Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gjirokastra

Inland from the Albanian riviera is Gjirokastra, a hilltop town that over centuries spilled its inhabitants down the hill from the now abandoned castle. Stone houses topple onto one another's slate roofs. On the map the spoked streets spread from the town centre like a star crack. They are wedged together like an Escher staircase and bulge like barrel vaulted ceilings of some troglodytic civilisation beneath the cobblestones.

The modern town now spreads from the foot of the hill like an upturned pudding. Those who still live on the hill belong to the hill, like ancestors of descendants below. The castle, host to a folk festival celebrating the millennia-old culture of the Albanian diaspora, retains a hold on them.

Gjirokastrians are friendly without being effusive. They smile gently, almost shyly. Their handshakes are never shows of strength. Greeting is like breathing—effortless and ephemeral, unlike the often overblown affair of the American hello. Half the Gjirokastrian greeting is done over the shoulder in parting.

Until recently there wasn't much here to engage the visitor. Most of the cafes, hotels and souvenir shops that now exist to entice the tourist are barely three years old. This new economy hasn't sold out the heart of the town, though. Not yet. There are still markets to buy milk and the local bus is still full of locals.

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