I woke up in Gurali’s bed, well rested, the sun was pealing itself up over the mountains. The rich permeating smell of dung mixed with oxygen hit my nostrils. I walked out back and was greeted Meco who was sweeping dung off the footpath after a neighbor moved the animals out back to feed. We walked and talked as she showed me their rear garden beds, which had apples, tomatoes, chillies amongst other produce healthily growing.
Breakfast consisting of eggs, cheese, tea (to die for) and sugar money was waiting along with Gurali, Meco, Stolie and Bora on the couch outside rear doorway. Weather was warm. We ate in silence, peacefully. Until a few more people started to wake and gather around us.
Soon after Gurali, Stolie, Bora and I went for a walk through the village to visit the graveyard where Zenep, Amza, Myzejen and other Musaka relatives were buried. To my surprise the cemetery was full of Musaka family members. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see grandfather Xhafer’s grave as he was buried on the other end of town and time just didn’t allow it. Unfortunate. Next trip!
Gurali was feeling a little tired from all the walking by this stage. So we headed back toward home, Gurali continued on home whilst Stolie, Bora and I headed toward the 3 hectare vineyard that was originally owned by dads family before it was sold by his brother Amza to a relative named Gjergji Musaka.
Gjergji took us for a stroll through the property. An odd fact to point out here; the land was about 10 minutes from the actual home, as during communist times state owned land was given to households to work and then contribute some of the produce back to the state as a form of tax.
Most of the grape vines were long gone and replaced by various plants. The ground was very muddy. Took ages to pick it out of soles with a stick. Stolie ended up taking my boots and cleaning them properly as I didn’t do such a great job of it. We all had a good laugh about that – at my expense of course.
We all walked back toward home. People were still using old modes of transport. Then a flash Mercedes would overtake a horse drawn cart. It seemed to be a seamless fusion of modern and traditional life.
Decided to stop for a coffee at the local café. Stolie was a bit apprehensive about doing so at first as apparently it was a Men only café. A relic of the past. I insisted we stop, for one thing there was a women working there, surely they would make allowances for a tourist. Which they did. We decided to sit out front, but there were no free tables left. The waitress kindly sorted that problem out by moving customers to another table inside. None of the men in the café seem to have any problem with women sitting in café for coffee even though it was men’s business. The waitress was told of my journey to Albania to retrace family roots. She kindly served us coffees, on the house!
We went back home and were greeted by everyone, including my 1st cousin Fezilet. We talked & laughed for a while. So warming. My spoken Albanian was so much better by now. Nothing like being thrown in the deep end.
We also looked at books detailing all the birth registrations of Musaka family members. Though we weren’t allowed to take photos of any documents. When were out front of the building I was joking around; I had asked Ylli why we cant just pay off (baksheesh) the staff who make the decisions? To which he replied ‘I cant do that, its illegal and.. I’m the person you would have to pay off’. We all had a good laugh about that. It was here that I learnt that the Mayor of Voskop was cousin Ylli Musaka!
The next stop was the town of Voskopojë. Which was known as the trading center of Europe c1700’s. On route we saw one of the only two ski fields in the whole region. It looked like a boy scout camp site with the front gate about to fall off, one T-bar lift looking worse for wear and one ski run.
We visited the second oldest Orthodox church in town, built in the 1700s it may well of been the (trading) center of Europe. Frescoes were heavily graffiti’d on an outside wall. We had a private tour, the Priest had let us (only) in, even let us take photos. Other tourists tried to come in whilst we were there & were flatly refused entry. Musaka’s still rule the region it seemed.
After and drinking pure water from a mountain fed fountain in front of church, I Skyped with Jamilla, Yay, showed her live images of the church. How great if was to see her. We then had coffee locally & went for a walk to another church, behind a hotel leased by Serif, this church was much older, built in the 1400s, painted in monotones. Behind this was Enver Hoxha’s Military bunker. Area was still off limits. There was an old grumpy caretaker of the church who barked as Igli when he tried to convince the man to let us take pics of the church interior. Rohan took pics covertly anyway – Nooo Problem!!
From there we went back to the hotel and had an opulent lunch. Tried some wonderful Turshi stuffed pepper (itize) & cheese salads and tender grass fed meats. No expense spared. Serif and his wife Rosetta and son Igli, Alket and his wife Anisa and father Bashkim, Rohan, myself and a Greek surgeon were present. It was an amazing hotel, yet unfortunately somewhat commercialized in a tacky way with Coke marquees everywhere. Food was exceptional, as was the company.
After lunch (bloated) we drove to Equrem’s house to meet Bashkim’s mum Gjyli. They showed me many photos of Rohan’s family on an old pin board, Bashkim pointed out some photos of Ahmet, Rohan’s Great Grandfather, brother of my Great Grandfather Axhi. Rohan’s dad Dervish grew up in that house. So it was a special time for both Rohan and I, particularly for Rohan. Gjyli mentioned she had taken my mother Kimet to Elbasan when she was there c1991. She hand fond memories of the time. Gjyli was, as all those I met, so warm to be around.
After a short visit we drove back to Korçë where I was dropped off to visit my first cousin Celnike, her son Albens and his wife Kleva and their children Joni and Vjola. I was greeted by Albi, it was so great to meet them all finally.
Albi showed me their apartment, which was above a bank and his (and Kleva’s) Solicitor practice. The apartment was very nice, modern, still under renovation.
I was told that many the original village people had emigrated to outside countries and then brought back their knowledge and open mindedness gained from their travels and injected it back into the village community. As a result, Dardha (had) produced some of Albania’s top thinkers – poets, scientists, engineers and artists – prior to Communist rule. The village now contained cottages that were renovated into getaway villas for Albanians living in other parts of the country; some cottages were under renovation, some abandoned and the village has become a tourist attraction.
We had dinner in the lodge overlooking the village and mountains. Stunning view. Kleva ordered a magnificent traditional selection of local meals, delicious. I’d also tried the nationally famous Raki made from local wild blackberries grown in the mountains surrounding the village.
I recorded Celnike telling stories about our (Musaka) family past. She told a story of when my father visited Albania c1984, as was the tradition he brought money from relatives in Australia to give to their immediate families in Voskop. She described vividly remembering dad wearing a money belt that had $AUS notes and a note pad and stubby pencil which he used to detail who gave how much money to who, ticking off names as he handed over money. As she told the story I lifted up my shirt to reveal the very same money belt dad had used 30yrs earlier. This brought a tear to both our eyes and a profound sense of connection to our shared past to my father.
She spoke of dads trip to a museum in Berat (a region owned by the Musaka clan) – where he was allowed to take a photo of Skenderbeg artifacts after telling the guard that he’d also traveled a vast distance to kneel before his mother; as did Skenderbeg (Skanderbeg, Skënderbeu, Skendi, birth name Gjergj Arianiti) to his mother some 400yr ago.
Celnike told me that the Musaka’s were Orthodox Christians approximately 300-400yrs ago, when the Musaka clan controlled the province of Berat; and owned all of Voskop. The Ottoman empire was invading and converting Christians to Islam via (rights to practice religion) Taxes.
Around this time Skenderbeg lived (was based) in his Kruje Castle, leading the revolt against the Ottomans. He had married (was gifted) Theodore Musaka‘s daughter Maria Musaka. Theodore was a major funder of Skenderbeg campaign against the Ottomans. A campaign which continued through his son and grandsons reign, until the Ottomans defeated them by finally out numbering them (they surrendered) c1500-1525.
Celnike said most likely some of the Musaka’s took their valuables and escaped into hiding in Voskop; where they had built the first house on the site of Axhi & Ahmet’s families house, which was apparently a larger mansion, with a bell to summon the servants/workers and had many rooms. The house was filled with old Persian rugs, Venetian and other artifacts from all over the Balkan region.
This fact was known because when (dads mum) Zenep married then went to live with husband Xhafer late 1800s, she said she saw two large bison in the barn. Musaka’s in Berat where apparently started to breed this type of bison first in Albania. The barn contained many ornate (silver, gold) trimmed saddles, stirrups and other fixtures used in riding horses or working bison. Zenep commented to Celnike that these items looked like they belonged to Royalty. Apparently when the Germans invaded (or passed through) the Voskop region the Musaka’s fled to Great John’s Rock (Rock of Gjonomadh), a secure pass in the mountains to hide from the Germans for 3 days, during war.
When they tried to pass through a narrow ledge a bison that was carrying the Persian rugs and other items slipped to its death hundreds of feet below, Musaka’s continued on leaving the dead animal and items behind. After sometime they returned to Voskop, the items lost on ledge were no longer there, the home was burnt to the ground, the artifacts left in house had been plundered by Germans.
After dinner I was dropped off by Albi at the Shaholli’s restaurant where Rohan had been having dinner. Toast after toast he (and others) were well toasted. We recorded some well wishes to my mum. When Bashkim was handed phone to record his well-wishes he thought he was actually on the phone to my mum, constantly saying hello, somethings wrong with the phone connection, it was hilarious, eventually Gjyli told him its only recording his voice! Everyone laughed, toasted some more.
Went back to Aleks’ apartment. Another full day.