Gjirokastra: the fairy tale city

I have been to Gjirokastra four times since my emigration from Albania. My most memorable visit came in 2004 on my first visit back to the country. The bus dropped my mom and I off at the side of the road. I was tired and certainly not in the best of spirits. A relative of mom’s was sent to pick us up. He took us to a clothing shop that he and his family owned. I was still not impressed, though the atmosphere inside the store was pleasant. Afterwards, his wife and us went to a cafe, and sat on its balcony on the second floor of a  building overlooking the main street. Beneath I could see a lot of life; people coming and going, running errands, or just standing and talking to friends. I also couldn’t help but notice how many pretty girls there were; I was young back in those days, only 21… And as I was sitting there in that balcony cafe, something strange happened; I was overcome by an unexpected feeling of traveler’s bliss. The atmosphere of the town was awesome. It was small, cute, warm, and it’s fair to say, I fell in love with Gjirokastra.

After the cafe, we were to go over to another relative’s house which was in the old town in one of Gjirokastra’s several boroughs that climb up the mountainside. If the modern town kindled my love for this place, the old town sealed it. These 19th century villas are nothing short of astonishing. I was amazed by their beauty and looking over them outside on the balcony I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing that was utterly unique to me at that time. This is the most wonderful place on earth, thought I. It’s like a fairy tale. I spent the remainder of the evening in conversation with our relatives ranging in age from the elderly to a  young kid. This particular family sprang from my grandpa’s sister who was still alive. She and her daughter in law cooked dinner for us that evening and even the food was spectacular! Why can’t I get food half that good at the most expensive restaurant in my town? These feelings are those that can only grow from your home.

Gjirokastra gets it right in every way shape or form; more so than any other city in Albania. However, perhaps one may accuse me of over-exaggeration. And it is true that on my subsequent visits to Gjirokastra the magical spell was never quite recreated. But every time I visit, I am struck by Gjirokastra’s beauty. It makes you understand firsthand of the highest possibility of travel: completely unexpectedly running into a part of the world that you did not know about and being overcome by feelings of happiness at your novel surroundings. Personally, Gjirokastra has a special meaning for me because it’s also the home of my family. My mom grew up in one of those historic houses while my dad grew up in a nearby village. Though I grew up in the capital, Tirana, I am not a big fan of Tirana. When I visit, I find it hectic, chaotic and even rude. Gjirokastra is charming and sweet. Though I have never lived there a single day, when there, it feels as if I am home.

Albania: A Visit to Elbasan

After getting my fill of Tirana, I decided it was time to go off and see some other relatives. First up, was my first cousin Leda who lives in Elbasan. Elbasan is a city in central Albania, about one hour drive south of Tirana, but even closer now that the roads are better. It is the third largest city, but like every other Albanian city, it pales in comparison to Tirana, having only about 75,000 residents in the city proper. Occupied by Illyrians, in ancient times, the via Ignatia, the ancient military road from the Adriatic coast to Constantinople went through this area. Back then it was just a trading post called Mansio Scampa. Mansio Scampa grew into a city of 2000 by the 3rd century and was an early center of Christianity. However, once Rome fell, so did ancient Mansio Scampa.
The Ottomans set up a huge fortress here in the 15th century, that they called il-Basan, it’s namesake, meaning simply the Fortress. For the next four and a half centuries Elbasan stayed in Ottoman control and understandably turned Muslim. At the beginning of the 20th century the population had grown to 15000. During Communism the city became an industrial center enabling population growth. Recently, in 2014 it became the host city of the national football team, a surprise to me, considering Tirana is the capital.

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My aunt, on my dad’s side, and her family lived in Elbasan. My grandma used to take my brother and I there as kids. I don’t have any outstanding childhood memories, though I do remember that she and her husband lived in a house, something utterly unusual for an Albanian city, as apartments are always the norm.  I have been to Elbasan twice since my family immigrated, once in 2004, on my first visit back to Albania. Back then my aunt and my grandma were still alive. We had a drink inside the castle, though it was “gutted” as I heard a recent tourist put it. This time, I sat alone one morning, outside facing this fortress, having a drink on the piazza, and truly felt an American on tour.

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I have never been drawn to Elbasan. It has an industrial feeling, no doubt due to the decades it spent as a town with iron works and other factories. Someway, somehow, as happens to people, its trade became incorporated into its look, giving it a gritty feel. It is not a tourist destination and has no standing historical sites other than the Ottoman castle, which is large but does not impress. The social life of the city centers around this fortress, which also has restaurants, and houses.

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My aunt was gone. What drew me back to Elbasan was her daughter, who though a decade older, I am good friends with. We had kept in touch through Facebook, enough so to warrant an in-person visit, if the opportunity should arise. This was a calm visit. Not a lot happened, but she and her young teenage daughter were gracious hosts to me. We chatted and caught up as cousins might, when reuniting after a few years. I was long lost American convert, who could still relate to my Albanians counterparts. We get along well. Unfortunately, she had me housed in her father’s house-you know the spacious commodity so unusual for Albanian cities, that I remembered from my youth-well, as soon as she went to work on Monday morning, her father, secretly rushed me off to the bus station and sent me back to Tirana! Poor Leda, she was upset when she found out…I spared her the fact that her father kicked me out.

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But what a scene that bus station was! That was one of those “only in Albania” moments I witnessed. It was outside the fortress, so there was a lot of people watching, something I personally like. My “gracious” host and I were standing amidst a large gathering of people. “You wait here,” he told me. “There are no empty seats unless you rush in.” Fine, thought I,  there’s no way I can hussle my way into an overcrowded Balkan bus. I come from America, the place where buses go empty. So I stood there, people watching, and my eye caught this girl. She had curled hair, your typical brunette Albanian complexion, and was wearing stylish jeans. She had the aura of Albania, slightly yet unmistakably different from American girls. She was pretty but she was preoccupied, no doubt worrying about shoving her way into an overcrowded bus.

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Then the bus came, and I can tell you, all of the people huddled in the station gathered around the door, but before they could enter, the people on the bus had to exit. You see it was already full! Only  a few seats opened, and it was a mad scramble for them. I never could have gotten one. I entered the bus with a delay, and took the seat my host had got for me. Give the man credit, he was good at saving a seat, though his motive was questionable… Only about half the people did not get on. I don’t know what became of my bus station beauty.

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The ride went without incident. But I will remark here that I did witness a special moment. It was a sunny day and our bus now came near upon a mountain. In the olden days, when I was a kid, this route would zigzag around every bend. But today Albania had drilled a tunnel right through the mountain. My small country has progressed! Now you’ll say, big deal George, America has been drilling tunnels since Albania was under the Ottoman yoke. True! But never have I seen a tunnel as picturesque as that one. The traffic lights, the entryway, the sun’s light hitting the mountainside; it was a moment where Albania shined.

Albania: My Daily Outings in Tirana

In Tirana, I went out daily, with mixed results. The truth is whenever I went out early in the day by myself, I was hanging by a thread. I found myself walking down a busy boulevard without having anywhere to go or anywhere to be. A tourist is truly a creature out of place. I was completely out of my element. My mission was to pass an hour on my own, out and about, before I returned home for lunch. My first day out, I used my brain; I got creative and went up to a door of a large building with the word “Librari” above it. Inside two women who worked there, saw me, and wondered at my appearance. When I just stood there quietly unsure, they invited me in. The room was rather small and apparently the bookstore of a university. The two ladies welcomed me kindly, perhaps perceiving I was at the moment a tourist lost even unto myself. I shared with them my background and I think they perceived I was a lost soul cruelly ripped away from my dear country at young age by well-meaning but misguided parents and now I was doomed to live in wretched exile for the rest of my life…or something like that. Then they explained to me that the store sold only textbooks and offered no artistic books; the word artistic books struck me as new and I left perhaps a bit more satisfied than I came in. I had done something meaningful.

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Several days I stopped by a local internet café to check email or facebook. It was just an empty room with a few computers and offered no coffee. Though the term Internet café is European and not in use in America, I think I finally know what it means: a place where people open laptops and connect to wifi. Starbucks is the ultimate internet café, even though in the States it’s just known as a coffee shop. The place where I now sat was dim and dingy. I was the only one there; the only good thing about it was it was in a happening locale, across a small university so as soon as I exited I found myself among students. All the people coming and going made the environment better, especially for a loner, and that’s what Albania offers that America does not: a lot of hubbub, or perhaps chaos, depending on your point of view. But I do like the pedestrian culture that I find there.

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The operator of Internet café seemed like a nice man; yet I somehow felt I should not disclose my American identity to him and keep it a secret. This happened to me often as if for my own safety it was necessary to not disclose my outsider identity to strangers. It happened on a bus too; I met a very polite country young man, of the sort of decency that Albania was known for prior to the new age, and even though we spoke for a bit and he could probably tell my Albanian was not as sharp as a local, I felt it inappropriate to share my American identity. Part of the reason was I did not feel American; I felt Albanian. Telling strangers I was an outsider would have been a lie. Moreover, I did not trust strangers; one individual, an ill wisher, poked his nose into my background and did attempt to make me feel like a foreigner in my own home, and it hurt.

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Several times I went shopping for groceries with my grandpa. We bought little as we were on foot so it wouldn’t be wise to buy more than a couple of bags worth but that’s a custom in Albania. There people shop daily at local farmers markets and tiny neighborhood shops. Recently the Western style supermarkets have been introduced but these are seen as fancy and luxurious. My grandparents have not changed their custom. One day Grandpa took me to a friend of his who owned a shoe store. I was not in the mood for shoe shopping and was totally against it but of course gramps would have none of it. That’s Albania; you are not heard unless you shout. Being Americanized I don’t shout; plus I don’t have “home country advantage” and feel all out of my element with a spine composed of boiled spaghetti; needless to say in a battle of wills, I always lose. Well, on this particular day, not getting my way worked to my advantage. Grandpa bought me a very nice pair of blue Italian loafers that you just can’t get in America.

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Once I stopped by one of the vendors of the farmers market that grandpa had introduced me to. She was a lady with a daughter my age. I truly was hanging by a thread. Here I was clueless how to spend my outing… why else would I stop by at the farmers market without having to buy anything? Or perhaps all tourists are clueless. Well, they treated me kindly, sat me down and fed me apples. I chatted a bit with the daughter and left having survived yet another morning. I must add here that I’m a homebody; staying out does not come naturally to me. I don’t know what to do walking the streets alone; at home I can always find a hobby. Out in the real world I am kind of lost. Some people are natural born adventurers. They go to countries whose language they don’t speak, they cheat death at every turn, and they fear nothing. I think to myself I could do what they do, when I see them, but this is simply not true. Adventure done right is a talent. I sometimes wish to see the world’s great cities. But I am not adventurous. I will have to settle for seeing them on Youtube.

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Grandpa and I also visited a few museums of earthenware, pots and pans from the Illyrian period. It was mildly amusing seeing the dishes and silverware people had 2000 years ago. We underestimate the past. The man of the past built the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Pyramids. True, the man of the past has achieved just as much as today’s man, in the appropriate sense. Sometimes more; the style of the ancients stands the test of time and cannot be replicated. And here I was now looking at their artifacts. Imaginately speaking, these pots had belonged to the likes of Julius Ceasar, Cicero, or St Paul; all great historical figures who have once walked the very earth I was now standing on. Ceaser even sent his nephew to study in nearby Durres while Cicero called it a great and important city. St Paul preached early Christianity here. I was standing on ancient ground; I was just out of time…

Note: Image not taken by me