Queen of the Highlands


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The innkeeper at the Tradita Hotel set down his tea regretfully. “You want to see castle or bridge?” A mutual friend had asked him to take good care of me, but clearly he didn’t relish the role.


A few minutes later, four of us climbed into a dark sedan and lurched into the crowded streets of Shkodra, a city in Albania’s northwest. Heat and noise poured in the windows as Mr. Gila and his wife and brother continued what seemed to be a fractious debate in Albanian, punctuated briefly by Mr. Gila waving at various sights and shouting their identification into the back seat for me.

“There is cathedral, which Communists make into gymnasium years ago! Now crowded with Catholics again.”

“There is university!”

“Tobacco factory! Busy once, now closed.”

As the buildings became smaller and the streets less congested, I watched the city devolve into countryside. At this juncture, the innkeeper was not only dodging cars and people on bicycles; he swerved around boys guiding lustrous brown cows, a farmer carrying a bundle of sticks on his back, even two men playing chess dangerously close to the road as their dusty, dreadlocked sheep huddled nearby. Finally, he pulled the car into a garbage-strewn space on a bank overlooking the Kiri River and pointed at an old bridge.

“The Ura Mesit,” Mr. Gila intoned, adjusting the twisted red cummerbund that separated his elaborately pintucked white shirt from his khakis. “Very old. Venetian, maybe.”

The old bridge rose in a series of stone arches over the parched riverbed. I wanted to slide down the hill and walk over its narrow, neatly cobbled surface, but a fence blocked the entrance. Mr. Gila’s brother ran down to the fence and I thought he might be getting ready to scale it. Then he held out his camera and crouched and twisted and snapped his own picture until he was sure that the Ura Mesit was the backdrop to his headshot. He posed for several self-portraits, straw hat on, then shaved head gleaming in the sun, then hat on again.

“Facebook,” he explained with a broad smile. In a mixture of Albanian, German, French, and gestures, he offered to take a picture for my Facebook page. But his brother shouted, and we piled into the car and dashed back to the Tradita Hotel.

Back in my hotel room, I consulted the yellowed copy of High Albania in my duffle and realized that the innkeeper had unwittingly taken me to a spot that had captured my imagination more than 20 years ago. I had come to Albania inspired by the writings of Edith Durham, a British artist who wandered there in the early 20th century and fell in love with the place. She returned over a 20-year period to explore, sketch, and write. High Albania was published in 1909 and detailed her eight-month journey from Shkodra to the remote and irrepressibly wild mountain villages to the north. Accompanied only by a guide from Shkodra named Marko Shantoya, she scaled cliffs, forded rivers, and rode horses to meet Albania’s mountain tribes. She slept on beds made of ferns in their homes, joined their riotous celebrations, fired their guns, and jotted down the lurid details of the blood feuds between families. She wrote admiringly of the hospitality of the mountain people, who were eager to take in guests and protect them with their lives. The blood feuds, the hospitality, and other practices were regulated by a code dating to the 1600s called the Kanuni of Leke Dukagjin, a clan chief whose actual identity is still unknown. When I first read the book, in a few totally absorbed nights on the downstairs couch, I was a young mother with children sleeping overhead. I wanted to be a woman like her, not only traveling alone but going to the wild places no one else had much interest in seeing.

Durham loved Albania, and Albania loved her back. Crowds greeted her in the cities back in the early 1900s, grateful, among other things, for her steady support of Albania’s nationalist aspirations. Streets were named after her. She still has many impassioned fans in Albania, and Mr. Gila is one of them. They call her Krajilca e Malesoreve, a phrase in archaic Albanian meaning the Highlanders’ Queen. Still, Mr. Gila hadn’t seemed to know that the Ura Mesit bridge was her point of exit from Shkodra to the northern mountains. When I confirmed this back in my hotel room, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a secret.

When Durham first visited, Albania was a colonial outpost of the fraying Ottoman Empire. The country shed that 430-year yoke in 1912. A dizzying array of regimes followed: a brief period of monarchy, occupation by the Italian fascists, then the triumph in 1942 of the Albanian Communist Party. Albania became a stridently socialist state, separated from the rest of the world by a nearly impermeable iron cloak until around 1990. Because of this, I thought it possible that Albania hadn’t changed as much as the rest of the world, that Durham’s Albania remained, that the curious mountain traditions persevered, that the alpine villages — especially Durham’s beloved Thethi, in the Shala Valley north of Shkodra — retained their remote splendor. With that in mind, I flew to Albania last September.

I found much to like about Shkodra, but not at first. As my driver and I approached the city, I admired the agricultural outskirts — the corn was bright yellow, the cabbages lay in frilly blue-green rows, the melon fields looked as if they had been cobbled with pale gold orbs. Then my driver shot around a bend into the city and I thought, “Who knew there could be so much chartreuse paint?”

The communists in Albania built miles of massive, five-storey housing blocks. In the capital city of Tirana, artist-mayor Edi Rama has garnered worldwide attention by lavishing paint on these dour buildings, so much so that parts of the city look like heaps of colorful children’s toys. The Technicolor movement has spread from Tirana to places such as Shkodra. I was at first taken aback by the garishness of the city as we drove towards the Tradita, passing one city block painted pink, then another lime green, and then an orange high rise. I was dismayed by the rusting satellite dishes and laundry flapping out the windows. And like every place I had passed in my few days in Albania, new construction was raging.

Smugly ensconced in one of Shkodra’s beautiful old buildings of stone and dark wood, Mr. Gila made a face when I asked him about the jumble of buildings outside. “The Communists make the five-storey buildings,” he sneered. “The capitalists build the eight- and 10-storey buildings.”

But after walking around for a few days, I became fond of the city and its people. Street life is brisk and lively, with what seems to be hundreds of sidewalk cafes. Wherever there’s room to stretch out an awning or open an umbrella, there’s a café crowded with people drinking coffee, an eye-watering liquor called raki, or both.

As I walked the streets, I saw heaps of tousled trousers for sale, beach balls hanging from the trees like clusters of grapes, and awnings layered with small plastic swimming pools. One entire sidewalk had been turned into a book market, with titles arrayed along one side and people lined up to peruse the covers. Everywhere I looked, people were arm in arm, or riding their bicycles with steely nerve alongside the stream of cars, or sheltered under a tree for conversation. The only lonely souls seemed to be the two Mormon missionaries on one downtown corner, dark-suited stones that the river of people parted to pass, and the two men setting up an outdoor movie on the opposite corner, in front of a large yellow mosque. In my five days in the city, I hardly saw anyone at the mosque. Perhaps this was not surprising, since Albania is the world’s first and only officially atheist state. Although Shkodra is a heavily Catholic city within the Muslim-majority Albania, most Albanians still seem to be either indifferent to religion or exceptionally mild in their practices.

The city streets were vibrant at night. As the sun set, café bands turned up their amps and the merry-go-round on the sidewalk near the yellow mosque blinked its neon lights and twirled. Roma beggars walked the crowds banging drums, reminding Muslims that Ramadan — going on during my visit — was a time for extra generosity.

Before I left home, I had made some contacts with English-speaking Shkodrans. One was Angeline Shepela, who grew up in Thethi and spends his summer teaching there and his winters working in the city. When I was ready to head off to Thethi, he would be my driver, guide, and host, as his family has opened its mountain home to paying guests. Before we left, though, we spent many hours at the café in front of the old cinema in downtown Shkodra, down the street from the mosque. People passed and called out greetings from the street; groups gathered and expanded over several tables. One night, Angeline told a boyhood friend from Thethi about the inspiration for my trip. The friend nearly toppled his chair with enthusiasm.

“Edith Durham!” he said — or, in the Albanian way, Edit DurHAM. “I love Edith Durham! She made me feel that our country is special.”

I had heard that the grandson of Durham’s guide to the mountains was still living in Shkodra, so one morning Angeline and I approached a sturdy door set in a yellow wall and knocked. Soon, a grimly dignified old man with bristling black eyebrows seated us at a table in his patio, crowded with a garden; pond; motorcycle; a child’s swing that hung from a beam; and a silent, caged canary. He asked if we wanted a soft drink and I shook my head; I didn’t want him to fuss on my behalf. But I had forgotten — I always forgot — that head shaking means “yes” in Albania and nodding means “no.” I was always getting raki when I didn’t want it and pining for coffee when I did want it. Soon, both Angeline and I held glasses of cola.

I had expected this old man — also named Marko Shantoya — to be excited that a stranger from the United States had an interest in his family. But other historians and writers had already found their way to his house; besides, he wasn’t feeling well. Despite that, he graciously made several trips down hallways to drag out artifacts. Two letters from Edith Durham herself, one to his grandmother and one “to whom it may concern” recommending his grandfather as a guide and translator. A portrait in oil of his grandfather. And best of all: a walking stick topped with an ivory knob depicting a lion devouring a snake. It had been a gift from the first Marko to Durham, who returned it to the family as a birth gift for this Marko.

“My grandfather was a climber — he loved the mountains, and Thethi most of all,” he said, smiling. “I also loved going there when I was young.”

Then his smile faded. He and his grandfather shared more than their eagerness for climbing. Both had a passion for politics that they expressed in writing; both had been cruelly punished by the authorities. The first Marko was imprisoned by the Ottomans; this Marko had been imprisoned by Albania’s communists, who had also shot his father, an officer in the king’s army. As he told this story, a waltz played incongruously from some room at the back of the house. He noticed my head tilting toward the music, and said that all the family had been musicians, as well as political gadflies. The first Marko played the violin and the flute. This Marko played the piano, but the Communists confiscated his piano and installed it in a school.

He and Angeline continued talking for a while in Albanian, trading stories of loved ones jailed or persecuted by one regime or another. Durham had written of how the Albanian men took glee in shocking her with the details of their blood feuds, but I wondered if their collective memories were now so burdened with stories of harsh regimes that there was no longer even the pretense of glee.

On our way out, I asked the old man if I could take his picture. He shuddered. “I look like a ghost.”

“Life at Thethi was of absorbing interest,” Durham wrote. “I forgot all about the rest of the world and there seemed no reason why I should ever return.” The village around her buzzed with stories of blood feuds and wives fleeing arranged marriages. She sketched, wrote, and tried to convince the villagers that she wasn’t sister to the king of England, in Albania, as they believed, to help free them from the Ottomans.

The Thethi I found seemed to be a place of utter tranquility. After a four-hour trip across the plains outside Shkodra and then over the mountains, Angeline, his brother Jon and I finally arrived at their house — of gray stone, like others we had passed. The valley around us was green, flecked with colors of the approaching fall. The mountains all around us strained upward, breaking free of the flora and ending in jagged stone peaks. Their mother Leze came out to greet me, dressed in the mountain style that I had often seen in Shkodra and would see everywhere in Thethi: dark skirt, her head covered by a scarf, with dyed dark hair woven intricately across her forehead. She immediately brought out soup, bread, and raki. I ate in silence, listening to the crystalline chatter of the nearly Shala River.

Then Angeline and I walked to Thethi’s most famous artifact: the three-storey lock-in tower or kulla, the only remnant of an architectural style that dominated the area when Durham visited. We climbed the retractable wood ladder inside to the third floor and peered through slits in the stone walls just wide enough for the muzzle of a gun. During blood feuds, men from the family who “owed blood” — they had killed a male from another family or committed some other offense — lived in safety in the kulla until either the parities resolved the fued or an unlucky kinsman evened the score with his own death. Down below, the women tended the crops and animals and ensured the continuity of domestic life. Most of the kullas in Albania have been torn down by governments eager to eradicate traces of this violent heritage. But Thethi is part of a national park, and this kulla has been preserved.

Outside, the current owner of the kulla and his wife harvested yellow plums to make raki while two men watched — a handsome old man with finely burnished cheeks and a younger man with tousled hair who hoisted up his shirt to air his capacious belly. Angeline spoke to the men for a few minutes, and they all turned to me and said. “Ah, Edit DurHAM!” They discussed the various houses where Durham was reputed to have stayed in the village, including the kulla owner’s house, just around a stony rise. As we walked away, Angeline asked if I wanted to see the inside of the house. I hesitated at the doorway as he walked inside.

“I can go anywhere in Thethi,” he laughed. “We’re all family. I can trace my own lineage back 14 generations here.”

“What about that girl who caught a ride from the top of the hill to the church with us?” I asked, remembering a certain degree of flirtation. “Was she family, too?”

He nodded seriously. “We never marry or even date girls from here. The relationship is too close.”

Thethi maintained its isolation through the end of the Ottoman Empire and even, to a lesser extent, during the communist era. While tourism to the village was allowed for party loyalists, guard shacks on the road into and out of Thethi kept people from leaving without an official reason. Now that restraints to mobility are gone, many people have left Thethi and the other mountain villages. Winters are hard up there, and modern life beckons from the cities. Hundreds of thousands have left the country as a whole in the last two decades seeking employment, and many young people from Thethi are among them. Thethi once had a population of 2,000, Angeline said; now, only a handful of families stay through the winter. But a surge of outsiders interested in the mountains, waterfalls, and wildlife have brought money and vitality back. Angeline himself stayed away from the village for years. He is spending more and more time there, not just to claim some of those tourism euros but because he’s developed a Durham-like reverence for the village.

Angeline and I walked along the dried creek beds and dirt paths around fields that serve as village streets. At the village cemetery, he pointed out how the Communists had broken all the stone crosses and how villagers have added new wooden ones. We wandered over to a waterfall and nearby archaeological dig, then feasted on heavily laden pear and cherry trees. We drove down the road to nearby Nderlysa, a nearly deserted village of beautiful stone houses on the banks of the river, and helped ourselves to the grapes on abandoned vines. On the other side of Thethi, we spent an hour talking with a sturdy septuagenarian shepherdess who controlled both her flock and her snarling dogs with only a few brusque words.

The next morning, I went to watch Leze make bread in a wood oven and found her kitchen crowded with village women. “Hello, nice to meet you, thank you very much, you are welcome!” one of them exclaimed, then they all clapped me on the shoulders mirthfully. The woman was on her way to the corn mill down by the river, which Angeline and Jon built several years ago. It wasn’t working, and she had recruited Jon and three German students staying at another guesthouse to fix it. “She has a lazy husband,” Angeline’s brother Jon explained.

The lazy husband turned out to be the man who had been airing his belly at the kulla. He and Jon and the German students scraped sand from the bottom of the channel that diverted water to the corn mill and added stones to its sides, all in an effort to make the flow of water stronger to the mill. The effort turned into a water fight, leaving the woman and her bag of corn wet — and allowing the lazy husband to slink away before the job was done. Life in Thethi was still of absorbing interest.

On my last day, Jon took me to visit one of the village elders, a man who made his own musical instruments and liked to entertain visitors with song. One granddaughter dashed off to find him and another brought raki as Jon and I settled at a metal table. In a few minutes, a neighbor rode over on a horse, parked it near a boulder, and went into the house. I asked Jon if the neighbor lived in the fine stone house directly behind us.

“No, those people are gone,” he said. “There is a blood feud between them and this man who plays the lahuta. They had to move away.”

The wind blew so fiercely that we were pelted with hard green pears, one of which impaled itself on Jon’s glass of raki. “Blood feud?” I repeated. I had started to think that asking Angeline and Jon about blood feuds was as silly as someone asking me if Conestoga wagons still crossed America’s plains.

“Two young boys fought and one was killed, then the other family took revenge,” Jon explained. “There are now two dead on each side. This man’s sons are not safe, so they live in Italy.”

Then, the man arrived. Broad-shouldered and erect, wearing a brilliant white shirt and navy terrycloth slippers, he called for his instruments. One granddaughter brought a long-handled instrument plus another shaped like a large frying pan. The other carried out a goat skin with head and horns attached and flung it on the stone steps of the house. The man settled on the skin like an ancient king and sang two long mournful songs, both about the miseries of life during the Ottoman reign. When he finished, he spoke for several minutes. “He’s lived in Thethi all his life,” Jon translated. “People used to be very close here. You’d kill a pig, and everyone would come to eat. Now, people are more educated and they want to take part in the whole world. But still, we take care of our guests.”

He did not want to talk about the blood feud; the days of men sitting around swapping tales of such things and boasting of them to a stranger like Durham seemed to be over. We soon left the old man’s house. But as I made my way back to Shkodra and then on a winding, improvised trip back to Tirana, I thought often about that combination of violence and courtesy. People were incredibly hospitable to me in Albania. Strangers with whom I shared a car back to Shkodra invited me to stay at their home. When I peeked in the window at a wedding party in Bajram Curri, a tiny town in the northeast, the father of the bride invited me inside; soon waiters brought me platters of lamb and potatoes. Old men sitting in the sun dusted off chairs and offered me coffee or raki. And I felt safe there, safer even than I do in my own neighborhood in Cleveland. But I also learned that the blood feuds have resurfaced since the end of communist rule. As the mountain people seek jobs and an easier life in the cities, they bring these violent old ways with them.

“The Kanuni of Leke Dukagjin was beautiful in its time,” a young Shkodran woman complained to me one night over wine and dinner. “It was an effort to impose order in a society that had no laws. But why are we still talking about it in 2009?”

But she was the one who brought it up, since Shkodra has some blood-feud killings every year.

On my last weekend in Albania, I met up with a man I’d been emailing for months about this trip. Elvis Kotherja runs a tourism company based in Elbasoni, south of Tirana. He’s another Edith Durham fan. A few years ago, he sent a letter to the prime minister suggesting that a regional airport be named for her. As Elvis took me out for a final look at Tirana, we drove along the river that runs through the middle of the city. He told me that the riverbanks used to be covered with buildings hastily erected after the end of communism — an architectural and zoning nightmare — and that the mayor had torn them all down within the last few years.

“All except that one,” he said, pointing to a three-storey pink building. “The men who live there are involved in a blood feud. They’re afraid to come out, so the mayor can’t tear down the building.”

“Can I talk to them?”

He obligingly circled the car around and knocked on a rusted metal door at the front of the building. Someone spoke to him from the other side of the door. “They are too frightened to come out,” he reported. “They say there are only women and children and one old man living there.”

A man watched us from an insurance office across the street, so Elvis and I dodged the traffic to ask if he knew the story of the pink building. It turned out to be an even sadder story than the one Elvis first told me — perhaps my proximity to murder so vigorously pursued, not mediated through the pages of Durham’s narrative, made it especially so. The males in that family had already been killed, the man said; this family was owed blood. But the mothers were afraid of letting their sons out because they weren’t sure the other family properly understood the Kanuni. They were afraid the other family would just keep on killing. • 2 March 2011


Kristen Ohlson is a Cleveland-based writer with articles and essays published in the New York Times, Smithsonian.com, Salon, Gourmet, Discover, Oprah, Utne, Preservation, Wildlife Conservation, American Archeology, and many other publications. She is the author of Stalking the Divine and co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Kabul Beauty School.