Art in Albania and Kosovo

Albania is not a country that frequently pops on many people’s European travel itinerary. Its way off the Euro Rail grid and it’s one of a small bunch of European countries that isn’t yet a member of the European Union. But this small country located at the bottom west corner of the Western Balkans is a rewarding, authentic and educational experience.

My first taste of Albania was in fact via the newly independent country of Kosovo, which became independent in 2008. In Kosovo at least 90% of the population is Albanian. From the small Montenegrin mountain town of Berane, I boarded a battered bus to the Kosovan town of Peja. I didn’t expect to encounter any significant art of note in this town, but I was delightfully surprised. On a late afternoon stroll through the town, I stumbled upon the Peja Arts Gallery; a large ground floor space with a number of striking paintings by the artist Isa Alimusaj.

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Isa Alimusaj solo exhibition at the Peja Arts Gallery

Alimusaj is a notable Kosovan artist who has exhibited his work extensively in the Kosovo region since the 1970s with occasional exhibitions in Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and even Poland. His paintings are vivid and hallucionary dreamscapes; plains of raw and visceral emotions. I could namecheck Munch, Dali or Bosch, but Alimusaj’s style is his own. His perceptions, vision and created worlds are only his and no one else’s. I look at these monumental paintings and think what a hit they would be exhibited in a top-notch gallery in London, New York or Paris. It’s a crime that they are hidden from most of the world.

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Isa Alimusaj

On my second day in Peja, I chance upon an art studio close to the old Ottoman style Bazaar of the town. Little did I know that the studio in fact was Alimusaj’s. Stacks of his sublime paintings were crammed on top of one another in a small room. Alimusaj himself was in a smaller adjacent room painting. When he recognised me I tried to strike up a conversation. He didn’t speak any English only Albanian and some German. In my substandard German I complemented him on his paintings and told him how much I loved his current exhibition.

A few kilometres outside of Peja town is a beautiful old terracotta-red Serbian Orthodox monastery called the Patriachate of Pec. The jewels of this monastery are the painted 13th century frescoes inside. Even after all this time, the paintings are very potent and alive. I am particularly transfixed on a faded ceiling fresco where the areas of deterioration accidently create a powerful and apocalyptic effect in the blue sky; as if Nikola Tesla entered the scene with his earth shattering Tesla coil. It is unwittingly modern.

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13th century fresco from the Patriarchate of Pec monastery

In the Kosovan capital of Pristina, I visit the National Gallery of Kosovo. Opposite the gallery is the National Library of Kosovo; an off the scales futurist-retro style juggernaut of a building so out of sight it makes Antoni Gaudi’s architectural designs look like a row of non-descript Barratt homes. The library was designed in 1982, when Kosovo and most of its neighbouring countries where all once part of former Yugoslavia, by the Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic.

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National Library of Kosovo

At the National Gallery there was a solo exhibition on display entitled ‘Groan’ by the artist Zake Prelvukaj. Prelvukaj is a mixed-media artist. There are experimental paintings, photography and video installations on display. Her paintings are expressive, introspective and primal with elements of tribal art from sub Saharan Africa. On the top level floor of the gallery, there are two video pieces by Prelvukaj; one of which entitled Blood-Feud-Vengeance features the artist with her hands covered in blood.

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Works by Zake Prelvukaj at the Kosova National Art Gallery

From Kosovo I make my first trip to Albania to the northern town Shkodra, where the Marubi National Museum Of Photography is located. This museum has more than 500,000 photographs in its collection with the oldest dating back to 1858 when the first photographs were documented in Albania. The origins of the museum can be traced back to the painter and photographer Pietro Marubi who was from the northern Italian city of Piacenza. He emigrated to Shkodra in the early 1850s where he founded, Foto Marubi, using old camaras he’d brought with him, which utilized the wet plate collodian process to develop photographs. This was the most technically advanced way of developing images back then having only recently been invented in 1851 by the British inventor and photographer Frederick Scott Archer. The legacy of Marubi’s studio and landmark photography collection was protected and enhanced by the innovative and distinguished Albanian photographer Kel Kodheli (who later changed his surname to Marubi) who first began work at Marubi’s studio in 1885 at the age of 15. Kel inherited the Marubi studio after Pietro’s death in 1903 and was responsible for expanding the collection of photographs in the studio by collecting photographs from established Albanian photographers of the time as well as photographs by lesser known photographers documenting Albanian culture as well as Albanian urban and countrylife. The enormous photography collection as well as the museum’s reputation as the most important museum for photography in Albania is all thanks to him.

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Pietro Marubi Jak Bjanku

The most interesting photographs in the collection of the museum for me are the experimental photographs employing collage and cut and paste techniques. Some of these are by Pietro Marubi himself from the 19th century and look very avant-garde; almost Dadaist before the movement was invented.

On my second trip to Albania later in the year in December, I spend time in the capital city of Tirana as well as the old Ottoman towns of Gjirokaster and Berat. In Berat, I visited the Onufri Museum in the old Christian neighbourhood of Kala surrounded by castle walls and located on the top of a hill with an amazing view over Berat. The museum is located within the grounds of the neighbourhood’s largest church, Church of the Dormition of St Mary, which contains a magnificent gilded iconostasis from the 19th century.

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Iconostasis from the Church of the Dormation of St Mary in Berat

Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is one of the most significant figures associated with Albania’s history of art and the most important icon painter of a group of icon painters working in Albania during the 16th century who wanted to revive the sacred religious icon painting of the past, which flourished before the era of the Ottoman Empire. The collection of works in the Onufri museum are by Albanian Iconographical painters between the 16th and 20th centuries and includes original works by Onufri himself.

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An original 16th century wooden icon painting by Onufri

When I eventually reached Tirana, I wanted to tap into the city’s contemporary art scene. During the long reign of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985 Albania was similar to North Korea today; a pariah country completely cut off from the rest of the world. Albanian citizens were not permitted to ever leave the country and those who, against all odds, managed to escape could not return. It was only after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s that the country was finally liberated after decades of isolation.

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View over Sheshi Skenderbej (Skanderbeg Square) in central Tirana

One of the most notable Albanian artists of the 20th century is Edi Hila who was born in Shkodra in 1944. He graduated from the Higher Institute of Arts in Tirana in 1967. Yet with the inescapable and stultifying backdrop of the Enver Hoxha regime it was challenging to shine and fully develop as an artist. In 1974 the regime found him guilty of ‘foreign influences’ in his work. It is precisely because of such a strict and authoritarian regime that no art scene could blossom in the country. Albania’s contemporary art scene only began to develop from the early 1990s and even since then it took time, because the country was isolated for so long and no ‘foreign influences’ could seep through. Today in this digital age of hyperconnectivity it’s a different story but back then all forms of international media and communication were suppressed. Nevertheless, some of the pre1990s works of Hila are one of the best representations of a meaningful and enlightened documentation of some of the art produced in Albania during the Communist era.

Since the early 1990s a new generation of contemporary Albanian artists slowly emerged with the artists Adrian Paci and Anri Sala being the most internationally recognized. Adrian Paci was born in Shkodra in 1969. He studied at the Arts Academy of Tirana where he trained as a realist painter. Then towards the late 1990s he emigrated with his family to Italy escaping a period of political unrest which was breaking out across the country. He is currently based in Milan where he lives and works. Paci is a mixed media artist whose whole oeuvre of work comprises of videos, installations, paintings, sculptures and photography. Yet he is best known for his videos, which he began to make around the time he left Albania for Italy. Back in the first half 2013 an important retrospective of his work entitled Lives In Transit was held at the Jeu de Paume experimental art space in Paris and travelled to other cities around the world. Interestingly, I was in fact present at the space in April of that year where another exhibition was also taking place in the same space involving my friend, the Philippine artist David Medalla. At the time I wasn’t familiar with Paci and sadly didn’t properly investigate his show, but I remember a clip from his powerful 2007 film Centro di Permanenza Temporanea, which took place in an airport with a scene featuring a still of a large concentration of people on a solitary unconnected air-stair. Watching this film again there is a strong sense of tension, uncertainty and anxiety in the video; a meditation on the meaning and, perhaps, also futility of life. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going to? Delving into the depths of these existential themes and questions is uncomfortable. Maybe since most of us are not trained to be mindful of this and prefer to escape and ‘keep busy’ in our cultivated roles.

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Adrian Paci Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (2007)

Anri Sala was born in Tirana in 1974. He completed his studies at the Arts Academy of Tirana in 1996 before moving to Paris where he continued his studies at the National School of Decorative Arts and after at the National Studio of Contemporary Arts. Sala, like Paci, is best known as a video artist and began to fully harness this medium in his work around the same time as Paci in the late 1990s. He made his first video work in 1997 entitled Interview – Finding the Words. The 25 minute film features footage of a black and white video Sala found of his mother speaking at a youth movement of the Socialist Party in the 1970s. There is no sound in the original film so Sala tried to restore the missing speech in the film via the aid of a deaf-mute lipreader. When he plays the film to his mother with the reconstructed speech she is embarrassed with her language yet doesn’t distance herself from her socialist beliefs or associating herself with a political movement. The Albanian art writer and critic Stefan Capaliku explains how Sala, ‘enters between the (lost) voice and the (found) figure of his mother, someone who has lived both during communism and political pluralism. He interferes via the reconstruction of lost time, connecting two antagonistic moments.’

Subsequent films made by Sali include, Byrek (2000), which is a 24 minute video showing a traditional Balkan dish, byrek, being made with the recipe written in Albanian on the middle of the screen and Time After Time (2003). His film Give Me The Colours (Dammi i colori) was exhibited at the Tate Modern in London and in 2011, he had a high profile solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries.

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Anri Sala Byrek (2000)

Whilst in Tirana I tried to locate some of the art spaces in the city which play an essential role in the city’s art scene. Unhappily I didn’t have much luck. On first impressions it seemed that I had perhaps overestimated the possibility of a thriving creative hub in the city. One place I very much wanted to visit, the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art (T.I.C.A) was no longer in operation when I visited Tirana in December of last year. Considering that T.I.C.A, founded in 2002, was the first center for contemporary art in Tirana and has played a leading role in developing contemporary art in Albania, this was not a good sign. Another art space The Tirana Arts Lab appeared to be in operation and when I visited its webpage an exhibition was taking place, but it seemed to be permanently closed whenever I tried to enter. I later learnt that the owners were away in Germany. Furthermore, I had no luck in finding the Tirana Ekspress cultural centre.

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The National Art Gallery of Albania

Yet my stay in Tirana was by no means fruitless. The National Art Gallery of Albania was all in working operation. Situated by the entrance to the museum is a modern white grid installation entitled The Cloud Pavilion designed by Sou Fujimoto. There are over 5000 works of art in the collection. Inside there is a modest room on the ground floor with paintings of portraits and street scenes from the first half of the 20th century. On the next level there are more, larger paintings which are historical and political in subject matter. Surprisingly when I was visiting, there was a large temporary exhibition by Grayson Perry featuring a series of tapestries inspired by the 18th century British artist William Hogarth’s series of works, ‘A Rake’s Progress’.

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Sou Fujimoto The Cloud Pavilion

In addition to the Perry exhibition was another temporary in the museum by an Albanian, Kosovo based, artist called Zeni Ballazhi with a body of work across a range of different media. One work features a gilded framed photograph of the skull of an ox with a crown on its head. In another corner of the exhibition is a video projector projecting distorted footage of a human skull x-ray. Elsewhere is a room full of newspapers with a lone car tyre. Ballazhi’s art constantly questions who we are and our relationship with the world. He explains his art as follows; ‘Through artistic creation I seek to rebuild human soul unity, to replenish that soul with energy and tension, in order to transform my relationship with the world. Art addresses the need to introduce all living elements to the world, to enable them to communicate amongst each other, without privileges or hierarchy’.

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Zeni Ballazhi The smile of a fake life (2014)

From the National Art Gallery I walk towards the trendy Blloku district located south of the Lana River. On the way I walk past the iconic ‘Pyramid of Tirana’. It once served as the mausoleum for Enver Hoxha until 1991. Today it is derelict and neglected. Ample amounts of graffiti can be found and you can sometimes witness young locals playing on top of the structure.

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Pyramid of Tirana

In the Blloku district, I visit a small commercial art gallery called the Kalo Gallery featuring a solo photography exhibition entitled North Korea’s Choreography of Happiness by a Tirana based photographer called Alfred Diebold. The exhibition comprises of photographs Diebold took when he visited North Korea. His photographs offer a fascinating glimpse into a country, virtually off limits to almost all outsiders. The only way to visit this country is as part of a guided tour and even in such a situation one is under immense scrutiny. In spite of these restrictions and limitations, Diebold captures North Korean society debased from some of the propaganda around the country. For example, one photograph shows a group of three locals having a picnic in some park with a greater variety of food than one would expect reading about from such a part of the world. In the photograph I see chicken, bread, apples and some salads too, as opposed to say Oliver Twist style gruel slop.

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Photograph taken by Alfred Diebold whilst in North Korea

On the same street is another gallery called the Fab Gallery featuring a solo exhibition by Ardian Isufi entitled Flower Power. The highlight works in this small exhibition space are the large triptych paintings with themes of nature and destruction using bold and lavish amounts of blue, purple and red.

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Ardian Isufi The Garden Of Permanent Instability (2016)

The highlight, however, of my time investigating Tirana’s scene involved a meeting the curator and gallery owner Valentina Koca who is a very important figure in the Albanian contemporary art scene and a tireless promoter of promising Albanian contemporary artists via her gallery space, Zeta. Since it was established just over ten years ago, it has played an integral and crucial role in showcasing the works of some of the most gifted Albanian artists. The history of the gallery and all its exhibitions are documented in a handsome hardback book, ‘Zeta: 2007-16’, published in 2016. Nineteen Albanian artists are represented in the book. Albanian modern artist Edi Hila, whom I mentioned earlier, is featured. In fact he has already exhibited three times at the gallery. In the book there are colour photographs of four paintings by Hila; two of which are from 1975. His water colour from that year, Under the Sacks, reminds me of the artist Marc Chagall sharing his loose, surreal and introspective qualities. Each show by Hila at Zeta was curated by Zef Paci, who is an art history professor at the Tirana Academy of Art. One afternoon I met Zef along with Valentina for coffee and tea at a local café in the city. We spoke at length about the history of Albanian art as well as the current art scene in Tirana and the future of the city and Albania in general.

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Edi Hila Under The Sacks (1975)

Other Albanian artists in the Zeta book who’s works intrigue me include Albana Shoshi, Enkelejd Zonja and Ervin Berxolli. Shoshi’s painting At The Sea (2008) comprises of a large Albanian family on the beach with two towels suspended from the parasol; of which one represents the flag of the European Union and the other the flag of Albania. On one hand this is a typical painting of an Albanian family on the beach. Yet this is also a political painting too. Albania is not a member of the European Union yet it shares a border with a country that is, Greece. Furthermore, when this painting was created in 2008, the cracks and struggles that the European Union is currently grappling with, had yet to come to the fore.

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Albana Shoshi At The Sea (2008)

Enkelejd Zonja is a mixed media artist yet its his hyper realist paintings, which interest me. One of these paintings, In Your Vein (2011), is inspired and influenced by a painting by the Italian master Caravaggio depicting the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha pulling up his shirt and vest to expose his right nipple whilst simultaneously grabbing the hand of a member of the public, as if it is imitating a pistol with one finger piercing a deep wound in his torso. It is a painting of high drama and very human with each subject painted in a sensitive and realistic way with no exaggerated mannerism. The three subjects in the painting next to Enver are representations of the so called ‘common man’ and are each painted in a style, which donates to the painting a strong sense of gritty realism; this is the aspect of the painting, which shines for me and I am reminded of another painting by Caravaggio; his 1601 painting Supper At Emmaus in the London National Gallery capturing Jesus with two of his disciples who are both depicted very acutely in all their hardcore material poverty and humanism. The man with his hand under Enver’s grip is dressed in dirty, well-worn and little washed cloths; he could be a factory worker, builder or metal welder perhaps. The older man to his right with his head hunched down appears down and out and downtrodden with a face revealing someone who’s ridden through the heavy grime and rough ride of life and has subsequently been severely conditioned and affected by his experiences.

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Enkelejd Zonja In Your Vein (2011)

Ervin Berxolli is also a mixed media artist and in the book there are two photographs of prints on wood entitled From The Cycle Icons (2014). In these works I am reminded of seminal experimental black and white photographs I witnessed in the collection of the Marubi museum in Shkodra. The distortions, various marks and manipulations augment the metaphysical qualities of the works and small discerning nuances morph into something more pronounced and take on a greater role. They become haunting and hard to forgot.

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Ervin Berxolli From The Cycle Icons (2014)

There is more to Tirana than what at first meets the eye, but through perseverance and an unyielding curiosity the city and its secrets will slowly be revealed.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Articles

frieze.com/article/mother-country
frieze.com/article/article/adrian-paci
frieze.com/article/article/anri-sala

Books

Stefan Capaliku – On Albanian Contemporary Art (2014)

Zeta 2007 – 2016 (2016)

Visiting the Albanian towns of Gjirokaster and Berat

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My first visit to Albania was earlier this year in late September when I visited the northern Albanian town of Shkoder en route towards Montenegro after having spent a week in neighbouring Kosovo. Visiting the rest of the country wasn’t on the agenda on that trip but I vowed to return to Albania later in the year. Since the beginning of November I had been based in Athens for almost three weeks. Yet I made sure that I would return to Albania before the end of this trip.

From the northern Greek town of Ioannina, I took an early afternoon bus directly to the southern Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster. I was the only tourist on the bus. Ioannina is a mountain town located on a plateau of around 500 meters. The entire sky was heavy with thick low lying clouds and I was wearing my warmest garments. During the two hour bus ride we drive through some awesomely stunning mountain landscape. There is no heating on the bus and my feet are turning to ice. The border crossing feels like its located at the same altitude as La Paz in Bolivia. On the Greek side we all have to get off the bus and I make an inward groaning sound. Uniquely for border crossings, the Greek border official is full energy and excellent humour. His English is impeccable…‘So Mr Nicholas Alexander, what the hell are you doing on the Greek-Albanian border?’ When we approach the Albanian side I feel relieved when we don’t have to disembark the bus. Instead the bus driver takes all our passports to give to the Albanian border official before handing them back to us.

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By Lake Pamvotis in the northern Greek town of Ioannina

On arrival in Gjirokaster, the bus stops on the side of the main town boulevard, Bulevardi 18 Shtatori. Multiple red Albanian flags line the middle of the boulevard. I establish my bearings towards my guesthouse via Google Maps. With hindsight, it would have taken an age to find my place without all this digital cutting edge technology at my disposal. From the boulevard, I walk up multiple ascending narrow stone paths. As I get closer to my destination, the older part of town with its old historic Ottoman style houses (some splendidly dilapidated) slowly reveals itself to me. I wish I were wearing my hi tech Merrel brand boots with their tough Vibram grip. My trendy hipster Vans shoes are not made for walking these jagged stone paths. As I walk further up one of the paths, a young man on a donkey with a small cart attached to it passes me by.

Google Maps is on my side and eventually I reach my final destination, Mele Guesthouse, or at least I think I have? An elderly couple greet me at the gates and take me inside their house. I ask them for the whereabouts of Mele, but neither of them speak a lick of English. We sit down on the sofa in the living room and the lady goes to the kitchen and returns with a tray carrying a bowl of sweats and an oversized shot glass of raki. With weather as cold as this, the raki is like a hot woodfire stove in my belly. I am also presented with a photo album of the couple with two of their children, a son and a daughter, in Venice. I assume that the daughter is Mele. After some time, a man in his late 30s/early 40s appears. I have a giant lemon sweet drop in my mouth disabling me from speaking clearly. Mele, I learn, is the surname of the man who’s name is Edmond. He speaks excellent English and I follow him to his house next door where my room is located. There is a balcony by my room with a tremendous view over the rest of the city and of the dramatic wide snow capped mountain symbolic of this town. My room is not warm but Edmond tells me to use the air conditioning unit on the wall, which doubles up as a radiator during this time of year. Edmond and I sit on the sofa in the heated living room. He makes me a delicious and warm organic tea and mentions that he once lived in Milton Keynes for two years back in 2005. Nowadays he works as a metal welder in town and lives in the house with his partner and their adorable young kid.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the old town. I need to withdraw some local cash so I head back towards the new part of town where I originally arrived. Instead of the arduous multiple narrow paths route I earlier in the day, I find a descending stone paved road leading directly into that part of town. After withdrawing my cash, I enter a bakery and order a slice of cheese and spinach pie and a wedge of halva cake. It all comes to about one Euro in the local Leks currency. That same purchase down the road in Ioannina would have cost me three times more. I am served by a young woman of about 20 who speaks passable English. She is so lovely and kindhearted, and admits to me that she cherishes all the opportunities to practice her English. Her name is Ada and she’s a student at a local university.

When I return to the old part of town, I try to find Taverna Kuka, a restaurant recommended to me by Edmond. The wooden taverna is aesthetically very tasteful and well heated. On one wall, there are several framed pencil sketches of assorted areas of the old town by a local artist. My first choice, the moussaka, is unavailable so I settle on a plate of qifqi, a local ball-shaped delicacy made from rice, dhjozme, egg, salt, pepper and milk.

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Taverna Kuka

 

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A plate of qifqi and meatballs

At night the temperature drops below zero. The air-con is humming away converted ice cold air into warm air. It’s a cumbersome and electricity wasting process and nothing beats a radiator, whether portable or nailed to the wall. Entering my private bathroom, which is unheated I must add, is like accidentally wading into a winter in Vorkuta. I pee and brush my teeth with haste before exiting back into a warmer vacuum. Edmond has kindly provided me with enough blankets to prevent the entire population of Gjirokaster from developing hypothermia.

When I wake up at 7am the next day, I roll up the shutters covering the sliding balcony glass doors. I am rewarded with a pristine blue day. The wide mountain and town skyline are majestic. I am served a decent breakfast of bacon, eggs, bread, sweet pickles and a Nutella crêpe. Wolfing down my breakfast, I tell myself Carpe fucking Diem. I am going to live today like its one of my last. I have the energy of James Brown, sans angel dust.

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View of Gjirokaster from the balcony of my guesthouse room

 

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Breakfast on the balcony

The first site in town I visit is the former childhood home of the Albanian president-for-life Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled the country for over 40 years from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule he cut off the country from most of the world. Albanian civilians were not allowed to leave and his regime tortured and killed thousands. Albania was comparable to Fidel Castro’s Cuba or present day North Korea during this period.

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Enver Hoxha 

Hoxha’s childhood home is an old Ottoman style house over 100 years old, which has been converted into the town’s ethnographic museum. Most of the wooden features and designs of the house appear to be original and well preserved. In contrast to this, many of the old historic Ottoman style houses dotted around the old town look neglected and in a decaying state of disrepair. In the vestibule of the first floor of the house, there is a small corner table with two black and white photographs of Hoxha resting on the wall. The living and guest rooms of the house are furnished with long sofas, antique carpets, intricate Ottoman style wooden reliefs on the wall and also some artillery pieces like the two rifles in one of the rooms.

The childhood home of Enver Hoxha now the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

 

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Photographs from inside the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

Another figure to come from Gjirokaster is one of Albania’s best known literary figures, Ismail Kadare. His most famous novel, I visit his former home, which has been reconstructed after a fire in the 1990s destroyed the original structure and features. It is used as an exhibition space today and when I visited there were a number of Expressionist style oil paintings by a local artist dotted around the home. In one room there is a small table with black and white photographs of Ismail as a young boy, some books, the hat he wore whilst he was a journalist in Vietnam during the war and a certificate honouring Kadare for winning the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society of 2015.

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Inside the former home of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare 

Afterwards I head to the enormous hilltop fortress of Gjirokastra. Just before I walk up the steps towards the fortress, I get lost walking up some of the mazes of surrounding stone pathways. The higher I climb the more awesome a view I have of the fortress and the old bazaar. The wide snow capped mountain in the distance, visible from my balcony, augments the beauty, rawness and authenticity of this historic slice of Albania. When I enter inside the fortress, I arrive at an area with great tall multiple stone arches and a collection of artillery dating back to the Second World War. Most of these weapons belonged to German and Italian forces, which occupied Albania during that time. The fortress is also home to the Museum of Gjirokaster. The museum contains numerous displays and information documenting the history of the city from as far back as pre-historic times. Of most interest to me is the period of history starting from when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans region. In 1417, Gjirokaster became part of this empire. Since that time the town grew immensely and Islam became the dominant religion, although the Ottomans were tolerant towards the existing Christian communities.

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Fortress of Gjirokaster

 

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The artillery gallery inside the fortress

By the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, Gjirokaster was an important administrative centre for the empire. It was around this time in 1811 when the city was captured by Ali Pasha of Ioannina, the last town I visited before I arrived in Gjirokaster. To say that Pasha was a formidable ruler would be an understatement. From the modest bits and pieces I’ve read up on him, he strikes me as the quintessential larger than life colonial despot; an intimidating and nightmarish version of Louis XIV of France on an eternal cocaine comedown. Or more generously, a PG certificate Ghenghis Khan. Lord Byron famously visited his court in the walled Turkish Kastro in Ioannina in 1809 and had conflicting feelings about the man. On one hand he was impressed by the ruler’s cultural refinement and the opulence of his court yet he was shocked by his propensity for off the charts barbarism as he wrote in a letter to his mother, ‘His Highness is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, so good a general that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte…but as barbarous as he is successful, roasting rebels, etc, etc..’ An example of his brutality include tales of drowning people who rubbed him up the wrong way by bundling them into sacks loaded with stones and then tying up the sacks before proceeding to drop them in Lake Pamvotis below the walls of his court. I recalled walking by that lake close to the Kastro and former court of Ali one cold and overcast day on my way to the bus terminal hellbent on getting to Albania. All the leaves on the trees by the lake were golden autumn brown. Ignorance is bliss and all I can remember is being struck by the beauty of the nature of my surroundings. Ali Pacha of Ioannina back then was just a name and I knew almost nothing about the man and the history of the town I was passing through.

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Ali Pasha

But back to Gjirokaster before I digress any further. The origins of the fortress date back as far as the 12th century but it wasn’t until the time when Ali Pasha first seized the town that major changes occurred. He instigated an enormous building project to expand the fortress with the help of his chief architect, Petro Korçari. His expansion project included new fortifications, the clock tower and an aqueduct to transport water from a mountain spring to fill the huge cisterns in the castle. The fortress was large enough to house up to 5000 soldiers along with their weapons and other supplies. An arsenal of 85 assorted British made state of the art arms were added to further protect the fortress from invasions. Not surprisingly, during Ali Pasha’s rule, the fortress never came under attack.

Some other interesting things I discovered in the museum about Gjirokaster include how fond the English landscape painter and poet, Edward Lear, was of the town. He visited two times in 1848 and 1859 on his travels through the Balkans. There are two black and white photographs which ignite my curiosity. One is a photograph of the old town from 1925 and the other is a photograph of locals hacking away with a hammer at the large town statue of Enver Hoxha after the fall of Communist rule in 1990. Although Gjirokaster is his place of birth and the town where he grew up, during his 41 year rule of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, he only visited his hometown a few times. There is also a display of miscellaneous ephemera from the Communist era such as political propaganda papers and identity documents.

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Painting of the fortress and the connecting aqueduct by the 19th century English painter and poet Edward Lear 

 

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The old town of Gjirokaster in 1925

 

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Locals posing by and hacking away at the statue of Enver Hoxha in Gjirokaster after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s

 

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Objects and ephemera from the Communist period

From the top of the fortress, one is rewarded with a monumental view of the famous wide mountain of Gjirokaster. Ali Pasha’s clock tower is located near the end beneath the backdrop of the mountain. Elsewhere there is a large metallic dome shaped structure over a circular stage. This is where the National Folk Festival is held every four or five years.

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The Ali Pasha built clock tower of the fortress of Gjirokaster

With less than a couple of hours remaining of light on these preciously short days, I make my way towards Zekate House; a grand Ottoman era house and probably the most spectacular of all the grand houses in Gjirokaster. It was built between 1811-12 and was a gift from Ali Pasha to Beqir Zeko (whom the house is named after) who built the house for him. It is located on a high slope over looking the rest of the old town. The view from the top of the house over Gjirokaster is just as epic as the view from the top of the fortress. The house is incredibly well preserved with almost all of its original features. One of the guest rooms comprises of ornate Ottoman style art on the walls and a beautifully designed wooden ceiling in the same style. Some of the windows feature multicoloured glass pains.

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The grand Ottoman era Ali Pasha constructed Zekate House 

 

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One of the guest rooms inside Zekate House

In the evening the temperature drops dramatically hovering around the -5/-6 Celsius mark. Even with the aircon unit going into overdrive to pump warm air it isn’t enough and dispite having all the blankets in the world, I consider sleeping in my clothes. All this aside, the guesthouse is very homely and Edmond and his partner did their very best to make my stay as pleasant as possible. Edmond organises his friend to collect me after breakfast the next day to drive me to a part of town from where my bus to the town of Berat, further north of the country before the capital of Tirana, would depart. His friend arrives in a black Mercedes Benz parked at the bottom of the path leading up to Edmond’s home. With hindsight I am glad I opted for a cab. I most likely would have got hopeless lost had I gone it alone. Edmond’s friend doesn’t speak a word of English and the young lady at the office of one of the bus companies is not much better. Fortunately I have my phone so I give Edmond a call and he communicates with both his friend and the lady. I later learn that the bus to Berat will be arriving at a later time. Two minutes later I am bundled into a white mini van destined for the Albanian town of Lushnjë from where I have to catch another bus to Berat. When I enter the van it is close to full capacity and I find a seat in the row of seats right at the back of the van.

Leaving Gjirokaster, we slowly descend to a lower plateau and the temperature becomes noticeably milder, but I am still wrapped up. There is no heating system in the van. Before we reach Lushnjë, the bus driver points to a sign indicating the direction to Berat. The driver speaks zero English yet he directs his hand pointing frantically to a small bay area by the connecting road. I assume a Berat bound bus will be stopping there? Still I am not sure so before disembarking the bus I make an impromptu call out to all the passengers on the bus beginning by asking whether anyone speaks English? Thankfully a young lady with dyed platinum hair comes to the rescue and is able to confirm in modest English that I need to go to the bay area the bus driver keeps relentlessly pointing at. I say the Albanian word for thank you, faliminderit, about a dozen times putting my right hand to my heart.

Like some travelling 1930s Mississippi Delta Bluesman, I trudge with all my stuff over to the other road and the small bay area. Within five minutes a Berat bound battered furgon appears and I nudge myself inside with my suitcase. I am dropped off somewhere outside of Berat from where I board a local bus to the centre. The ticket seller on the bus asks me in broken English what football team I support? I am not a football man but I tell him Tottenham. He looks at me and smiles, exposing a set of truly disgusting broken and jagged nicotine stained teeth; a sight so disturbing I conclude this is someone not suitable to be around young kids. ‘Chelsea!!!’ he howls at me in a voice so piercingly loud all the other passengers stop what they are doing.

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Berat

From the centre of town I disembark with my suitcase and walk, via trusty Google Maps, to my guesthouse located in a quiet and desolate location on the margins of the centre of town. It is a small newly built bungalow home with a few rooms. The outside of the house is no great shakes, but the few rooms inside are all in immaculate condition. In spite of this the rooms are very cold and even the air con unit doubling up as a heater doesn’t sufficiently heat up the room. The floor is cold as ice and the bathroom is one big freezer with a wooden door. The owners, an old Albanian couple, have a heart of gold though and the price per night is ridiculously cheap and good value. Too good in fact, especially if you consider that the price included a very generous breakfast of assorted slices of ham, jams, bread, feta cheese slabs and cut pieces of cucumber and tomato. Yet the cold temperature of my room means I sadly have to move on to another place the following day. The second guesthouse I stay at is more expensive, but is closer to town, run by a lovely family and has warmer rooms.

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The old Ottoman Gorica Quarter of Berat

Most of my stay in Berat is handicapped by ferocious torrents of rain. In fact the rain was so severe across most of the country that whenever I watched the national news it was all total mayhem; monumental floods, overflowing rivers, main highway roads blocked by mud and sludge etc. I was even wondering whether I’d make it on to Tirana on time? The entire second day of my stay in Berat was spent inside my room. When on the third day the rain still hadn’t softened, I was so determined not to spend another day bunkered in my room, I decided to brave the deluge. All I had was my small black umbrella I purchased from a vendor in the Omonia district of Athens for a couple of euros.

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Castle walls of the old hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood in Berat

I wanted to visit the old Kalaja neighbourhood located on top of a hill within the walls of the old city castle. It is a quite a shlep to get there and with the lashing rain and low hanging clouds even more challenging. About two thirds of the uphill stone path have turned into rapid streams of water. I invariably step into the steams and my busted Vans are already soaked to the bone. Yet I persevere and make the entrance of the castle walls at the top of the hill. From where I am, all of the town below is smothered in substantial puffs of nimbus clouds.

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A cloud smothered view of Berat from the historic hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood

Yet I am glad I made it. The old neighbourhood within the castle walls is a gem of stunning old Ottoman architecture and narrow stone alleys and passages. Walking through this maze evokes mental images of passing though a slice of medieval England with a Turkish twist. It feels very authentic here and this is no museum. It is a living and breathing neighbourhood where locals go about their daily lives.

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Photographs from the old Kalaja neighbourhood

What is interesting is that for a long time Kalaja was a Christian neighbourhood and at one point had around 20 churches. Today there are fewer churches, yet the largest church in the district, the Church of the Dormition of St Mary (Kisha Fjetja e Shën Mërisë), is an old church still in existence dating back to 1797 and was constructed on the base of a church from the 10th century. This church is the site of the Onufri Museum. Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest priest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is considered the most significant icon painter of a group of Albanian icon painters from the 16th century who were instrumental in reviving the style of old sacred religious icon painting which flourished during the pre Ottoman Byzantine period. Some of his panel paintings are featured in the museum along with works by other Albanian Iconographical painters made between the 16th and 20th centuries. The enormous and ornate iconostasis situated inside the church is magnificent and one of the finest creations of the 19th century by the very best Albanian wood-carving masters. The iconostasis features two rows of icon paintings created by the ‘Grabovar’ icon painters from the Çetiri (or Katro) family under the leadership of the master icon painter Johan Çetiri. The carving of the iconostasis is documented to have been constructed by two master craftsmen, Masters Andoni and Stefani. It’s prohibited to take photographs but I am so blown away by the works that I sneak a cheeky pic on my Motorola smartphone.

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The elaborate gilded 19th century iconostasis inside the Church of The Dormition of St Mary

 

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16th century icon painting on wood by Onufri

Outside the church there is a display of black and white photographs of Berat from the early 20th century. They show scenes of life in the town including a photograph from 1918 of the old Gorica quarter of Berat with its many old Ottoman era houses all grouped together on the side of a hill.

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Photograph of the Gorica Quarter from 1918

 

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Photograph of the old bazaar from 1908

The rain is still fierce and by the time I return to my guesthouse my shoes, socks and rucksack are soaked. In the evening I have dinner at a local taverna restaurant called Weldor. I’ve already eaten there a few times and I am always served by a cordial young waiter who speaks faultless English. He’s never been to England but for many years he worked in a hostel run by a guy from Newcastle. The restaurant serves delicious and authentic Italian pizza, pasta and risotto dishes made by an Albanian cook who spent many years in Italy working as a chef. The local staples are also excellent and tonight I order a homemade casserole dish made with aubergines and served with some of the finest bread I have ever tasted.

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Traditional Albanian cuisine at Wildor restaurant

By the next morning the rain has stopped and there are even some patches of blue in the sky. I seize this morning before I depart to Tirana to walk and explore the town in a way that was long denied to me. The main pedestrian promenade in the centre of town is covered in sludge. Already there are men at work with shovels and hose pipes trying to remove and wash away all the mud. Watching the people at work is like witnessing the aftermath of some natural disaster. I return to my previous guesthouse where I’d left my pyjamas. The owners greet me with a smile and hand me a plastic bag containing them. I tell them I am staying with a friend.

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The aftermath of days of heavy rains, which flooded many parts of Albania

I walk over the river to the old Gorica quarter. Most of the cobbled paths are smothered in sludge with huge puddles making walking a challenge. From Gorica, I have a super view of the old town on the other side. Both this district and the old town are full of old classic Ottoman style houses each side mirroring the other and both responsible for this being known as the Town of 1000 windows.

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The old town of Berat from the other side of the river

The family at my guesthouse arrange for me to go to Tirana via an acquaintance who will be driving there. I spend the remaining couple of hours of my time in the foyer with the family and their two adorable dogs, Spiky and Lucky, before a silver hatchback Golf pulls up to take me to my next destination.

 

By Nicholas Peart

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