It was Saturday morning. In the clear post-rain atmosphere, we could see the coast of Corfu, where I had gone camping a few Summers ago. Electricity was back on and everything seemed to be back to normal. We checked out and reached the car. Today we where two men on a misión. To reach Gjirokaster, go to a nearby village, visit a sawing industry and buy some things Essentials to my mother’s hobby. Her heirloom. The rendez-vous was at twelve in the noon, but owing to the condition of Albanian roads, especially in the region, we thought that it would be better to be early an early bird and wait, than be late.
Things where better, once we where on the road. We where driving along. surprisingly well kept country road For the first time in a whole week we did not see a single pothole in thirty kilometres. Things where going very smoothly. We reached downtown Gjirokaster half an hour ahead of Schedule. That was enough time to check out the Hotels and find ourselves some suitable lodging. In the hours to come Mr Djodjas, one of my stepfather’s friends was due to arrive in town. We looked into the first hotel we could lay our eyes upon, and almost singlehandedly decided that this place was suited for our stay and business in town. Later in the night we would find out that it was “fashionable enough” to hold wedding parties, and that, in fact, the view from its café covered almost the entirety of the city. The city itself is divided in two districts. The old district is the most picturesque and the most derelict at the same time. It is the way works happen in Albania all the way around, even if the city itself is “protected” as a heritage site by UNESCO. As it seems, even there money is scarce, and both the government and the organisation are looking for money and donations alike, in order to secure funding for refurbishing the city’s magnificent buildings, buildings that date themselves from the middle ages to the forties.
Meanwhile we where waiting in the parking lot outside the hotel. Our people where to arrive any minute. Despite its quite bad situation, the centre of the old town looked busy. It seems that except the two or three UNESCO restoration projects that remained active in town, people also had other kinds of business there, And, indeed, in the old town centre there still exists a variety of cafes, taverns and shops, even though the ones that attract the “fashionable” crowd have been built in the outskirts.
Finaly, a grey Skoda Yeti, carrying two characters, arrived and parked next to us. Two middle aged men appeared from within it. The youngest one was a burly dark haired man in his mid fourties. The eldest of the two was a greying man, of a similar posture, who was in his late fifties. From the ensuing conversation (mind you only the elder one spoke any foreign language, that being Greek), I understood that their families where bound by some sort of wedlock, and that the elder one was the father-in-law. They asked us to follow them. We left the old town, crossed the highway and went into a narrow rural road. Ten minutes later we where reaching the only Albanian speaking (by majority) village in the area. We went into a building that double as a sawing factory, on one side, and a heirloom artifact museum on the other one.. From what it seems, they where also dieing the raw material and selling it to customers. But this is a dying business, even in Albania, and few customers actually care about handmade clothing and bedlinen, especially if they can have it through industrial production and, much cheaper, synthetic raw material. So our order of about fourteen kilos of raw sawing material up front and another fourteen kilos to be sent by mail to Tirana, was a big one that they could not have seen from individual buyers in ages. So, after the deal was closed and done , we where invited to join the owner and co at eh local taverna, for a drinking session that included tsipouro and lamb. We left four hours later, with heads about to explode from the alcohol we had consumed and went back to the hotel. We had to have a bit of a sleep, because in the afternoon we had a new round of drinking and eating with our friend Djodjas and his wife.
Now Gjirokaster has a tradition of being the birthplace of important figures in Albanian literature and politics. Despite tha fact that his most notable stories have to do with Northern Albania and the traditions of the area, profilic writer Ismail Kandare was born in Gjirokaster. Two very important Albanian statesmen, former PM Fatos Nano and the former mayor of Tirana Edi Rama, both being leading figures of the Socialist party, come from nearby areas, Actually the former is being rumoured to be the new presidential candidate in the upcoming election, for the Socialist Party, despite the fact that the latter is the acting president of the party. Edi Rama has fallen in the eyes of the both the party’s elites and electorate, alter losing the municipality and making a lot of political mistakes that paved the way into Berisha’s rule in Albania, and leaving him alone with enough power in the legislature, where the SP had the potential to block decisions. .If one thinks about the soaring popularity of Rama during his tenure as mayor of Tirana, now the picture is very different. Even though Rama can still persuade some Albanians, he does not seem to have the ability to tople Berisha. Nano, on the other hand, has to face a lot of gossip that circles around his buxom and very smart younger wife. He is married to a very well known businesswoman, known for both her success in the Business sector, and her sex appeal.
Djodjas is also some sort of dominating figure himself too. In fact he is some sort of a local celebrity. He was a top doctor in the local hospital, providing medical help to ill people who live in a radious of eighty kilometres from Gjirokaster, at a time when Tirana was a four hour drive away and the borders with Greece where closed. Later when the borders opened, people from the area started to visit Ioanina Univercity Hospital, which lay an hour and a half away from town. Of course proximity was the reason, especially when an ill person required to travel for more than four hours through roads that where in a bad shape, or nao shape at all.. So, nowadays most people from Gjirokaster cross the borders and finish their medical affairs in Greece, and a very very few of them opt to travel to Tirana. Djodjas was swept away by the tide. He went to Greece in order to be re-trained, and then stayed for years as an anaesthesiologist in Athens. And now he is working on patients in Tirana. Anyway Djodjas is so well known in the region that he could run for Member of the Parliament. His fame is preposterous. While walking around town and visiting the nearby areas, he would be greeted by anyone in sight.
After having coffee in one of the town’s high end cafés , and then went to Prototsani to have some steaks. Prototsani is the most “fanatically greek” village in the area. Konstantinos Mitsotakis was the first Greek PM to visit the area back in the early nineties, when national tensions ran high in the area. It was a time of terror for both ends. Sali Berisha’s henchmen where constantly attacking figures of the Greek minority, while a Group sponsored by fascists within the Greek Foreign Ministry and the Greek Embassy, was trying to organise a separatist guerilla army, the actions of which could cause a war between the two countries. Mitsotakis toured Southern Albania in order to “calm things down”. As it turns out the speach he gave in the Squire, and furthermore his presence itself ,made quite an impression in the population. In fact it was such a positive impression that they named the central Squire alter him. It is a funny thing, especially if someone realises that people in the “motherland” hate his guts.
People in Northern Hyperus have an, almost, undemanding love for Greece. They feel that it is their “motherland”. Not in the literal sense , but because they relieve that they and their customs are originated from Greece.
We dined at a steakhouse in the southwest corner of the Squire, and went back to the hotel.