This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in the June issue of Destination: Preservation, Adventures in Preservation’s newsletter.
If people still wrote letters home from their travels, here’s what we would have written about our recent hands-on building conservation experience in Gjirokastra.
From the moment of our arrival in Gjirokastra, we could tell that something had changed since our last visit: there was a bit of a preservation buzz in the city. On our way through the old bazaar to our B&B, we saw no less than three building conservation projects underway and heard that there were more projects underway in other districts of the historic area.
Our arrival coincided with the final day of the arts and culture festival, and streets were busy with tourists visiting from around the world. We were met with warm greetings from Vita and Haxhi Kotoni, our hosts at Kotoni’s Guest House since 2008, who had a full house of tourists.
Our group of four arrived from far corners of the world: Australia, the UK and the US. Our job, which we happily took on, was to complete documentation and condition assessment of decorative paintings at the Kikino house. From our work station on the third story balcony, we overlooked a sea of historic tower houses and the river valley below. With that spectacular view and delicious cups of espresso and Turkish coffee, we dove into our work and completed our assessment in six days.
Our host at the Kikino house was the charming Vladimir, who along with his wife and two daughters came to the balcony daily to check on our progress and to bring us tasty treats. Unfortunately, none of us spoke enough Albanian to have a conversation with them, but this was to change during the second week.
Even though our work didn’t really seem like work, we took time off to discover more of Albania’s cultural heritage. We went on a field trip to the Antigone archaeological site. With Kreshnik Merxhani, an architect and conservator from Gjirokastra, and Anisa Ani, a local archaeologist, as our guides, we learned and experienced much more than any “regular” visitor ever would. (Thanks AiP!)
We were also able to visit several small churches in tiny villages hidden in the shadow of the mountains. They are little used, but perfectly reflect a moment frozen in time. (Yvonne photo)
We visited other tower houses as well – Gjirokastra has over 400 of these massive structures; you can see in a single glance why it’s been designated a World Heritage site. We toured the Kore house where Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB) is working and met four generations of the family that built the house approximately 300 years ago. The “elderly” grandmother was so much fun to meet; at one point she kicked off her shoes and hopping up on the divan to show us how the complicated window shutter system worked.
On another day, we visited the reconstruction project underway at the house of author Ishmael Kadare (his autobiographical novel Chronicle in Stone tells of his childhood in Gjirokastra and is an excellent read) which burned several years ago. We also visited the remains of the Kokolari House and Museum, which tragically burned to the ground just three weeks before we arrived. The loss of 2,500 volumes of books and numerous artifacts was a devastating blow to the city. Two other tower houses are being restored as a hotel and a hostel, with several CHwB stabilization projects saving important houses for future conservation, if funding allows.
So yes, there’s a lot of preservation happening. However, given there are at least 400 other Ottoman-era houses in great need of repair, the six projects we visited are just a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. With this perspective, you begin to understand the magnitude of the crisis facing the city.
The second week brought two more volunteers, an AiP board member and Ilir Rizaj, a professional photographer from NYC, who is originally from Kosovo. Photography wasn’t Ilir’s only contribution, as his fluent Albanian allowed us to visit with the residents we met as we walked the steep stone streets. Ilir translated an intriguing conversation with Vladimir at the Kikino house, detailing blood feuds in Greece, internment camps and name changes to save the family in Albania, looting of the house at the end of the Communist era, and being delegated as the caretaker of the Kikino house by the 55 remaining family members.
Ilir brought some nifty toys along with him, including a drone. He used the done to take photos and videos of houses that were difficult to access on foot. This documentation will assist the Directorate of National Cultural Monuments, which has an office in Gjirokastra, with damage assessment.
The second week came to a close with a final excursion to Butrint archaeological site, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, followed by a fabulous farewell feast Vita prepared specially for us. As we took our final walk through the bazaar, many shopkeepers greeted us and wished us well, asking us to return soon. The warmth and hospitality we experienced will remain with us long after our departure.
We wish you could have been here to share the experience! The good news is that we will be bringing another group of conservation volunteers to Gjirokastra next year. Drop us an email if you’re interested in joining this continuing project and we will keep you up to date as plans progress.
Life is an adventure, so come with us and see more, do more and help more in 2016.
Judith, Jenny, Sue, Ceilidh, Yvonne and Ilir
P.S. After leaving Gjirokastra, we traveled to Kosovo for five intriguing days exploring this small Balkan country. We saw a great need for help saving the heritage that survived the war. We are working on a project that might bring us back in 2016, and we’ll share any progress with you. Hope you’ll be able to add this to your calendar!