Chronicles of a stone town

MARKETING TYPES and wanna-be travel writers like to write of particular destinations as ‘unique’. They’re right of course: no single place is duplicated anywhere in the world, so by definition every destination is unique.

I don’t think that’s what they’re getting at, though. Perhaps, what they’re trying to say is that certain destinations are distinctive, that is, different in subtle ways to other destinations, boasting characteristics that are unlike other places, distinguishable, perhaps even idiosyncratic.

Whatever! To my mind, Albania is one  of the more distinctive – not unique! – destinations in Europe. Its recent history saw it hermetically sealed from the rest of the Continent (as well as the Soviet realm, with which it shared at least some ideological affinity). The Albanians are thought to have descended from the Illyrians, a people who faded into the mists of history (but for a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; well actually he writes of the Illyrian shore, not the people). And the Albanian language is unrelated to any other.

The most famous Albanian at present is probably the writer Ismail Kadare. The winner of the inaugural Man Booker Prize and several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kadare incorporates elements of myth, legend, allegory (designed to outmanoeuvre and skewer socialist-era censors), Balkan lore and history into his writing. One of his most well-loved – and I suspect autobiographical – novels is Chronicle in Stone, set in his birthplace of Gjirokastra during the 1940s and presented through the eyes of a young boy. The Fall of the Stone City, Kadare’s latest novel, recently translated into English, returns to Gjirokastra during WWII, and, going by reviews, is comprised of a familiarly intriguing brew of myth and history, dream and reality.

Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the idiosyncratic, despotic socialist strongman who ruled Albania from WWII until 1985. Hoxha declared his home town a “museum city”, thus it was spared the depredations of post-War socialist architects with their bevies of cement mixers; it retains the bulk of its historical building stock. Yet for all its exalted “museum” status and important place in Albanian history it has a very heavy Greek imprint. Gjirokastra, after all comes from the Greek: agyros (αργυρός, “silver”) + kastro (κάστρο, “castle”).

Gjirokastra climbs a steep hill above the Drinos River, in southern Albania not far from the Greek border. It’s easy to see why the stone motif features in Kadare’s novels about the city, and why he has a predilection for myths and legends. It’s an atmospheric settlement in a rugged, wind-whipped location, backed by calloused mountains. It’s fair to say that Gjirokastra is distinctive! From the lower, new town, steep, cobblestone streets rise to the bazaar area and residential neighbourhoods and beyond to the eponymous and fabulously gloomy kastro, which, when I visited, was framed by a constant halo of hovering crows.

Wandering the upper town is hard work. The winding cobbled streets are undeniably atmospheric, a melange of white-washed garden walls, mighty, jagged plane trees. On the verges and in garden plots grow wild fig, poppies, honeysuckle. The topography of a town straddling a hillside works against a casual stroll. Locals clearly get used to the gradient though: I noticed grandmothers dressed all in black striding purposefully up ascending paths, their sinewy calf muscles bulging in knee-high stockings.

Gjirokastra is notable for its signature, 19th-century kullë mansions (from the Turkish kule, “tower”). Sturdy and imposing they are built in three storeys, topped with weighty, limestone roof tiles. These tiles are very much of the area, elemental building materials that are drawn from the very landscape. They also feature in architecture south of the border in Greece, in Epirus, particularly in the towns of Ioannina and Metsovo.

The Gjerë Mountains form a barrier between Gjirokastra and the Ionian Sea. When I crossed the mountains the bus had to slow at the pass to allow a shepherd and his flock of fat-tailed sheep cross the highway. The shepherd’s wife led a couple of horses that were carrying large milk canisters and a young sheep dog nestled amongst woven bags. Descending to the Drinos Valley, we then turned left and headed north past villages all with Greek names.

After my stay in Gjirokastra I had to head south to Greece. I arrived in the bus station in the lower town early in the morning. I’d missed the first bus of the day to the border. Having no Albanian I found it difficult to determine when the next would leave. I tried French to no avail, and then, on a whim, Turkish – again, no dice. Finally, using my best travellers’ sign language I managed to convince a minibus driver to take me. He charged me well over the odds, I’m sure. There was no change from the note that I proffered.

We set off, heading south along the Drinos Valley. The driver whistled merrily. My fare was probably a substantial contribution to his retirement fund. He stopped for a couple of passengers, women in cardigans and headscarves. All of them looked at me, the lone traveller with a backpack, then chatted animatedly with the driver. All handed over smaller notes than I had.

Just short of the border, he took on another woman. She climbed aboard and declared, “Kαλημέρα.” Kalimera! Good morning! They were speaking Greek. Perhaps if I’d tried my best traveller’s Greek in the lower town I would’ve had a cheaper ride.

When we drew to a halt I thanked the driver: ευχαριστώ πολύ. He looked puzzled, then grinned broadly and wished me bon voyage – καλη ταξίδι – and I lined up to cross the border, leaving the stony hills of Albania for the stony hills of northern Greece.

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