Sunday, July 19, 2015


Inland from the Albanian riviera is the hilltop town of Gjirokastra. Over centuries it has spilled its inhabitants from the now abandoned castle down the hill; the stone houses topple onto one another's slate roofs. On the map the streets look like a star crack in a windshield. They spread like spokes from the town centre and are wedged together like an Escher staircase, bulging as if beneath the cobblestones are barrel vaulted ceilings of some troglodytic civilisation.

The modern town now spills from the foot of the hill like an upturned pudding, but the castle retains a hold on those who still live on the slopes. They are like ancestors in the clouds of time past looking down on their descendants below. The culture belongs to the hill. Indeed, the castle hosts a quinquennial folklore festival fostering the millennia-old culture of the Albanian diaspora.

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 enthusiasm of the American hail which compares as an overblown affair. 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 just a few years old. This new economy hasn't sold out the heart of the town, though. Not yet. There are still little markets for the hillfolk's milk, people greet neighbours on the footpath from tables outside cafes at which they lounge for hours, and the local bus is still full of locals.

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