Monday, September 9, 2013

Tirana By Foot

Busts--and these are the
"friendly" looking ones
I rarely walk in Tirana.  Between the lack of consistent sidewalks and safe infrastructure, the traffic that is just as apt to park and drive on the broken sidewalks as they are to drive on the streets, and the complete disregard for pedestrian safety, (ironically) driving is just a safer option.  That said, when I do drive I am so busy being on the lookout for the a fore mentioned drivers that I usually miss the sights.  I've heard of most of the major sites and have even directed others to them but have never visited most of them myself.  This past weekend, however, I got out and walked and saw a whole new side of the city that I had been missing.

At its heart, Tirana is a former Communist city and that is readily evident where ever you turn.  From the broad main boulevard that runs between the city's two main squares to the vast squares themselves, you can see remnants of the past.  One square, named after the national hero is lush and green and lined with meticulously maintained ministry buildings, museums, and that national opera house.  The other square is a neglected concrete jungle where traffic speeds around parked cars and meandering pedestrians.  Ironically, it is this square that is named for Mother Teresa, who is perhaps the most internationally recognized Albanian in history.  A small and appropriately humble statue of the nun sits in the back corner of the square.  I had always heard that it was there but until I got out and walked I had never actually seen her.  The bronze statue itself was nice but the area immediately surrounding it was dirty, neglected, and covered with glass shards.  It did little to pay homage to her greatness.  And speaking of statues, like all good Communist countries, both current and former, statues are everywhere.  Some are prominent while others are discretely tucked away but all seem to have the same rigid bodies and stern unsmiling faces.

A view from one end of
the boulevard
Beyond the statues, Tirana has other must see landmarks that are best appreciated on foot.  The iconic pyramid, once a grand display of architecture honoring the country's late dictator and now a decrepit and graffiti covered eyesore, speaks to both Albania's past and present.  Tirana's newest memorial pays homage to the country's (recent) dark Communist past in both a whimsical and serious way.  Churches and mosques sit side by side and demonstrate Albania's long history of religious tolerance.  The front facade of the museum of national history boasts a large tiled mosaic depicting Albanian history from ancient to modern times.  Driving by while dodging traffic just doesn't do it justice; it takes standing in front of the building to really appreciate all of the details.

And then there is the every day Tirana.  Walking along the bustling Saturday morning sidewalks I saw shops and cafes I never knew existed--or had only heard about but didn't know where they were located. Some were fancy and others were little more than holes in the wall.  People of all ages were out and about; men both young and old lounged at sidewalk tables while clusters of old women clutching plastic shopping bags hobbled down the sidewalk.  Roma pan handlers shared sidewalk space with young couples pushing pimped out baby strollers which made walking on the narrow and uneven sidewalks even more difficult.  (There are very few curb cuts on any Albanian sidewalks so easy access for all but the most mobile is non-existent).  Street vendors selling everything from grilled corn and fresh flowers to cell phones, used shoes,  and paperback books added to the hustle and bustle.

But all of this made Tirana feel real.  All too often it is easy to not experience only one side of a city.
As a visitor to a city you might see the polished tourist attractions but how often do see how people really live?  I know that when we travel to new places we try to get out of the expected areas and see what the communities are really like.  And after two years, we finally did this right in our (temporary) home.  We saw the sights, both good and bad, the historic and the modern; we got caught up in organized tours and local crowds, and saw the Tirana as it really is.  We really should have done this sooner but I'm glad we finally did it.  In our next city I won't wait as long to do it.

Discovering a part of Albania's recent past

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