05 July 2012

A Night in a Kulla: A Castle of Our Own

I pushed aside the pretty, little, white curtain that flapped in the evening wind and shouted out to Merlin about what I'd found.  A steel bar stretched across the small peaked window and a hornets net sat right at the top.  We'd rented this kulla in Dranoc for the night - a unique opportunity to stay in one of these historic family fortresses built in the Albanian tradition.  Seeing that hornets nest made me realize that the phrase "king of your castle" gives a false impression of life in these sort of defensive structures.  It's the same castle-over, no matter how magnificent they may be, the people living inside were still there out of a necessity to protect themselves from attack.  The scenario is dramatic, but far from glamorous.  Them against the outside world.
Kulla means tower in Albanian and is derived from kule, the Turkish word for tower, citadel, fort and fortress.  These structures are not always towers, but they are always designed for defensive purposes.  Strongholds.  Above, you can see our kulla.  That staircase was the women's entrance, leading to the kitchen and living quarters. All other entrants could bypass all that to get to the top floor for men and guests.  More comfortable homes were built alongside and the kulla was only lived in during violent times, when security was key.  For Albanians, the protection a family sought was mostly from a blood feud, any attack that would entrench their family in generations of retribution.  A lot of the kullas were built in Western Kosovo for this purpose, but a great number also sprang up during the instability of the 18th century, when revolts against the Ottoman Empire were staged often and quashed violently. 
In the Deçan Municipality, of which Dranoc is part, 263 kullas stood until 1999, when 233 of them were destroyed or badly damaged.  These buildings were specifically targeted by the Serbian army during the war, because they represented Albanian culture and tradition.  Just like many castle ruins we've visited, the centuries-old historic buildings were destroyed as a statement.  On a walk through town, we met a women named Merita. She led along a wisp of a daughter, waist-high and stained purple from picking black mulberries all afternoon.  Merita's family's kulla still stands, renovated and open to visitors with the help of Cultural Heritage Without Borders.  She told us about it proudly and we weren't quite sure if it was the one we were staying in.  Anyway, hers was one of few that survived the conflict of  '99.  Her four brothers, she added, had not been so lucky. 
Dranoc's historic quarter feels Medieval even though its building were built nearly 500 years later.  There's a certain vibe that's similar, of life amidst death.  One look at the side wall of our kulla and you can sense the battle cry .  Windows were sized for shooting rather than sunlight.   Preservation was the overwhelming factor, not comfort or aesthetics. Still, a curtain could hang from a wall, a black mulberry tree could grow tall in the yard.  Unlike other fortifications, there was no worry about remaining hidden or out of sight.  Every family had one, towns were made up of them -  and everyone hoped for a good, long stretch of time before they'd have to move back in.
What these kullas lack in aesthetics and comfort, they make up for with unparalleled insulation.  The walls' stones are all locally acquired and beautiful, as are the tree trunks used for the ceilings.  The meter thick walls keep the interior cool in the summer, warm in the winter and hold a steady temperature between from day into night.  Honestly, it wouldn't hurt a few modern houses to be built in this way.  We slept like babies, during a heatwave, without an air conditioner, fan or open window (because of that darn hornets nest).   We recognized a lot of this design from our time in Albania, specifically in Gjirokaster.  It felt more amazing to have it all to ourselves, to spend the night in a house/fort, a sort of comfortable prison in some regards. 
The bottom floor was traditionally used as a barn.  In our kulla, remnants of a big tourist conference lay around.  Brochures about cultural programs and diagrams illustrating kulla restoration were piled up. These initiatives are keeping the kullas of Kosovo from falling into complete disrepair, preserving a few examples of something unique and special.  Still, it's hard to detach the structures' war mentality, so to speak, from its identity.  While I have no problem just accepting it all as a part of the Albanian-Kosovar complicated, fascinating cultural identity, it must be a strange thing to deal with as an organization.  Blood feuds still go on today in Albania and, to a lesser extent, Kosovo.  It's an odd dilemma to recognize the significance and celebrate the beauty of something like a kulla without romanticizing its purpose.
On the top floor, in the Men's Room, we had dinner.  A number of low, round tables were piled against the wall and we rolled one over to the fireplace.  On the high, wall-spanning shelf were a few empty wine bottles, all from vineyards in Rahovec,  We added our own, thinking it was an odd thing in such a Muslim-inspired setting, plus a few full bottles we've been carrying around.  Accumulated gifts.  I thought about sneaking into the Men's Room as I was - about how separation of genders rubs me the wrong way.  But then I remembered the scenario most of the men sitting here were in.  This room welcomed a fraternity of kings, all saddened or resigned to the burden of their castle.

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