality of the old regime, or to celebrate the beauty and skill involved in traditional Albanian crafts, every object has a purpose.
Connecting Albanian’s With Their Culture
Hearing Arber talk about his reasons for collecting such items, you can hear the passion and dedication in his voice. He feels that after the fall of communism, many Albanians have started again at year zero. He believes that much of what went before has been lost and that the youths of today are falling out of touch with their past, their culture, and their heritage. By creating a social space where locals and tourists alike, can gather and appreciate the beauty of the past, that they will be able to reconnect with their roots and identity and build a better and more beautiful future. Arben adds that by collecting items that were manufactured during the brutal regime, he is not trying to preserve or celebrate its memory, but rather the skills and the hard work of the ordinary Albanians that made them. Making people understand that modern and new does not necessarily equate with better, is an important part of what he is working to achieve, and inspiring Albanians to become proud of their history whilst also presenting a snapshot into the countries past for outsiders, is the underlying ethos of Komiteti.
As for the future, it is looking bright. Arber aims to open another Komiteti in Korce by the end of the year and is also looking at other possibilities in other historical cities across the country. In the meantime, Komiteti Tirana will continue to be an oasis of eccentricity, a trove full of historical treasures, and a space where Tirana’s thinkers, creatives, speakers, and activists can congregate, drink raki, and share ideas whilst soaking up the history of Albania’s fascinating past.
If you haven’t been here yet, you really need to.