26 April 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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