Monday, April 30, 2012

Castle Hunting: Zamokot Samuil

Zamokot Samuil is all about the view.  Walking the ramparts, it’s hard to force your gaze inward to the crumbling walls and tin shacks that populate the castle’s courtyards.  Instead, look out over the bristle of pines to the slate-grey waters and the snowy peaks beyond.  It’s one of the great ancient vistas in the world.
The castle is one of the oldest and most well known in the Balkans, built on the site of an earlier Byzantine castle that was likely pre-dated by another, 3rd century BC fortress.  It’s a massive-walled, very wide structure that’s mostly been ruined and partly been restored.  While the walls have been reconstructed to some degree, the inner keep and some old towers exist only as bare foundations.  The gate fortifications have held up, and are impressively sturdy.  This main entrance faces outward toward the water and the steepest stretch of hillside, where now there are a few souvenir sellers in the shade and a cooler or two of water and soda.
It seems funny that a castle in Macedonia would have more visitors than any we’ve been to recently, but that was the case.  Sunday daytrippers and tourgroup biddies clutched at the handrails and huffed up the steps.  Little crowds formed at the most picturesque points, as people waited their turn to take a photo.  Usually, I’m not all that keen on excessive safety precautions at castles like this – one of the delights of travel in Eastern Europe is that nobody impedes you from taking a bad spill – but there were so many people that the railings were necessary.
All of us - tourists from Slovenia, Holland, Macedonia and the two of us - were entranced by the water.    From on high, the rippling patterns on the surface made the lake seem vast and infinitely complex.
Tzar Samuil built the fortress during Ohrid's peak, when it was serving as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire.  The old town – a hilly stretch of waterfront on a pretty curve in the lake – was originally ringed by lower town walls, with the castle serving as the last means of defense.  The town’s population was contained inside these walls until the Ottomans conquered the region in 1395 and began building around the outside.
Little is left of the lower walls, except a few gates and stretches of stonework.  Here, at the “upper gate,” the old doorway and small bastions remain, complete with rusting embellishments and weedy firing slits.  Traffic rumbles through the narrow opening at great speed, tires chattering on cobblestones, pedestrians ducking out of the way.
From below, the fortress isn’t very impressive - the huge flag almost makes more of an impression.  But it's atmospheric and the rebuilt ramparts are a pretty addition to the cities skyline.  The truth is that Macedonia, although littered with ruins, has very little in the way of surviving fortresses.  Because the country sits at a vulnerable spot in between tectonic plates, there's a long history of earthquakes; even the thickest walls eventually tumble if they're shaken too many times.  The restoration job was heavy handed, but Ohrid is Macedonia's prime tourist destination and tourists love a castle.
Diminished by distance into a simple, forested line, the far coasts seem untouched by time.  The walls too, and the mountains that ring the water.  With a light breeze drowning out the sounds of town and the sun clanging off the stones, it’s easy to lose touch with the senses of the present.  It’s easy, too, to imagine that nothing’s changed on these walls, that the year is somewhere around 1000, when Tzar Samuil reigned.  Even if it’s not the most fascinating fortress, Ohrid provides a backdrop that can’t be faulted.
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The Oldest Place You've Never Heard Of

Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world, right up there with Lake Titicaca.  Most lakes come and go in the span of about 100,000 years, filling up with sediments or drying out from some other cause.  Its depth and the plethora of natural springs that feed into it have kept Ohrid from such a fate.  Plenty of water for a long life, that's what they always say, right?.  Lake Ohrid's birth is estimated to have taken place around 5 million years ago and it has never once dried up. It is beautiful and vast with water that is incredibly clear.
Basically an enormous drinking well and seafood buffet, Lake Ohrid attracted seaside residents pretty early on.  Prehistoric times.  With at least 7,000 years of continuous human habitation, the town of Ohrid is considered one of the oldest ongoing settlements on earth.  Exploring the town feels like finding a memory box in an attic, a collection of heirlooms and evidence of the past that were deemed special and important enough to be saved.  Rifling through such a collection, you can't help but feel like what you're really doing is getting to know the person who owned the box and marveling at how long and full their life seems.
The residents of Ohrid didn't really want to save the Ancient Theatre of Ohrid at first.  Built in the Hellenistic period as a dramatic theater, it was utilized during the Roman era as a gladiator ring.  Once that empire fell, Ohridians (I've made that up) wanted to get rid of this massacre ring in which Christians had been executed.  So, they buried it.  This wound up being fortuitous, as it preserved the bottom level of the theater incredibly well.  Dug up in the 1980s, it was put to use once more - though, seasons ticket holders no longer get their names carved into the seats like the ancient theatergoer whose signature you can kind of make out above.
Legend has it that, as recently as the 15th century, there were 365 churches in Ohrid.  Supposedly, it was one for each day of the year, which probably made it extremely difficult to nab a seat for mass.  They have not all remained, although you see small white crosses lit up amongst the stars and street lights when night falls.  Above, Sv Jovan Kaneo sits in one the prettiest look-out points on the lake.  Built in the 13th century, it's just a baby compared with the ancient body of water it looks down over. Many of the churches were turned into mosques during the Ottoman era and then destroyed after that empire's fall. 
Such was the case with Sv Kliment at Plaošnik, near the castle.  This monastery had so much historic significance, though, that it was completely rebuilt in the 21st century.  The building only dates back to 2002, but the excavated foundations in its front lawn are from a 5th century Basilica.  It is also the site of what could very possibly have been the first university in the Western world.  St. Clement started the school himself, in 893AD, and it rivals only the University of Salerno in Italy for the crown. 
During those same Ottoman years, a Turkish neighborhood was built in the lower part of Ohrid, below the fortified walls in which the Christians were kept.  Their community, in Mesokastro, grew up around this plane tree, which is now 900 years old.  The trunk must have split ages ago.  People say that a barber shop was once housed in the crevice, which is possibly the most Turkish thing I've ever heard.  (See: Things Turkish People Like).  Later, it became a cafe.  Now, it simply sits at the center of the town square, bolstered by support slabs which give it a monumental look.
The old Robevi family mansion, they were one of the richest families in all Macedonia, is now the Archeology Museum.  Findings from Plaošnik and the Ancient Theatre are housed here and the house itself is a lovely site.  We visited with the hope of seeing one of the Golden Masks.  Near Ohrid, in Trebenište, five golden masks from the 1st millenium BC were found in 1918.  They are said to be worth around 20million euros each and are housed in Belgrade, Serbia and Sofia, Bulgaria.  A 6th was found in Ohrid in 2002, by a man named Pasko Kuzman who simply put the relic in a cigar box on his mantle and called it a day.  We read in an outdated guidebook that it was to become the first mask to be exhibited in Macedonia in 2008 - in this museum - but this doesn't seem to have happened.  Maybe he's moved onto using it as an ashtray?
At the center of it all is still the lake, sitting pretty and watching the views around it change hands, change faces, change centuries.  Beneath its surface are sunken jewels, a treasure chest for a history buff.  There are the remains of a Bronze Age stilt village, still sticking up from the sand.  The lake has grown up and over it in the 3,500 or so years since it was built.  There are sunken World War I tugboats and a coastguard boat and airplane from World War II.  Of course, there are also living species rare in this world covering the deep, lake floor. 
But for Albanians,  Lake Ohrid is simply the seaside.  Families come here to swim, tan, dine and stroll.  Through the old cobbled streets they walk in colorful summer clothing, even in the late Spring.  Some things haven't really changed since prehistoric times.  The shores of Lake Ohrid are still prime real estate.  Unfortunately, some of the oldest residents of the lake are being fished out of existence - but more on that later.  After all these years, the deep, clear water of Lake Ohrid is still providing humans with life-giving sustenance - beauty and relaxation. 
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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Things Albanian People Like

White head kerchiefs. It was one of the first things that set Albanians apart. Whether it was a nice lace kerchief, a simply cotton cloth or an old t-shirt, women opted to cover their heads with white fabric. Most non-religious head covering we've seen, throughout Eastern Europe and the Caucuses, was done in black or just whatever scarf was lying around. In Albania, they were uniformly white.
Littering. Unfortunately, Albanians really, really seem to like littering. Young men do it with relish, sending a wrapper or soda bottle out the window of a moving bus. We saw a woman at Berati Castle empty her cafe's small trash can over the edge of the castle walls. Needless to say, we got into the habit of carrying our garbage until we saw a proper place to dispose of it. Trash covers so much of Albania's beautiful landscape and is basically an ever multiplying invasive species in Tirana. It's a huge shame.

Molto Way. Just about half of the wrappers tossed here, there and everywhere were from Molto Way snacks. These cream-filled croissants are advertised on billboards all across the country and found in the hands of just about everyone. To be fair, there is also Replay, a rival filled croissant packaged snack, but Molto Way is definitely the front-runner in the market. We tried a Molto Way Double, filled with coconut frosting and chocolate frosting. As a loved one of ours likes to say, it was a "sugar gut bomb."

Living on the top floor. This is really a strange phenomenon and I haven't uncovered a reason. At first I thought it had to do with locking family members away to protect them from violent blood feuds, but it seems only to be "vernacular Albanian architecture," as one source put it. Since most houses are in some state of construction, these one floor homes on stilts are everywhere. Many finished houses never bother with walls on the bottom floor.
Warding Off the Evil Eye. While completing said construction, it's very important to ward off the evil eye. This is most often done with a stuffed animal hung from the highest point. We saw teddy bears, cabbage patch kids and one very large Spider-Man that would have fit in at a boardwalk carnival. Good luck charms in high places.

Bicycles. I've come to notice that a large amount of bicycle riding occurs in countries that are either particularly poor or particularly well off. It's probably because you either have a green initiative that develops bike paths and encourages the use of bikes for environmental and traffic purposes - or people simply can't afford cars. In Albania, this is definitely the case and even the bicycles are well-worn, antiques.
Loading down their bicycles. I just wanted an excuse to use this photo, because I couldn't decide between it and the one above. You don't usually think of bicycles as having a full trunk load - until you go to Albania.
Homemade Raki. This isn't the raki of Turkey, made from anise-seed like Greece's ouzo or France's pastis. It's more like moonshine, made from anything. Some locals like to liken it to grappa, but I'm not sure that grapes are necessary. It is often infused, always strong and, as far as we can tell, almost completely homemade. In fact, when we went to buy a small bottle of it, we could find none at all. Jack Daniels, Russian vodka, but no raki. What gives? We went to a bar and the woman pulled a whiskey bottle out when we inquired about raki. No, not whiskey. She handed us a taste. So, we were able to buy a bottle of raki after all - a whiskey bottle filled with the stuff. Home-made for sure.
Work-horses. They trotted alongside our rental cars on just about every non-highway road in the country. Most often, their carts were loaded with huge piles of long grass on their way to begin the transition into hay. We saw this horse-drawn mock pick-up truck a few times and were ecstatic about getting a photo. Sometimes, the horses carried only the load of its owner. This brings me to another thing Albanian people like, riding side saddle. We did not see a single person riding otherwise.

Honorable Mentions 

Being some of the nicest people we have ever encountered, anywhere. This is really true. We also benefited from two other things Albanian people like: Speaking English and America.
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Ish Biloku

 You can tell when a city is poor, as Rebecca said recently, by the smell.  It’s hard to put a finger on what that smell is, but it’s there.  It’s almost the same every time.  Especially when it’s raining and you can smell the leaks in the sewers, or when it’s hot and dusty and the smog of burning trash and two-stroke exhaust hangs in the air.
Tirana is a poor city.  Albania is a poor country – in Europe, only Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia and Moldova are poorer.  Walking in the city, one feels a gripping, immediate destitution.  Children beg in the streets, manhole covers are missing, trash is piled in empty lots.  Even in Tirana’s center square one can feel it – at night, Roma prostitutes in tawdry petticoats stand on the steps of the opera.
But there’s one small part of Tirana that is – almost miraculously – very different.  The two questions: What does it stand for?  Is it real?
 “In that time,” Malvin, a new, young Albanian friend told us one night, “in the time of the dictator, not even a bird could get into ‘The Block.’  Maybe just a little bird, a tiny bird.  But nobody else.”  A woman at the guesthouse we are staying in said, about The Block, that it was “the neighborhood we couldn’t go to when we were little.  Nobody could go there.  It was where our dictator lived, and all of the other important communists.”
“Today,” she continued, “it’s where the young people go, maybe for a drink or to hang out.  It’s very cool.”
Above, Radio Bar, which is certainly a very cool bar, and one of the more popular.
 It’s true that “Ish-Biloku” (“The Block” in Albanian) is a cool neighborhood, and that it’s a place to go for a drink.  A small section of six city blocks, it’s become sleek and well-fed, the leafy streets and luxurious homes opened up to the public and the club speculators.  White chaired, colorful-walled cafes – a type of establishment, with indifferent coffee and loud techno, that’s proliferated across the entire urban continent – mix with shoe stores and “boutique” clothing stores.  The first time we came down to The Block, a new Ferrari was pulled up to the curb nearby a popular café.  Wardrobes in this part of town are painstakingly curated, the heels are high, the sunglasses like gleaming hubcaps. If there is somewhere wealthy in Tirana, it’s here.  But how much of this wealth and showiness is real?
 Until 1991, when it was first opened to the public, Ish-Biloku was the private reserve of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator, and a few high-level party members.  His house now sits disused in a neglected stretch of lawn, visible in all its mundane blockiness from the sidewalk.  Around it are simple coils of barbed wire and a low fence.  There are no visible guards.  It’s ignored, except by a few tourists who stop to gape.  The neighborhood has moved on.  Capitalism has swept in, and there are friends to meet around the corner.
Ish-Biloku, to many Tirana people, is a symbol of their victory over the tyrant, of their freedom, of the promise of a better life.  But it’s also too expensive for Albanians.
 In Chisenau (another strange, communist-block shantytown, the capital of Moldova), we used to wonder at the little pockets of wealth.  There, in a country where the people are throttled by poverty, where the average citizen makes less than someone in India or Congo, there were little enclaves of shocking luxury.  Parts of the city were full of idling, chauffeured luxury cars.  We ate at a few restaurants that would be considered expensive in New York, where women wore yards of shining fur and the men’s faces were bloated with rich food and power.  Moldova is so corrupt that it can barely be called a free country.  The black market thrives.  The old communist leaders have been replaced by gangsters and crooked officials.
 Albania is much the same, just a little more glossy.  In a sense, there is something unchanged about Ish-Biloku, even if it seems that everything is different.  People who populate the glitzy stores and restaurants are divided into two groups: the actually wealthy and the wide-eyed.  The first group is suspect – how has anyone made money in Albania, if not by being slippery and cozy with the ruling party?  The members of the second group linger for hours over a few cans of soda, or a long-finished espresso.  The average income in Albania?  About two hundred and fifty euros a month.  That’s only three thousand euros a year.  An afternoon coffee for a young student is a real expense.
When we ordered food at one restaurant, called Artigliane, everyone gaped at our plates.  This salad cost about four dollars.  The people around us couldn’t take their eyes off it.  Almost nobody orders food in The Block.  Tirana’s people eat and drink elsewhere, where things are cheap.  They come to Ish-Biloku to sit and feel better off.
 When one first enters Ish-Biloku, crossing from grime to luster, there’s a sense that something miraculous has taken hold of Tirana.  The air even smells – in that telltale way – cleaner and healthier.  Even in the rain it’s fresh, with the vegetal odor of the trees and none of the churned up mud of the outside world.  Tirana seems to be a different place.
If the neighborhood wasn’t so small it might not feel so illusory.  Instead, the fresh flowers and waiters in vests, the bright clothes and indolent youth seem like a fleeting mirage, flickering in a wasteland of poverty.  Tirana isn’t really like this.  Albania is still a very poor country.
This bar is almost attached to Hoxha’s old house.
Is Ish Biloku real?  Maybe.  It’s real in the sense that it exists.  Young people go there and sit on angular surfaces, grip cold glasses, smell the new leaves, listen to raucous techno.  But there is an illusion here, a play on reality.  At times it seems that everyone got dressed up to pretend that Tirana was better off.  Twenty years after Albanians emerged from the depths, they’re still gasping.  The Block may have been opened up, but it’s difficult to tell if anyone can really get in.
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Houses of Gjirokastër

"When (the city) was first built, the wood had cunningly had itself hoisted up top, leaving the stone to the foundations, cellars and cisterns. Down there in the half-darkness, the stone had to fight the rising damp and the groundwater, while the wood, nicely carved and carefully tended, adorned the upper floors. These were light, almost ethereal: the city's dream, its caprice, its flight of fancy. Now the fancy had met its limit. After giving the upper floors such privileges, the city seemed to have changed its mind, and hurried to rectify the error. It had them covered with roofs of slate, as if to establish once and for all that here stone was king." - Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone
The 19th century houses of Gjirokastër are a lot like the Ottoman architecture in Berat. Here, though, they aren't as uniform or clumped together. They are spread throughout the old part of the city and come in all shapes and sizes. Because no two are alike, it's easier to really notice the things they do have in common. Their walls are stone until the top floor, which are white-washed wooden frames. So, they sort of look like women wearing high-waisted grey pencil skirts with a white blouse. The windows are narrow and tall and become more numerous toward the top of the houses. In Albania, people live on the top floor - it's been true for centuries. Even now, driving through the country, half finished houses look like cottages on stilts. One completed floor atop beams and exposed staircases. Of course the third floor is built first, it's where they will live! When the whole city moved into their cellars to seek shelter from constant bombing during World War II, Kadare's young narrator quips that "these were hard times for the upper floors of the city," abandoned as they were.

We're staying at Kalemi Hotel, one of the few traditional houses that have been elegantly restored. The Kalemi family, no doubt, attracts guests wishing to see the interior of one of Gjirokastër's famous Ottoman houses. I recognized things from Chronicle in Stone right away- the curtains with white lace at the ends, the low couches lining the room on which the old women who visited sat "sipping their coffee and making sage pronouncements." "Windows as tall as my father, and a grainy, mottled ceiling of carved wood." This is the dimerorja ("winter room"), where families traditionally spent most of their time in the colder months. The ceilings are elaborate carved wood, but the furnishings give the comfort of a home, not a museum.
And this is a dimerorja in an actual museum, the Ethnographic Museum. It's easy to see the Turkish influence in the traditional furnishings. Most of the large houses of Gjirokastër were built by Muslim landowners and officials during the Ottoman rule. When we arrived, we were let in by a cleaning woman with a comically large key. She just happened to arrive minutes after we had. Inside, spring cleaning was in full swing. The couches along the perimeter of every room were being uncovered, the white curtains were being taken down. Carpets that ran through the house like a line in a maze were being vacuumed. The house itself is significant for an entirely different reason - a faithful reconstruction of Enver Hoxha's family house, built on the same site. Our guide told us it had burned down accidentally in the 1960s, but another source I read said that it was blown up by protestors in 1997. Who to believe?
The Ethnographic Museum may give a little bit of insight and the Kalemi Hotel may be as pleasant as can be, but the real tour de force of traditional houses in Gjirokastër is Zekate House in the Palorto quarter. It is an enormous estate, with two wings. Mr. and Mrs. Zekate sat in their courtyard under a Heineken umbrella and simply walked wordlessly and unlocked the front door when they saw us approach. It was everything I'd imagined and more. After the Ottoman Empire lost control of Albania in 1913, the wealthy families that built these mammoth houses couldn't necessarily fill them completely anymore. The bottom floors are mostly empty, used for storage. A couch here, a rug there, just to make the experience of walking through a little more pleasant. The space between stones in the floors and walls were filled in with red paint - something we'd noticed at Kalemi, too. As we moved upwards, stone gave way to wood and the living rooms became cozier. Sheepskin was dyed red and used to cover the couches, looking exactly like 70s shag. 

Then, at the tippy top, we found the glorious oda e miqve, traditionally the most beautiful room and reserved for visits from guests. Frescoed walls, elaborate ceilings. The large rug made all the thin, red runners that guided us up until this point look like dying flower petals, left in a trail to lead us to a poppy field. Here, the chimney-shaped fireplace (the oxhaku) was not draped in white lace, but rather covered in painted designs. To quote Kadare again: "It was easy to see why the other rooms...were jealous of the main room." 
In the highest part of the Zekate house, up on a loft looking over the grand room, we were almost eye level with the magnificent ceiling. Dark, painted, it looked solid and indestructible. The wood beneath our feet, however, creaked and bent. We were careful to walk on the floors' joists, here and everywhere else on the top floor. The decaying planks really felt like they could give out at any time. The staircases creaked loudly. Visiting his old house as an adult, Kadare wrote: "What's wrong? Where does it hurt? It seemed to be complaining of aches in its bones, in its centuries-old joints." His home was just two blocks or so away from the Zekate House, but it was ruined by a fire in 1997. Old man Zekate is probably about the same age. I wonder if they knew each other. (As you can tell, I've got a serious book-crush). 
These houses are only a small protected part of Gjirokastër. The protection offered to buildings deemed 'historic' prevents any sort of alteration of the original architecture. However, it doesn't do anything to prevent weathering and disrepair. Most of the historic houses of Gjirokastër are uninhabited and in steady decline. People that do live in old houses can't help but go against the rules and re-patch their leaky roofs with terracotta or plastic shingles. Restoration according to the preservation rules would be more expensive and take longer. When you look at the Museum Zone from above, you can see patches of orange and red. Sill, you can imagine what the whole thing must have looked like. I bet it was something like looking down at New York on a rainy day, when it becomes a landscape of open umbrellas. With the new buildings in view, the slate roofs described both as "scales" and "a hard shell," by Kadare, lose that cold edge. It's the big, ugly modern architecture that looks menacing now, I think.
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The Concrete Pillboxes of Albania

 Imagine living in Albania in the 1970’s.  The country had been plunged into complete isolation, cut off from its neighbors, its old allies, outside news.  They had left the Warsaw pact.  No one was allowed to leave.  Hardly anyone could come in.  A few Americans and British tried, but were executed on the spot.  The population was taught nothing of the outside world except that it was fearsome, ready to attack.  After some twenty years of communism, Albania had become ringed by a silent, unknown darkness.
If you were an Albanian man, you were drilled on the protocol should there be an invasion.  First, get your gun.  Second, head to your assigned bunker… and stay there.
 Albania has over six hundred thousand concrete and steel bunkers, built during the dreamlike shadows of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship.  They squat in low formations at every corner of the country, with greater frequency near the borders and along the coast.  Driving or walking along country roads, it’s impossible to miss them – scrawled with graffiti, painted over or simply blank grey.  They litter the landscape and are almost indestructible.  Even dug up they’re too tough to pull apart, and lie like strange, huge tubers in ditches or dumps.
 Enver Hoxha’s regime had once been friendly with Yugoslavia, but the relationship soured early in the post WWII years.  Russia had been the primary ally after that, but Hoxha had become too bloody for the Soviets to tolerate (in one astounding meeting, he was accused and chastised by eighty other bloc leaders) and the dictator had grown tired of demands from the Kremlin.  Albania parted ways with the USSR in 1961, severing all ties, and became improbably aligned with China.  Most western countries had long since withdrawn diplomatic ties by the time Mao died and China lost interest.  It was an almost complete shuttering.  Behind a curtain of landmines, mountains and fear, the Albanian people huddled.
 The “pillbox” - a small, one man, dome-roofed foxhole - is by far the most common bunker found in Albania.  They were installed literally everywhere, along every road, near every mountain pass.  Tending to crop up in threes, they are so common as to be part of the landscape; they’re interesting at first, then hardly noticeable.  This one, outside the school in Valbona, was in the same condition as most.  Weedy and dull-edged, mostly filled in with dirt and trash, but still as functional and sturdy as it was forty years ago.
 In the heaviest defended areas, the pillboxes are arranged a little more strategically, usually arrayed around one or two larger, permanently manned bunkers with radio contact to a central command.  The smaller shelters - called "firing positions" - were intended for average citizen-turned-partisans, who were unlikely to be trained soldiers or have much of an idea what to do in the case of an attack.  The larger and smaller fortifications were always within sight of one another, so that the soldiers could give visual orders to the gunmen around them.  It’s interesting, in some of the more densely barricaded areas, to look at how the pillboxes were arranged, what their line of sight was, what they were defending.  Each of the firing positions has a “back window” that looks straight at the command center.
The primary element, though, was the domed roof, which was designed to deflect artillery fire instead of absorbing the impact.
 There is a legend that the chief engineer of these pillboxes, Josif Zengali, was so certain of their strength that he “volunteered” (these communist era legends are funny things) to hole up in one while it was shelled by a tank.  He emerged – of course – perfectly whole, though later he was imprisoned under suspicious circumstances.
The construction and installation of this network of concrete was a major project, keeping a large contingent of laborers and soldiers busy for decades.  It’s said that the bunkers became such a vital employer that it was difficult to stop the program.  Indeed, the structures were still being put in place (with the same design) right up until Hoxha’s death in 1985, by which time they’d probably lost much of their tactical relevance.  But what else could the impoverished, lonely country build?
 Today, the bunkers are sometimes used as garden sheds, playhouses, outhouses or (most often) big garbage cans.  Goats graze around them in pastures, they serve as dirty changing rooms on some beaches.  They can be seen built into stone walls, sometimes, or even into the side of some houses.  Albanians tend to think of them less as a reminder of a past era and more as a nuisance.  They weigh nine thousand pounds apiece, they’re dug five feet into the ground, they’re reinforced with steel… how are you supposed to get rid of them?  Younger citizens have begun painting them bright colors, in an effort that mirrors the buildings of Tirana.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Albania's bunkers is that they were never used.  The country was never attacked.  Hoxha relied on the militarization of his citizens to retain control - the goal for the bunker project was to have one built for each family of four, so that every able-bodied man had his literal place in the chain of command, in the ongoing war with the outside world (things were so strangely perverted that Albania maintained a "war" with Greece between 1942 and 1987, even though for decades there was no fighting and Greece essentially pleaded for an end to the madness).  The dictator kept building bunkers and convincing everyone that they needed to dig in.
Driving around here is like navigating a short, intense history - the imprint of a scarce forty years is stamped on every hillside.  It's unique, it's ghostly, the bunkers are part of the landscape yet also jarringly set apart.  On one hillside we counted twelve, their outlines almost obscured by wildflowers.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Silver City's Castle

Gjirokastër is a city that looks beautiful at any time of day, from any angle.  A timeless sort of gorgeous, it is curvaceous with mountains and celebrated for its cascading mane of stone-roofed houses.  Its unique beauty mark is its castle.  Its birth mark. Sure, all by itself it's just a solid, harsh mass, but it makes everything around it more beguiling.  You can see the castle from basically anywhere in Gjirokastër, which is particularly helpful when trying to navigate your way through the jumble of streets in the Old Town.
Someone way better at metaphors than I, Albanian-writer Ismail Kadare, grew up in Gjirokastër and described the city and its castle in his book Chronicle in Stone.  The story takes place during World War II, when all the houses of the town were still topped with stone roofs and tumbled down the steep terrain with haphazard uniformity. Of the fortress, he writes:
"It had given birth to the city, and our houses resembled the citadel the way children look like their mothers." 
Having just finished that book, I was extra excited to arrive in town and see Mama Castle with her silvery stone offspring huddled close by. 
Castles are lovely to look at (usually), but my favorite part is seeing what people have decided to do with the place.  Will the museum inside tell the story of the fortress or will it depict castle life with recreated furnishings?  Will there be a torture museum in the old prisons?  Staff in uniform? Mannequins in guillotines?  We knew that there was a Museum of Armaments inside, but found that it was closed.  Still, we were met with guns-a-blazing, a collection of cannons from the First and Second World Wars.  Our pamphlet called them "trophies," nabbed from the Italians (displayed along the right) and the Germans (along the left).  The arched galleries and large guns served to make each other look bigger and more imposing.
The castle was protected and turned into a cultural landmark in the years of Albanian Communism.  So, obviously, the curatorial slant is going to be Albanian Supremacy, Power and Victory! (Or something along those lines).  There isn't any propaganda involved anymore.  In fact, the large populist leader sculpture, strong-jawed and draped in ammo, is pointed out as "communist propaganda of the time" of the museum's construction. The collection still speaks volumes, though.  Here we have a Carro Armato Fiat tank of which there were only 243 made. This was captured from the Italians in Port Palermo. Operated by two people, it runs very slowly and can only be used for short distances, because it is run on coal. How crazy, a coal-powered Fiat military tank from the 40s.
If that tank is a head in a hunter's lodge, this plane is the bear skin rug. The aforementioned brochure lists this as "American Spy Plane," but the posted orientation map adds a question mark. "American Spy Plane?" Either by force or at the decision of the pilot, this plane landed at Tirana's airport in 1957 and may or may not have been carrying a spy from the USA. The Communist government's anti-western sentiment was, probably, mixed with fear and this plane was displayed as a warning to any other enemies. (Though, this prize catch really may have been more like roadkill. Some people say that an impending engine failure may have forced the landing).
In 1968, to celebrate Enver Hoxha's birthday, the first National Folk Festival took place on the grassy field atop the castle.  From below, you can see this spherical pink stage ornament within the citadel's walls.  We thought it was some sort of jungle gym.  Every five years, this mainstage hosts the competition.  Folk singers, dancers and musicians come from all corners of the country and perform for hundreds of spectators.  It must be quite the venue.  There are the guns, tank and plane - and then this stage, which is just as much of, if not a truer, expression of national pride.
Amazingly, even after Gjirokastër became a Museum Town and the castle had begun to be used for cultural events, the prisons remained in use.  These predictably dank places with special punishment chambers had been expanded and widely used by King Zog, used "with zeal" by the occupying Nazis  and then employed right up until 1971 by Hoxha's communists.  Maybe in a decade or so, there will be information in the pamphlet about that third stage of the prison's life. 
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