By Dora Ohrenstein

Today I’m bound for the town of Gjirokaster, in the south of Albania. I learned about this marvelous place via this website: The town boasts a dramatic alpine setting, but what particularly intrigued me was its Artisan’s Center, featured on the website along with profiles of individual artists. I sent an email to the center many months ago. Not long after, a response came from a young American woman named Courtney, a Peace Corps volunteer. Courtney and I have been emailing for some time now, and I know plans for a meeting with local artisans are in the works. I’m pumped!

A nice taxi driver who speaks some Italian transports me from my gloomy Tirana hotel to the so-called bus station, really just a parking lot for buses. The bus to Gjirokaster is nearly empty, except for a young German couple, Johanes and Lena, both bright and beaming. Living in Hambrg, Johanes hosts a television show for kids and Lena is set designer. We have a fine hour of cultured conversation.

The journey from Tirana to Gjirokaster takes us through lovely countryside, hills and farms, but trash strewn everywhere mars the landscape. There’s a teenager on the bus sporting a spiffy haircut, way off the shoulder T-shirt and typical teenage pout, accompanied by her mom. I more or less ignore them, but midway through the long journey the girl suddenly strikes up a conversation with me. Adalena (lovely name) speaks excellent English, and tells me she sings and believes it’s her destiny to be a great singer. When I tell her about the purposes of my trip, she says her mother does needlework! I take out my computer and spend half an hour showing them photos of crochet; mom is very impressed. Adalena is a totally modern girl, very open and optimistic, and I can’t help feeling Albania will be fine when her generation comes of age. The two depart the bus at a small village about an hour before we reach Gjirokaster.

Arriving in Gjirokaster’s new town, Johanes, Lena and I make our farewells. Courtney has found me a hotel so I taxi right to it. It’s small, lovely and new, with traditional decor, perfectly located on a high corner of Gjirokaster. Once again I’m in a divine setting, one that defies my descriptive skills. How to come even close to capturing the myriad ways sunlight and shadow frame and light the grand rocky contours? Ottoman style streets twist and wind like a maze, yet the overall effect is open and inviting, offering superb views at every turn. The bright, cheerful air and sky of Gjirokaster is counterbalanced by the somewhat sinister castle that sits atop the town, imposing its ancient reminder of sadder days.

Courtney appears at 7 p.m. as promised and we are fast friends. At 8 we meet a group of around 20 at an outdoor restaurant, among them tourists from Holland, Belgium, and Italy, plus some locals and the three Peace Corps volunteers — Courtney, her husband Chris, and Greg, all working here in town. We share an unbelievably delicious meal of grilled chicken, pork, lamb, a local specialty mint-flavored rice ball, felafel-like veggie ball, brightly colored salad, and yogurt drink. The Belgian couple aross from me are biking through southern Albania, pedalling over the enormous mountains on slim, dicey roads shared with Albanian drivers. Gutsy! The Belgians and a Dutch couple provide steady hilarity with relentless teasing at each others’ expense, mainly centered on miserliness and horniness. Dinner ends with a glass of raki, a drink I swill with great pleasure as it’s just like the grappa I learned to love on past Italian tours. My first of many glasses.

The center of Gjirokaster’s old town is fairly small, just 3 or 4 criss-crossing streets with shops and cafes, and among them are four devoted to needle arts. One is the Artisans coop I read about months ago, run by Lubi, an excitable woman who has brought together as many of the needlewomen as she can — it turns out to be only two. We spend many hours together next day, admiring each other’s work. The women — Elli and Rosa — do marvelous thread crochet, using familiar patterns and stitches to create stunning, complex pieces of lace. Neither has ever used a pattern, as the crochet culture here is completely oral, passed down through female family members. They can duplicate any piece of crochet they see. Emphasis is on tableware, as there’s a good market for it from Greek tourists who visit town — Greece is not far away, and there are many Greek-Albanian families living here. There are also a few wearable items, hats and capes, which are simpler. I try to learn about the process Elli and Rosa use to create pieces, but the language barrier, even with translators at hand, proves hard to surmount. It may also be that it comes so naturally to them that breaking it down into components or steps is foreign to their thinking.

All over the shop walls is another kind of lace work I haven’t seen before, a type of cut work, and I hope to learn more about it in the future, as it seems a real specialty of the region, and very beautiful too. We visit another shop that has a great many lovely large table cloths, curtains and the like, often combining several different techniques: cut work with crochet borders is quite common. The filet crochet work is particularly elaborate. As we admire piece after lovely piece, it’s a thrill to realize that lace-making is very much a living art here in Gjirokaster.

Two other shops in town feature hand woven rugs. These tend to be made in solid blues or reds, and adorned by symbols and motifs that bear no resemblance to anything else I’ve seen in the Balkans. Their simple geometry are reminiscent of American Indian design. Surely there’s no connection, but where these patterns come from is a question I aim to pursue.

One of the rug shops is owned by Ruha, who also owns an old communist-era rug factory. Courtney and I meet Ruha there later in the day. The place is piled high with yarn that’s been collecting dust for decades. There’s a musty feel all about, yet two women are working on a large loom, producing a bright red rug. In fact, Ruha’s rugs are all over the little hotel I’m staying in, and they lend the rooms a cheerful, authentic feel. We spend some time brainstorming on how Ruha might expand her business, but selling the rather decayed communist yarn doesn’t seem like the most brilliant scheme to me.

I spend three days in Gjirokaster, during which I share several meals, snacks and drinks with my new Peace Corp buddies, all in their twenties. I’m so impressed with their idealism: they’re here to learn another culture, to represent the U.S., and to assist according to their skills and interests. Chris and Mark tell me that getting things done here is slow and often frustrating, but I see clearly the good they are doing simply by sharing their presence and skills. Genuine friendships are forming with the locals, and learning is occuring on both sides.

A young fellow named Ardie has made it his mission to find some part singing for me to hear. Just about everyone sings, and it can break out any moment spontaneously when the right people come together. He finds me at one of the usual haunts and triumphantly announces that a group of old pensioners are at this moment playing dominoes and singing, and we must come. The well-dressed gentlemen are sitting around a table intent on their dominoes, and seem very pleased that we’re visiting. Without taking their eyes of the game for a moment, they launch into rousing song.

Albanian part-singing dates back to 9th c Illyrian times, and still has the quality of an ancient art. The leader chants a melody and immediately a lower voice accompanies, adding ornamentation in his part. Other voices join in unison with the lead, and there may be a higher part moving in parallel with it as well. Intervals are nowhere near the consonant thirds and fifths of the west, but I haven’t identified what they are exactly. The music is so beautiful and strange I can’t get the analytic part of my brain working to parse it. One fellow has a very special style when he takes the lead part, adding lots of ornaments including a bleating effect that reminds me of Monteverdi ornaments. The songs proceed in short phrases, and in between the men interject comments and cracks about the domino game, which never ceases. We hang out here for about an hour, enjoying the afternoon with these jovial gents.

In the evening I take the castle tour guided by my local friends, Arben and Ardie. Inside the castle’s dank walls we learn some of the history of the place, all pretty grim. It was built over several centuries, but dates mainly from the 18th, during the reign of Ali Pasha, a warlord who had designs on the Turkish Empire and was eventually beheaded for his ambitions. The unlit interior consists merely of peeling walls, dirt floors and bat-filled caves. Ardie goes bounding up a ladder to open a shutter, revealing the roar of the city’s water supply below, a cheery sound against the gloom. Part of the castle is a weapons museum with a collection of tanks captured during the Second World War, some of which are now rare and desired by collectors. Another part is a prison; a few townspeople still remember being incarcerated there. Finally we emerge into the open to the high view of the town. It’s getting dark and town lights are coming on. Our small group lingers a bit longer, shedding the thoughts provoked by this dark castle.

We go off for a dinner of pizza, joined by the rest of the gang, and after Arben and I go elsewhere for a glass of raki. We talk for hours, trading life stories and bonding across a wide sociocultural gap, since he’s a 31 year old Moslem and I’m almost twice his age, a first generation American from Queens. He’s handsome, smart and endearing, and it’s one of those moments I wish I could turn back the clock. Then again, it’s nice to eschew the heavy duty of romance for the simpler and kinder game of friendship. If you think I don’t really mean that, you’d be wrong.

Thanks to Courtney Jallo for most of the beautiful photos on this page.


Meeting at the Artisans Center, with Lubi in red

Filet cherubs

Cut work

Rug shop

Working rug on loom

Ruha winding a ball in her factory. Note piles of yarn in background.

Next day I must pack and board the bus for Tirana, where I’ll spend the night and then fly out the following day. Unlike the pleasant journey down, the ride to Tirana is a 6 hour torment. A horrid tape of pseudo disco music is played, ceaselessly and loudly, featuring sexual lyrics that would offend every single person in the bus if they had any idea what they meant. Apparently there is an industry devoted to making bizarre soundtracks for poorer countries, and the locals have become addicted to its relentless pounding. After many hours, when we are finally within striking distance of Tirana, there is an impossible traffic jam in the beach town of Durres. It takes us an hour to go about a quarter mile. I’ve had my fingers in my ears for the last hour and feel right at the verge of screaming like a madwoman. Though I’d been apprehensive about getting to Tirana late without a hotel reservation, arrival comes as a great relief.

I drag my wheeling luggage to a nearby hotel and they give me a price break from 85 to 65 Euro. Twenty Euro off the announced price seems to be the standard discount. Twice as much as a Gjirokaster hotel, but this is the capitol after all. It’s a very trendy looking place with some questionable design features, like a sharply angled ceiling on which I bump my head twice. I go out to the grocers for beer and water, down both with a Turkish delight to top it off, and drop off for my last Balkan sleep.