Thursday, July 16, 2015

Steep streets and creeping women: Gjirokaster part one

Of course, as soon as I get back to real life, I get out of the blogging habit again. It's hard to find time when adjusting to being back to work, dealing with all the post-holiday cleaning and unpacking and laundry etc. etc. I still have a lot to get through though, so I'll try to bang out a few quick posts now and publish over the next few days.

Last time I posted, we were en route to Gjirokaster (or Gjirokastra - I've seen at least two forms for almost every Albanian place name we came across, there must be some kind of inflection thing happening). We eventually got there and found out for ourselves that its steep, narrow, cobblestone streets are just as fearsome as the internet claimed. We couldn't go up to our hotel the way Google advised, due to a one-way street, and ended up in a very narrow and very steep street where the car engine finally had enough and stalled trying to go up it. With walls on both sides, a parked car thrown into the mix, and having to reverse back down around a corner, this was a tad stressful for both of us.

Not the greatest photo, but gives you an idea

We got there eventually, by going all the way down out of the old city and doing a big loop, at which point we were both pretty happy to abandon the car for a bit.

Gjirokastra is known for its traditional houses, like Berat. They are a bit more varied in style, however, and 'semi-fortified', apparently. I couldn't see much evidence of fortification from the outside, but we went on a tour of one of the old houses and he showed us the house bunker/basement and places for shooting out at attackers. We went to the museum in the castle, which was really quite informative, which had quotes from travellers right up until the 19th century who remarked upon the constant near-state of war in the city between rival families.

Some of the traditional houses on the hillside

The Skenduli House
We visited the Skenduli House, which dated back to 1700 (according to its owner) or the late 18th century (according to the museum). This may have been lost in translation, as we were given a guided tour by the house's owner in passable but not perfect French, interspersed with bits of Italian and English. It was very interesting! He explained that the house had been in his family for nine generations. He was living there with his wife and children in the 1980s when the ruling Communists decided to confiscate the property and turn it into a museum. When Communism fell, he managed to get the house back. It was really great to get the tour from someone for whom this was real, lived experience and family history.

Among other things that he explained to was that, traditionally, the more chimneys a house was, the richer and therefore higher-status you were. He joked that "the Communists would say, the more bourgeois you were". He also showed us how the bricks in the walls were interspersed with a layer of flexible wood, to prevent the house from falling down in earthquakes.

The summer living quarters were open to the elements

One of the fancier rooms

Beautiful wood carving and a cupboard and stairs for secret creeping about
One of the most fascinating parts of the house were the many small flights of stairs, mezzanine levels,  grilles, and two-way cupboard systems which existed to allow the women to move about the house without being seen by the men. He showed us several examples where a woman would mount a steep flight of stairs or a ladder behind a wall and peep through a grill to observe how many men were in the room. She would then prepare the requisite number of coffees/rakias/breakfasts/whatever for the family and guests, and place them into a cupboard with a double set of doors so it could be opened from either side. I'm not sure how the men knew when the stuff was in the cupboard, but whenever the signal was given or whatever, they could open the cupboard from their side and take the food and drink out without presumably being driven into a lust-filled frenzy by seeing the woman who prepared it all for them. I'm holding myself back from going into a rant about the kind of society that not only forces women to wait on the men in their lives, but then has the effrontery to make them creep about behind the walls while doing so like the imaginary woman in The Yellow Wallpaper (do read this, it's short and freely available online). I'm surprised this isn't still a feature of contemporary Saudi design (or is it?) Oh, oh, oh... You could say it's a case of structural sexism. (YAHHH! Puts on sunglasses.)

A not-especially steep street in Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster is also famous as the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator. His house has now been turned into a not-particularly-interesting ethnographic museum (the Skenduli House was much more interesting) which we also visited. Hoxha, incidentally, studied in France and was fluent in the language, which is perhaps why our guide at the Skenduli House spoke French. Outside of Tirana, we found more people who struggled with English, although most young people seemed to speak it pretty well. The second language of choice seemed, in fact, to be Italian, especially amongst the older generation. Italy is obviously not too far away across the sea from Albanian, but it also actually invaded and occupied the country during and after the First World War and shortly before and during the Second World War. Many of the government buildings we saw in Tirana around Skanderberg Square were built by the Italians. So perhaps this is why Italian is still widely-spoken by the older generations, or perhaps it's down to more recent emigration and economic ties;


  1. Kaster is the same as Chester or Caster I suppose?

    1. It comes from Greek "argyrokastro" meaning "silver castle". I assume kastro and caster must be related words.

  2. That steep street episode is the stuff of nightmares. Mx
    p.s. re the hidden women - that's m'gur!


Feed the Comment Monster! Rawrrrr