Sunday, July 3, 2011

Parku i Madhe (The Big Park)

For a city its size, Tirana has a surprisingly large amount of green space.  I use the term "green" loosely since I have seen more dust and hard packed earth than grass here but regardless of what covers the surface, there are plenty of places to walk throughout the City.

The best maintained road in Tirana and its only for pedestrians.
Sidney and I have discovered the Parku i Madhe, a large park across the street from the Embassy and we have been spending our mornings exploring the area.  As far as I can tell, the park does not have a formal name and is simply known as the large park in both conversation and on the few maps that actually exist.  Like everything in Tirana, the park is eclectic with a mix of walking trails, shaded benches, cafes only accessible by foot, hotels, and even a church.  The park abuts several Tirana neighborhoods which provides easy access for residents throughout the City.  I've heard that the park also has a zoo and a botanical garden but we have yet to explore those areas.  

While the roads in this country are in a notorious state of disrepair, the main pathways of Big Park are well maintained.  I've heard that the pedestrian roads within the park were repaved within the past couple of years and based on their condition I believe it.  The pathways are cleaned daily by women dressed in green Mao-era uniforms who sweep the stamped concrete stones and pick up the ever present trash that litters the park.  Albanians seem to walk everywhere-- this may be due in part to the fact that until 20 years ago most Albanians did not have drivers licenses.  Regardless of the reasons, it is refreshing to see so many people of all ages out walking.  I'm sure this is a contributing factor for my seeing so few overweight people here.

On any given morning the paths are filled with people of all ages.  Baby carriages pushed by grandparents compete for space among young couples walking hand in hand, local military forces completing their daily PT regimes, the ever present stray dogs looking for handouts, recreational runners dressed in coordinated long sleeved jogging suits, and the occasional professional taking a short cut through to the office.   Each group moves at their own pace but they all seem to coexist in a much more respectful manner than they do on the traffic clogged city streets.

Public Art
Commonwealth Cemetery 
Elderly women sit on shaded benches while old men play checkers and other board games on the many tables and benches found along the paths. (Rarely do you see the old men and women together in groups.)  While the main paths are lined with benches, in the morning it is difficult to find one that isn't otherwise occupied.  Other sights in the park are equally as interesting and one never knows what they might see when looking into the woods surrounding the paths.  Large bronze sculptures are intermingled with abandoned shacks, Roma camps, Speedo clad sunbathers, and neatly manicured arbors.  Around every corner there seems to be yet another cafe filled with lounging 20-something-year-old men smoking hand rolled cigarettes and chatting on their cell phones.  In this park we've also discovered an Albanian-American Protestant Church, a stone amphitheater where each seat is made out of individual slabs of granite, and a Commonwealth Cemetery recognizing those soldiers who lost their lives in Albania during World War II.

Lake Tirana
The far edge of the park abuts Lake Tirana, also called the Artificial Lake since it is man made.  This, combined with the Lana Lumi speaks to Tirana's desire to have as much "waterfront" property as possible. The lake is circled by another pedestrian only path and even more cafes and restaurants (In Albania, cafes only serve coffee, juice, and maybe beer with an occasional sweet.  If you want a full meal you must go to a restaurant).  The rapidly expanding sprawl of Tirana has now exploded past what was once the rural far reaches of the shore.  There are even two bicycle rental booths along the lake that rent 1950s era bicycles by the hour. The area surrounding the lake isn't necessarily pretty in the conventional sense of the word, but it does have a certain Balkan charm to it.

Each morning as we set out Sidney and I create quite the spectacle on our walks.  With Sidney strapped into his Kelty backpack we get many stares and comments I have yet to be able to translate.  Who knew that what is a common sight in the rest of Europe would be such a novelty here?  Whether it is old men and women, young girls, or even a member of the  Rrugge Policia (traffic police), it seems as though we can't pass a group without someone cooing "baby, baby" while they point at Sidney.  Whereas in the United States most people would never dream of touching someone's child without permission, Albanians have no qualms about doing so.  At the rate we are going, Sidney is going to have a bald spot on his head from the number of people who have rushed over and rubbed his blond head.

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