Wednesday, 4 September 2013

kebab town

We spend a couple of days in Gjirokaster to wander the streets that crawl up and down the steep ridges jutting down from the mountains behind.  The old stone houses, with stone roofs, look magnificent, especially with the views of the mountains across the valley.  But the gradients are ruthless.  A large fortress overlooks the town.  It's all very picturesque and seems remarkably undeveloped as a tourist location despite its UNESCO World Heritage status. Hoxha, the old communist dictator, was born here, as was Ismail Kadare, Albania's most acclaimed author.  But the town's most famous claim to fame, and the reason for its UNESCO World Heritage status is that this is the origin of the doner kebab.  Gjirokaster is Albanian for 'Home of the Gyro'.  Apparently during Ottoman times this tasty local dish became so popular that it was taken back to Istanbul for the Sultan and his court to try.  And the (kebab) world has not looked back since.
man cannot live by kebab alone
Whenever we meet Mario coming or going from the guesthouse he always looks as though he's just been eating or is about to eat.  He offers us pastries, or fresh walnuts.  There are grape vines laden with fruit at the back, but fenced off from the guesthouse.  "A question of politics", he explains, "but help yourself to the grapes - you can climb around the fence over there.  The land is mine, but......." his voice trails off.  Someone has spray painted a blue line around the property and anything on the 'wrong' side of the line has been fenced off.  Below the guesthouse is a meeting room for a political party.  Mario explains that he is the local organiser for the party, "in the centre.  Not left.  Not right."  He then goes on to tell us in a wonderful mix of Albanian and English gibberish something about Margaret Thatcher.  He's evidently a fan.  I'm not sure if this is an indicator for Albanian politics.  Mario's mum, Irene, later talks to us in depth, over a nice cup of tea, about her husband and the president and their work here in Gjirokaster.  We smile and nod politely but she knows we don't understand her.  We can only imagine.

I buy food and beer in a couple of the little shops in the old town but the prices seem excessively high - I don't know if I'm being ripped off as a tourist in a UNESCO World Heritage style or the prices are just higher here than northern Albania.  But the next day we walk all the way down the hill along what would have been the original main road up into the town, a lovely cobbled road, to a supermarket in the new town.  Here the prices are normal.  Beer is my principal bench mark.  90 lek down here compared to 130 lek up there.  An outrageous difference.  We buy some bits and pieces but defer stocking up here before we leave.

In hindsight this procrastination was a mistake. When I pay with my card the till assistant has to manually type in the amount again, but she forgets the two decimal points, so the £7 shopping bill costs only 7 pence.  If only.........

This Albanian largesse puts us in a good frame of mind when we say goodbye to Mario and Irene and leave Gjirokaster heading southwards.  We have enjoyed the bits of Albania we've seen and we'd like to come back to trek in the northern mountains.  Once again we have discovered a bit more about a part of Europe we knew little about.  The joy of travel.

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