Författararkiv: saragr11

The Garden of Eden

Mehran and I were curious to try one of the few activities Gjirokastra offers to tourists. I told you the big problem of Gjirokastra are that there is nothing to do here for more than max one or two days. It is very important that they expand their tourist products if they want to attract more people here.
We knew nothing of this horseback riding business but when we did our interview with Denisa at the tourism service she said she knew someone, who knew someone that owned horses.

Mehran got a number and we book ourselves on a two days horseback riding adventure. I am not a horse person at all – a bit scared of horses actually. But what do you not do for science? We want to see what tourists can do here so on an adventure we went! And what an adventure! Best nature tour I’ve ever been to!

First we met Kristina and Illir for a coffee in town where we talked about the itinerary. Then they took us up to the beautiful landscape of Antigonea where we walked around with Kristina, our guide for the first day. Meanwhile Illir prepared our horses and then drove our things to the first. kristina told us a lot of interesting things about the park we haven’t heard before – things the posters there don’t tell you. Kristina has worked on BBC and was thus a perfect guide.

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An old measuring stone and pillars on Antigonea

We met with the horses. I was given a brown one called Baby – supposedly he’s so calm. But he was so calm I ended up way behind the others. So then I got Nelson instead. A black beauty with a blind eye. We fit together perfectly.

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It’s hard to write about this trip because my words can’t make it justice. It was a meditative stillness amongst the mountain sitting on the horse slowly rocking from side to side. The flowers bright yellow, blue, purple, white in contrast with the fresh green. The sound of the wind through the mountains and the swish of the horses’ tail chasing flies. The bumble bees buzzing around. The smell of flowers and fresh grass. The suns warmth on the skin and the coolness of shade. The taste of the mountain water – how do you describe such things in words?

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We stopped in a mountain village to visit an old couple. Old dancers. They showed us photos of their youth years and how it was to live in Albnia during the communism years. We were given honey from the mountains and walnuts to dip in it. This was served with raki and fresh made cheese. The honey in Albania tastes only flowers. It is also something you simply can travel here for.
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The day continued. We stopped for a picnic in an old church. Almost collapsing. There are so many really old monuments in Albania that nobody knows about or simply know what to do with them. No researcher comes here, not even the Gjirokastra people have been here. People don’t know about Albania – it is a hidden treasure, a treasure that needs help! Attention, research and restoration otherwise it will be lost in a few years time.

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In the evening we stopped in paradise. I say so because this is the best place on earth. I have travelled around the world but never found anything so peaceful and close to our roots. The Garden of Eden.

Here we were greeted by Ati and Julia. A retired artist couple from Tirana who bought a piece of land and built a home and guesthouse. Its organically build to shape after the nature and it was nestled here like a secret garden. Here we rested our minds and took a timeout from everything. Truly detoxifying.
We were served food only from the surroundings. Bread, cheese, fresh butter! Fresh butter is white and taste like heaven! Chicken, rice balls, salad from the garden, eggs, sugar peas, yoghurt, spinach.
Julia taught me how to make Byrek. A pastry with layered thin pieces of bread with a filling of feta, egg, olive oil and spinach

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In the morning we had breakfast in the garden. Tea made from oregano and mountain herb picked by Julia. The bread, butter and cheese made by here – same with the marmalade. The mixture of sweet and salty enough to make you cry.

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We left with heavy hearts

Next day we travelled to the oldest church in Albania from 545 AD. The tower is tilting and they think it will soon collapse. An architect has been here to calculate when it will. Even though it’s an important record of the human history nobody cares. The international attention is non-existent. It’s really sad. What can we say other then: please come here and help! Bring carpenters or restoration students!

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From there we made our way back to Gjirokastra – The tour ended way too quickly and I already have planes to come back to my little garden of Eden!

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Road-trip Albania

My parents came to Albania or a visit. Yay! After my trouble with the stolen things it was bliss to meet and greet them. (and they brought a camera that I can borrow for the remaining time). I also had a secret motive for them to come and visit me: I wanted to research: what does the normal charter tourist think about Albania? I travelled with my parents and watched their reactions intently, every opinion they had I wrote down in a little notebook.

Firstly my own observations about the airport in Tirana as I travelled to TIrana to meet them at the airport. It is very small and easy to find your way around the airport. The trouble is getting to and from it. Well, it is no trouble if you know an American Peace Corps volunteer like I do who can tell me that there is a bus and approximately where. But Tirana is the only capital in the world that doesn’t have centre. Even as I took a bus around town when I arrived one day before my parents I had loads of trouble getting around. Even finding my hotel was no easy task. I knew it was close to (what I assumed) the centre of the town. I asked a bunch of people “Centre?” “Central?” “Quender? (centre in Albanian) but they all shook their heads – there is no central in this town and thus no bus-central. Nobody even knew where the Opera house or National museum where at. A very strange first impression of this city. I finally found my hotel by asking at other hotels.

The next day I tried to find the airport bus. On the airport page it just says “bus from Tirana centre” since there was no centre – what does that mean? Finally I google-found a private blogger who had drawn a map. I ran the streets bumping around with my hand luggage and followed another girl doing the same thing. I took a chance and secretly stalked her around town and she was running for the airport bus: oh joy!

Well I picked up my parent at the airport where we had rented a car. It took about an hour to pick up the car as nothing in Albania is prepared. The car where somewhere else and all papers and insurance and had to be filled in once more. I suppose they don’t trust anything to be settled until hands have been shaken in this country.

We drove out from the airport and made our way to Kruja – an ancient city with a marvellous market. I bought a carpet for no money at all from an old lady. It was a beautiful little town and my parents were so impressed by this unexplored beauty. To me it was still the most touristic place I’ve been to here – with shop owners acting the same way they always do “Yes, come to my shop” “Just look, ok” special price for you”  But we were the only tourists there!

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After that we drove down to Elbasan – a lovely tow too and my parents had their first experience with Albanian food. They were out of words – dad immediately said he would come back to the country just for the food. My mom said “I don’t like food but here I can’t stop eating” Yes it was marvellous and I was proud to share with them my last month’s joy.

We slept there in a hotel with the usual interesting architectural details…

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The next day we drove to Korca – where they make the local Albanian beer and also famous for their church.

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We drove around the lake Orhid and its beautiful landscape. All the time we shouted to dad “Stop! Photo time!” He started calling us “photo-maniacs” Albania is just breathtaking beautiful

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The rest of the time we drove around in the mountain, in the low clouds. We ate, drank and celebrated the beautiful life. We swam in hot springs, climbed rocks, stopped for sheep and made our way to Gjirokastra.

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My lovely little town – mom was all joy over the old bazaar – she simply loved it!
We drove to Saranda, Ksamil, Butrint and the Blue eye. It was 5 busy days and we only managed to see a small part of all what Albania has to offer.

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Conclusions by my parents
– Incredible – but why does the Swedish company Apollo bring the Swedish tourists to the worst spot in the whole country. The destroyed city of Saranda?
– There is no information, promotion, and maps whatsoever. Happy we had a daughter here who knew where to take us
-Road signs needs to be put up. It is kind of difficult asking for directions when no one knows English
– The hotel breakfasts could be improved. With all this amazing raw material: fruit, dairy products, vegetables – why does the hotels then serve you white bread and marmalade???
– Menus in English please!
– More activities please! If we didn’t have a car there is so much that could be developed: hiking trails, guided tours, daytrips
– If they want people to stay in Gjirokastra they need to build pools for hot summer days

Etc etc – My parents were the perfect object to study as they are the typical Swedish middle-aged couple who usually go on charter trips or road trips. Their inputs were very nice to hear as it also confirms my ideas of what is great and what can be improved. And I was very happy that they loved it and want to come back! Word-of-mouth people!

Trouble in paradise

Hi everyone!

I’ve been slow on my updates lately so that is why I am now posting 3 at the same time. I’ve been on a lot of different adventures from hell to heaven and I will now tell you why… starting at the bottom

This blog post is an analyze of one of the tourism services you might not think about in the first place but is very important for a tourist to feel comfortable in the visiting country. This blog post is about: The Police

Stranger Danger!
On my trip up to Tirana that I made last weekend to meet up with my parents visiting me from Sweden my camera bag was stolen on the bus. Someone managed to unclasp the bag strap (that I had wrapped around my legs for protection) from the bag while I was sitting on the bus so when I stood up to leave the only thing left was the strap around my legs. Inside I also had my Iphone and cash. Panic, sadness, annoyance, anger, sadness, anger etc emotions followed and repeated themselves again and again. Theft. ARGHHHH

Anyway…this blogpost is about the actions that follows afterwards and how it is to be a tourist in Albania in another sense (not common at all I have to add). In Albania they have this custom called Besha “honoured guest” and theft is very rare – but Tirana is a capital so of course it is more international in that way.

So, I stood up – noticed the bag was lost and hurried to find and check in to my hotel to turn on “find my Iphone” app. Unfortunately and not so surprisingly the phone had been switched off. I then asked for directions for the police station and hurried over there. When I came in I told my case to three different men in the reception and one of them finally understood and led me to an office upstairs. I told an important looking man the story and he listen and nodded and after 10 minutes he said “You’re in the wrong office – this is customs and taxes office”
I was surprised that he had listen to my story all the way through and wondered why I was taken there to begin with?

Does anyone actually understand English or do they just pretend?

Well, the man led me to another building where he left me in another reception. I told my story to another officer behind the counter  – he nodded then disappeared- another man came- he nodded and disappeared etc etc finally someone said “come here” from around a corner. I was lead behind the reception and placed on a chair. On this chair I sat for a long time staring into a wall while a cleaner swept the floors. After a while the first officer came back and took me outside and placed me in a police car. Two other officers jumped in and the first one left. I waited for something to happen – if you are in a car usually you drive somewhere. A young officer walked up to the car and tapped on the window. I opened the window and he (of course) asked me to tell him why I was sitting there. I didn’t know why I was in the car but told him my story. He listened, nodded and then turned away. 10 minutes later he came tapping on the window again and asked me the same thing. Deja vu! Then he left and didn’t come back. Meanwhile the guys in the car just sat there waiting for something. After a while 5 other police man came up to the car laughing. They started pushing the car and I realized that we had been waiting simply because the car needed a push start. (really good car for hunting down criminals). Finally the car started and we drove off into Tiranas sunset rush hour.

We were stuck in crazy traffic and rain rain rain for a long time, I was very tired at this point. The whole “lost in translation” situation was getting weirder and weirder – the sadness over my stole things was replaced with annoyance over such a strange system. And where were we going??

We drove around Tirana and pulled up by another police station. Later I realized this was because this station was closer to the bus stop. The same procedure as before started over. I was placed on a chair in the reception and a lot of people stopped by asking me what I was doing there, asked me to tell them my story and then mysteriously they all left. Finally one man who actually could speak English showed up and told me that we were waiting for a certified translator. I waited 2 hours on that pin chair in a cold reception with only 3 broken watches covering a dirty splashed white wall. Broken chairs and paper peaces scattered about the floor, a receptionist parked behind a tilting desk typing on an old type machine, now and then answering a big old black phone while typing some more. It looked like a movie set from some old James Bond movie. I started to feel that I was in a time machine and thought I was dreaming. But that pin chair was too stiff to fall asleep on and the rain chill from the open door to cold to allow anything else than constant shivers.

Just when I thought about abandoning the whole idea of reporting the theft a woman showed up – the translator! I told her my story and she said “Ok – let’s go!” … Let’s go? Where? But she didn’t stay to listen to my questions – she rushed out the door and down the steps and into a police car. The other police was there to and I got in the back seat and we drove off.

Then they told me we were now in pursuit for the bus in which I had traveled. They said the bus driver must know who took my bag because he knows everyone in Albania. (What??) So we drove around and around and around Tirana while they pointed at different buses asking “Is it this one??” – No.”Is it this one?? – No.
I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry – the whole situation seemed like a joke. Like the thieves would just sit on that empty bus (probably on its way back to Gjirokastra) and wait for the cops to arrest them.

After some time the cops probably realized that we would not find the bus so they took me back to the station. Once again I was back on my favorite chair, in my favorite room. 1 hour I waited for something to happen. I started asking the woman hiding behind the desk but she only smiled and held up a finger ”wait” and continued typing. I gave up on her. To my luck someone finally decided to call the Swedish embassy as they figured that the official English translator woman wasn’t good enough – the report should be from Swedish to English to Albanian to be good enough. Mikael from the Swedish embassy finally showed. He wasn’t swedish but I couldn’t care less and I don’t think they did either in the end. Mikael asked me why I hadn’t called the embassy right away. Well, that thought actually never crossed my mind. Usually to file a police report takes 30 minutes at the station. I didn’t need a Swedish ambassador to help me with such a simple thing…or so I thought.

Mikael and I went upstairs to a room where two tired investigators were waiting. I told them my story again while Mikael translated. To my surprise they laughed at me and said I was lying. Why would anyone steal in Albania and who could steal a bag in such a way in a bus?? Mikael got mad and told them that they should keep their thought to themselves – this is what happened and you will write it down!! I was then beginning to see why bringing an ambassador was the right thing to do. We sat in the office arguing about my story and etc for a while. They wrote down three pages about my life, what I was studying, what I was doing in Albania etc etc. It went on and on and on. In the end, as a final drama, they didn’t want to give me the police report. The angry investigator told me he had paid for the paper and the ink for the printer himself. And then he added that they don’t give out police reports in Albania, they are not official and they only go to court. But Mikael somehow managed to convince them to print an extra copy for me and then he said “Ok – let’s go quickly before they change their minds”

And so we left this awful place and Mikael drove me to my hotel asking me If I had money to eat, If I needed more help, such a kind and helpful man. I was so tired i stumbled into my hotel room after buying loads of chocolate at the nearest shop. I probably looked like I had been in prison for a year – and so it felt.

7 hours later I had finally a report in my hand but none of my precious things. An awful day to say the least. I felt sorry for myself, ate a lot of chocolate and the fell asleep. End of story.

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Some pictures from our everyday life

Hey everyone, I’ve been having internet troubles for the last couple of days at the office. This has made my blog posts rather boring considering the layout unfortunately as the pictures refuse to upload. Today however I will sit here all day and retry until the photos get on this blog! I want to show you some pictures from our everyday life here.

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Making coffe the Albanian style with small pots that boil the espresso. And breakfast is usually fresh fruits (they are soo cheap!) together with one of their amazing dairy products: milk, cottage cheese or youghurt.

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celebrating an orthodox easter togehter with my roommate Anastasia from Belarus. In the morning we went to got the red colored eggs blessed in the church by holy water. We then ate them and put the egg shells in our wallets for good luck. We had 8 eggs each that day!
We celebrated our flatmate Tylors 26 birthday togheter with some of the 120 american peace corps volunteers from all over Albania. This is our livingroom.

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Celebrating of the World Heritage day 18th of April up on the castle. The regional director of National culture Albert Kasi and municipality shaking hands on some agreement of front of camera teams. Kids from a local school spent the day cleaning the castle by picking rubbish.

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Anastasia is the intern at CHwB and she wants to put a view chart in the castle where you can point out houses of interest. We were there with a map to try and make out which houses were which. Tricky!

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Spring is coming! We went for the first time on a walk around the areas at the back of the Castle, Dunuvat area for example

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We found a orthodox church in the old old bazaar, even older than the old bazaar (haha) The houses overgrown by trees sticking out from the stone walls.

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Over the bridge to the other side of town where life is still lived the old way. Donkeys, chickens and cows in the streets

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Old houses, view over the castle and a mountain of trash – There is no waste management in Gjirokastra. There are dumpsters that are emptied over the sides down the mountain sides.

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Going back home!

 

 

Gjirokastra – a tourism destination?

Hello Everyone!

After being here for a while now – almost a month!- I feel a summarize and analyze of Gjirokastra’s qualities as a tourism destination is needed for you to understand my world…

This is what we thought we would find before we came to Gjirokastra:

  • A city the scale of a third of Halmstad. A little modern part and a bigger old part.
  • An old city with an old way of life: a quiet and slow little country town.
  • Few or none could speak English
  • Few or no tourist services and information existed including organizations

These and more prejudices we had were only confirmed when googling the destination and reading on their official website. But oh were we surprised!

Driving into town I asked myself where I was – this couldn’t possibly be it? – Sure here is an old area situated below an old castle, but there is also this big modern town of which I knew nothing. Here life is busy, loud and constantly developing – buildings popping up here and there- shopping, restaurants etc etc – we havn’t been able to see neither old nor new town fully yet!
And in the old town (called the the bazaar) tourism services were very much developed: there are are hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, tour guides, souvenir shops. Present is also and a whole bunch of organizations working on developing tourism together with the aims of preserving the cultural heritage. They have already written a tourism guidebook, information pamphlets and have several maps over the town.
We questioned ourselves (and we still do!) -why we are here and what can we help with? We are still trying to find a project suitable for our education level and time being here. This is done by interviewing the different organizations and analyzing the current situation. These are some of our conclusions we’ve come to so far:

– There are a lot of organizations involved in tourism development: Cultural heritage without borders, tourism service office, The Municipality and Gjirokastra Foundation. These have tons of goals and visions written on tourism development and they implement these objectives through projects such as restoring an old house into a hostel, restoration camps to beautify the community, restoring a house to hold projects in developing souvenirs etc.

– Many strategy plans have been written on how Gjirokastra can develop and attract more tourists. Some examples are “Gjirokastra Tourism Development strategy, 2011”, “A key tourism development project, 2006” “Gjirokastra moving forward 2006” etc etc and they have many sponsors and international organizations to fund the implementation:
(SIDA, Packard humanities institute, European union, Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development,  The international coalition of sites and conscience, The German Embassy, The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, The Swizz agency for development and cooperation, USAID, The centre for International Migration and Development) Only to name a few! However it is unclear why these strategies and projects have not been implemented yet. The strategy for “Gjirokastra moving forward” from 2006 has a lot of practical examples and even budget calculations but still we see nothing of this when walking around the town..

– Gjirokastra doesn’t have any marketing outside the city. Whilst in it you can find maps, brochures and guidebooks – but how do they attract the tourists? So far we assume this is being done this way: people go to Albania and by a guidebook over the whole country. In the guidebook they read about Gjirokastra and go here. Voila!

– The infrastructure, basically how to arrive to Gjirokastra, is tricky. You need to be a backpacker to know the ways of traveling in an undeveloped country. First of all there are no timetables available on websites or in other cities for busses (train doesn’t exist). For example when coming for Saranda you walk around asking people “Gjirokastra?” and they point you to some corner or a random street where a minibus leaves when full.
There is no center in Gjirokastra where buses stop really… or there is a place but it is not being signed- it’s just a big roundabout on the main road in the new parts of torn. And where do you go next? There is no tourism office in new town or the old.

– English is not spoken by many and Albanian isn’t related to German, Latin, Spanish, French or any other languages we might learn in Sweden. This makes our everyday life here a bit isolated actually but we have learned to say Hello, Goodbye, Yes, No and Thank you and by this you can get far; you point to the thing you want to buy and they write down a prize. You say yes or no, pay and leave. It’s more tricky at the restaurants when they don’t have translated menus or can explain it in english. But the worst you can end up with is a by mistake ordering an appetizer instead of main course.
In the end however it is hard to develop participant tourist attractions without language skills.

– There is not any target market in particular that Gjirokastra diverts its attention to. The city is simply there for anyone to explore. By the way of transport I’d say backpackers are the main target – but there is only one hostel and that is freezing cold and there are no activities on site set up for backpackers (nightclubs, horse riding, climbing, caving, trekking) By the information in guidebooks I’d say target market is people interested in architecture and heritage. But how do they get here and how do they get by when people speak so little english? And what activities can they do more than sightseeing?

– Down to the bottom line: There are simply no activities set up to attract tourists for more than daytrip sightseeing. There is the castle which takes an hour or two to explore. Then there is the ethnographic museum and Skenduli house – that takes the same amount of time. Sure you can eat and sleep to your hearts content but what more?
This is the biggest problem people keep telling us about. It is causing the lack of funds to develop Gjirokastra; busses of tourist come to the castle then leave without even eating in the city. The money leaks to daytrip organizers from Saranda and Corfu.

Thus our conclusion so far on what is needed in Gjirokastra is: More activities!
There are much potential for both cultural and nature tourism ones, what is needed is thus investment money, entrepreneurs and English speaking staff. More attractions would attract more people to stay and money not to leak. This would make services earn more money (more people would eat at the restaurant, buy souvenirs etc) of course. The businesses could spend the revenue on developing more activities and services and they could afford to restore the world heritage in which their businesses operate! Hopefully English skills would be developed or improved by these longer encounters with tourists (economic and cultural sustainability) The community would earn money on tax, this could be spent on developing ecological sustainability: recycling wastes for example. Tourism certainly is a path to sustainability!

So what is our part in this – what can we do? We don’t know yet. Right now we are writing a kind of status report to sort out what is being done at the moment and by whom? What amount of services and attractions exists and what plans are there for new onces? Next step is to see what we can do with this information. Hopefully we can develop some useful recommendations, guidelines and even some real tourism activities. As always I will keep you posted on our project!

-What is sustainable development of tourism?

Here are some philosophic thoughts for you on this beautiful early Sunday morning.

I don’t know what you are thinking when you read these blog posts but to some extent I can guess, and I think that some are you are puzzled about what exactly we’ve been doing here in Gjirkokastra so far? Then let me rephrase that into another question: What is sustainable tourism development and what does it incorporate? At least I assume this is what you wonder and I base that on the fact that we are asked this very question every day.

”-Why are you in Gjirkokastra? = To do some form of tourism development
– Aha…. And what is that exactly?”

Well it is a very good question, and to be frank I actually asked myself the same question in the beginning of my third year of this education with all our courses done in subjects of culture, nature and economy. Still I asked myself how it was all connected to each other and I decided to write a paper on it that I called
Planning for sustainable tourism through regional, local and site development”
By writing the paper I traveled down to the foundation of planning: the structures of a project and its planning phases. I worked my way up to the theories on tourism planning and combined its different phases with strategies for a sustainable society. The end result was a hierarchical web of subjects, theories and different models.
Not an easy task to accumulate and thus the answer to the question “what sustainable development of tourism is” has no simple answer in the shape of a formula with one right number. Even the term “sustainable tourism” itself can’t be pinned down exactly, it all depends on which organization or author you choose. A person who likes math and answers like “1+1 equals 2” is likely to grow some grey hair during this education. The only real answer I found in the end is this: planning is more art than science.

Let’s expand our thoughts on this answer. What is art? What is the action behind art? We can visualize it whilst talking about practical things like drawing, writing or composing or more generally like “the act of creativity” or maybe most common in the planning world: designing. Yes tourism development is the art of designing for the future. But it is not ideas shaped in drawings on a white piece of paper. No, you are drawing on an already painted, layered and textured multidimensional cube that doesn’t wait for your painting brush. It is at constant change shaped by the minds of its inhabitants, in Gjirokastras case the minds of some 24 0000 people with their own ideas and thoughts about the future. And here Mehran and I come in for two months to add some color and texture to the cube. An easy task? Not at all…
You can’t just barge in and splash some color all over the place. To start with: who are you to decide the future for a place you’ve only lived in for a week or so? There is a great need to know the soul of the place first – what colors do they use here in terms of values, preference, traditions and culture? What colors is needed to change or promote issues of sustainability? The time dimension is also apparent: what colors will last, be appreciated and not painted over as soon as you leave? Indeed there are a lot of questions that takes time to answer.

In Sweden as a planner you are often spoiled with this kind of background information already on your table, done  by some government, organization, students or simply known facts. Maybe you already know a lot from growing up in the culture yourself? Most of the time then the do’s and dont’s, moral and ethics comes naturally to you – you simply know the place. Now picture yourself in our situation where you know nothing: you’ve never been to the country, never met anyone from the country, plus almost no research exists on ethnography, demographics, environmental issues, economic figures, flora and fauna etc. The little information we find is in Albanian. Okay picture this and now draw a strategical tourism plan for a sustainable future in terms of environmental, economical and cultural aspects. And be quick!

Hopefully now you understand why our work process might seem slow. Creativity is hard work and the whole process from start to goal cannot be materialized but rest assure it is ever present in our minds. We’ve been living in this new world of ours now for three weeks; observing it, trying to decode and lift the veil to view the subliminal parts of this culture, we’ve been viewing it from the inside, outside and in comparison to others. Slowly, slowly the big picture is materializing. But it takes time, a lot of time.

There is however a quicker option: To create your own vision on a piece of paper without attaching or affecting the real world. As up to now Mehran and I have been thinking about doing that. But we have been granted an MFS scholarship to help this community and we want to create something real, something tangible. We hope to choose a small quarter of this new world of ours to paint and affect. We want to give something back to this wonderful community of Gjirokastra who’ve met and greeted us with as much help as we could ask for.

Yes this was a lot of thoughts for a lazy Sunday morning but hopefully by now maybe I have answered at least a fragment of your initial question: “So, what are you doing in Gjirokastra?”

Heading West

Heading West
This week Mehran and I went to Italy to further understand what Weaknesses, Strengths, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT-analysis) Albania faces as a tourism destination. We wanted to compare Albania to Italy which is a huge competitor for markets that are drawn to the Mediterranean Sea. Italy is also Albanias neighbor to the west and while we visited Saranda and Ksamil it became clear that a lot of Italian tourist come to Albanias beaches every summer. We thought to ourselves that it must be something Albania has that Italy doesn’t so we packed our bags and put on our tourist gaze and went west.


The boat

The easiest way to travel between Albania and Italy is by boat, there are a couple of routes from different cities. If you want to fly you must go to either Ioannina (Greece and then bus) or to Tirana (and then bus). We took the bus to a town called Vlore were we caught a 5.5 hours long boat ride to coastal town of Brindisi on Italy’s east coast. The ferry terminal was a bit tricky to found, luckily we paid a little bit extra (plus the bus driver asked everyone on the bus of it was OK that he drove us another route) and then we were finally on the boat. The boat ride itself was perfectly fine on the way there, on the way back however we were three hours late, the ride took eight hours because of a storm and everyone puked on the floor which was carpeted. We don’t need to tell you the smell, the screams and etc beautiful things that happened on that ride…

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                              The boat appeared to have served in Norway before ending up in the Adriatic Sea

Border controls

We put our sea legs back on the ground on a chilly night in Brindisi Italy. The terminal lay far away from the boat so we ran in the rain to get in. Here suspicious Italian border police checked my passport a hundred times. The queue of tired and cold passengers and the extremely slow border crossing made it a rather unpleasant visit – This must be improved if Albania wants to attract people from Italy coming this way. Easy improvements that we recommend are: a terminal with plenty of chairs, some tourism information, a cafe, transfer to the city and a map. This would give you a good start to your vacation on either side. As it is now it’s up to you to understand Italian or Albanian enough to know how to ask for bus, train terminal or hotel. “Mi scusi” …. Lucky me that Mehran is fluent in Spanish!

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                                                     A menu in Italian and coastal town of Brindisi

Italy
Italy Is amazing. ”sigh” I’ve always thought of it to have the best food culture in world alongside Indian. Growing up I had pasta everyday because my dad did business trips to Italy all the time bringing home cheddar cheese and pasta to last us until his next trip. Studying Latin and archaeology when I was younger Italy was of course a dream country with heritage as far as your eye could see. This trip however we noticed some changes to the perfect picture. For example the vegetables now taste like the Swedish ones: watery. Eating Albanian food for three weeks has actually made us spoiled on quality of vegetables.
That the raw material is not perfect has of course an unavoidable side affect: my beloved Italian food doesn’t taste so good anymore 🙁 The pizza and pasta is actually better in Albania!! Who would’ve thought? Maybe that is why Italians come to Albania? Mehran and I definitely saw an opportunity for Albania to attract some culinary tourism. Definitely!
And that is an important conclusions that we take with us.

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Don’t be fooled – The food might look nice but it’s not like Albanian ones that’s for sure!

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McDonald’s is still no hit in Italy. However I still love Italy – In Naples that’s amore!

Ruins Ruins Ruins
We went to Pompeji one day to find some inspiration for pour own project (next blog post) Pompeji is the city that was buried in ash, later discovered by archaeologist and is now a grand park that attracts about 6 million tourists every year. We were expecting something amazing. But upon arrival the confusion started: a train station with just some cheap banners “Pompeji and Mount Vesuvius” Nothing that caught the eye in terms of marketing, no fancy entrance, museum or visitor center, just a ticket office in grey concrete and then you we let inside.We were very surprised! A visitor centre is an important tool to prepare, build excitement, sell souvenirs and even educate visitors on allowed behavior on site.
– By the way did you want a map? Oh that cost you two euros. Information otherwise? None.
The map had numbers and the numbers had titles. ”Nr 43. Titos house” And nothing more than that. Basta.
The site had to speak for itself, which it did in sense of grandeur, but not in tourism design. A lot of signs covering the houses “do not enter” “no litter” etc etc and too many people allowed at once. We stood in line 10 min to see two mosaics, the place crowded with cruise ship passengers, guide screaming in different languages. A management plan, a site plan and a guide plan to lead groups different, alternative ways should have been in place. No carrying capacity limits at all which of course effects the experience and the authenticity.. Here again we see something that Albania can market itself with its uncrowded, still unspoilt cultural heritage and landscape. Interesting.

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Mount Vesuvius
We also visited Mount Vesuvius as it is a national park to see how they manage that site. It meant we took an expensive bus up wriggly road to a plateau. There was no information to be found whatsoever. The only signs were this one on ”Don’t litter” And look what was next to it:

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                                                                               Don’t litter = Litter

We walked on disappointed about not learning any facts on the mountain / Volcano. We had to hurry as the bus picked you up to hours later. It was a nice walk with good views over Naples but this is a national park! Information please! How hard is it to print and put up a nice poster? especially when the price to get in was so expensive. We really wondered where that money went..

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The Albanian Image
Everywhere we went we met nice people in Italy, very friendly indeed. And they asked us what we did in Albania and we explained and after that they all said “Albania is nice isn’t it?” It was not as if they’ve been there but the rumor has it Albania is beautiful. Beautiful beaches and nice people. That’s about it. Nobody knew what Gjirokastra was but they were curious and this is a good to know – Good to know when it comes to marketing; that no money needs to be spend on reversing a bad reputation for example.

Yes Albania has indeed something to offer and can take on the challenge of attracting Mediterranean visitors. Food, culture, beaches, atmosphere – we went back to our beloved Albania with pride and enthusiasm over developing tourism here.  And of course happy to be back with our precious vegetables!

The coastal boom and bust

Today I’m sitting on our rooftop balcony looking out over Gjirokastra, still I haven’t been everywhere in the city but from the rooftop I’ve seen it all. It is really amazing and I’m so thankful for being here in this lovely little city. I’m just back from a trip to the cost Mehran and I did this weekend. We went to the coastal towns of Saranda, Ksamil and Butrint to check out the surrounding areas and put Gjirokastra as a tourist destination in a context: What kind of tourists comes to the coast and what activities are offered there?  How can Gjirokastra use this to build tourism products that will attract them?

Going South
To get to the coast we took a more or less organized bus ride. In the corner of the big cross road downtown in Gjirokastra there are a couple of private minivans parked, the owners of which are standing around shouting “Saranda, Saranda, Saranda”. When the van was full it left. The road winding south through the Drino Valley where Gjirokastra is situated and then up and through the mountains. On the other side we saw a completely different landscape and climate. From our barren bushy mountainous area, the leafy green on the other side of the mountain almost hurt our eyes. It was as if going from winter to spring within a 2 min ride. We followed a perfectly clear turquoise colored mountain stream all the way to the sea.

NamnlösIMG_0772”Saranda, Saranda Sarandaaaa”

Saranda
But we came to Saranda and were utterly disappointed. Concrete buildings were popping up everywhere without any particular style, there were no walkways, no parks or trees, no lamps, just dust and concrete. It was apparent that this was a new city were city planners were nonexistent. Neighbors didn’t seam to care about each other instead competing: building so to cover the ocean views for each other. It seemed very “boom and bust” cyclic with no long term commitment of turning this into a charming coastal town. All other Mediterranean cities I’ve been to have had their charm, a soul and energy around them, but here that was nowhere to be found. Why this have let happened I have no idea but it was sad to see.. We walked on the beach and were surprised that the water was still clear considering the amount of pipes they had going directly into the ocean. What saved the hours we spent there was the lovely Italian coffee we had and the sun and warmth of spring.

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”Saranda – not what we expected”

Ksamil
Later that day we went to another little town we had heard about: Ksamil, about 30 min further to the south. We went there expecting something similar to Saranda but thankfully we were mistaken – it was beautiful little village! Empty white sandy beaches, turquoise water and a beach promenade. There was a kind of bustling noises and hammering coming from everywhere as the restaurants and bars were fixing up for the summer. Ksamil is like Saranda still in a developing face but thankfully not as bad…yet.

Riddles unfold
However between the new and old buildings we saw an surprising amount of half destructed modern concrete ruins with steel sticking out. It looked weird and we couldn’t get our minds around it. We met up with Tylers friends Ivy and Tani and had some coffee with them. Tani comes from north Albania but has been living in Ksamil running his own hostel for many years. We asked them about the buildings we’d seen and they told us this story:

During communism time this area was undeveloped and a part of a huge orange state farm. After the fall some farmers built their houses here and being so close to Saranda tourists came down from there and saw the potential. Nobody owned the land so anyone could (and can) just start building anything anywhere. This was the reason for the chaos in Saranda too. Now in the last couple of the years the government has started to realize the chaos problem and have started giving out building permits. But these are expensive and corruption exists even here so some people decide to build anyway. And these buildings (from 2007-2013) are now being demolished. What makes it so sad is that the buildings are lierally the bank for generations of money: After the pyramid bank schemes in 1997 (people lost all of their money, anarchy, civil war) people didn’t trust the banks anymore so they put all their salary savings into buildings instead, bying and building a little as soon as money was there.. So houses take many many years before they finish, but now they’re being torn down within an hour with all the families’ moneys lost in the dust. Many leave and try starting over somewhere else. Tanis neighbors three storey building was crushed and he hasn’t seen his neighbor for three years. Crazy. And now there is rumors that all buildings in all of Ksamil are going to be torn down as some resort has bought all the property and is planning to build a superkomplex resort there…

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Well it was very interesting meeting Ivy and Tani to get a picture of the situation of the coastal towns. It seems that history and culture was sparse there, and this is an opportunity to use for promoting Gjirokastra for those who wants to experience Albanian traditions and history.

Magical Butrint
While we were down there on the coast we decided to visit the world heritage site of Butrint as it was only 4 km away from Ksamil. And once again we were amazed. The ruins of Butrint was a huge area that took us 2.5 hours to walk around. This was apparently a big city once upon a time: a peninsula perfectly positioned between a big lake and the ocean.

The history in short for those interested: First is served as a healing sanctuary to the god Asclepius, then a roman colony founded by Caesar. It then suffered from vandal raids, was occupied by Christians, Normans and finally in 1386 it was bought by the Venetian Republic to be used as a military outpost of the Venetian Corfu. In 1572 it was abandoned to become a simple fishermen’s village but from the 18th century it was discovered by the grand tourists, European painters and diplomats. It is now a world heritage site that is still being excavated.
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”Butrint folder and site map”

It is not hard to see the reasons for this attention towards the peninsula: on one side the ocean, in front fields of lush green and yellow, to the back views over villages on mountain tops in a far distance, and to the south the view of the lake with its stunning green blue waters with picturesque fish and mussel cultivations. Mehran went looking for seahorses – apparently they are endemic to this lake – nowhere else to be found in the world! But they are shy and like warm water so we didn’t see them…

We sat down to enjoy the view, on the other side on the channel the wind and rain were fighting over dark clouds but on our side it was beautiful springy: sunny, warm with a little breeze. We walked among the ruins for maybe 2-3 hours and considered us for that period of time to be among the happiest people on the planet. It was mindfulness at its peak. We strolled around on paths taking us from church to city walls ruins, baths and all kinds of parts and pieces of this once grand city. Still it’s being excavated every summer by American and English archaeologists. We saw so many nice things here and always with the view over the sea or the fields in a hundred shades of greens. Inside our world we walked in lush grass clad with white and purple flowers. Butrint was really the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Albania so far.

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We made our way back to Gjirokastra that late afternoon with peace of mind. We are beginning to see the picture of south Albania and where Gjirokastra fits in the mix. There surely are a lot of things Gjirokastra has to offer that Saranda and Ksamil doesn’t have. Even if Butrint has history and culture that city is abandoned while Gjirokastra is alive and vibrant. We will have this in mind now when we start working on our project next week.

And that is what the next post is going to be about! So stay tuned!

An interesting hotel experience…

Hello Blog, today is a sunny day and thank G!

I have told you that I live in this old old stone house in the old bazaar right? It’s a typical mediterranean white stone house which looks charming on the outside. Well, on Monday morning at 10.00, our electricity was suddenly cut and we stood without power for two days. The reason for this, it turned out, was some unpaid bills back in 2011 (!!) by a former owner. This reaction time must be considered as slow even for Albanian standards I’d say, and no warning was sent or phone calls made about it. In Sweden a power cut like this would probably be resolved easily but we thought the power-cut was just a random one and so we waited all day before we realized it would probably not be put on again without some action. We called Tyler, who called his boss Elena, who called the power company but they had gone for the day. And there we stood without knowing really what to do. A power cut in Sweden is usually a bit cozy I think: all machine noises disappear and you light some candles. But here in our old stone house a night without heaters would be unbearable, close to –0 degrees inside, with that kind of wet cold that creeps underneath your skin. Not pleasant to say the least.

Looking back on it now this is actually a fun story and an experience how a tiny thing like a power cut can affect you in a cold country. Well, we stayed in office as long as we could and then Stephan and Albert called here and there to try and find somewhere for us to stay. But all the houses were to cold apparently. We started planning for sleeping at the office floor – ”what if we carry my mattress here and yours over there…” Finally Albert found a hotel for us, the finest in town, for only 1000 LEK/person which is about 50-60 SEK. Mehran was convinced he would put himself to the test of sleeping in our house, in a sleeping bag and surrounded by candles. But finally I convinced him to tag along, as sleeping in a hotel we could make it a part of our study – see how it is for the tourist to come to Gjirokastra.

He took the bait. We went back in the house with our flashlights, funny how heat and light brings life to a house, it seemed we’d been gone for ages and I half expected plants to have grown up like in that Jumanji movie. We made our 400 m to the hotel and realized we didn’t know where to go. There was a sign on this big house ”hotel” but no entrance. We walked around a little up and down some stairs but finally made our way into the restaurant in the bottom floor. There two old men stood and we asked “Hotel?” One the men nodded and made his way to the door and disappeared into the night. We took this as a sign that we would follow him. After only a couple of meters we understood that this was just a very drunk man on his way home, who’d probably just nodded “goodnight” to us. Ha ha embarrassing! We walked back to the restaurant and held up three fingers “three persons, hotel?” the man spoke no English (of course). He just shook his head, which here means ”yes, no problem” So he took some keys and we followed him to the back of the house. I and Anastasia were showed into one room and Mehran another: to his own little cottage!

Our room can’t be said much about. Two beds, a little table in between and a small toilet. The toilet was actually quite confusingly built. Outside stood two pairs of slippers, one obviously meant for a women as they had heels (!) The bathroom was built so as when one would shower the entire floor would be wet, the sewage in one corner close to the door and the shower in the far back. The shower was also built so close to the toilet that that the toilet paper would be completely ruined if one would shower. We laughed about this for a while and then went to bed. Mehran on the other had lived like a king in his little own cottage totally renovated with cozy wooden beams and stone titled bathroom. If it wasn’t for the ants and the no instructions on how to turn the hot water on… in fact there were no instructions whatsoever. No check-out time, no contact numbers, no welcome letter, no map, and no wifi password no nothing. We don’t mean to be snobbish in no means, Mehran and I certainly know how it is to travel around with no comfortableness in various undeveloped countries. But this time we had our tourist glasses on, thinking that Gjirokastra wants to attract more tourist, and what kind of information would a tourist need to feel relaxed and taken care of.
Anyway, I was happy enough not to have to sleep with my regular 6 layers of clothes on (a tank top, a t-shirt, a hoodie, a summer jacket, a hoodie on top of that, a winter jacket on top of that and finally a blanket) I was sick enough to just fall asleep instantly after setting the thermostat to lovely 30 degrees tropical night. I got sick some days before, never being able to store enough heat to feel warm at night or day. So I was in heaven!

In the morning I awoke to people working outside building a hotel garden – nice! I walked around and tried to find out which time was check out time but one spoke English. Finally I found this old little cleaning lady who drew 10 in her palm – They are very friendly here and they try the best they can to understand you so you feel very much like a guest in that sense. Meanwhile Mehran gave up on trying to turn on his hot water (with the no instructions to help out) on and borrowed our shower. Afterwards we tried to pay and that took a lot of misunderstandings as Albert only booked one room since Mehran first didn’t want to sleep there, and the old man just thought we were random guests paying full price. And then his wife came and tried sorting it out and finally an English speaking young woman worked it out. She’d just been recently hired – wonderful!

After this we went back to our house and moved all the food into the office fridge and waited until 5 in the afternoon when finally the power came back. The End.

Ha-ha ha – so now you followed me on another adventure as tourist here in Albania and hopefully you draw the same conclusion as me: that spoken language is a tool very hard to do without when working with tourist. Information is the hey to success I would say. In this case a simple brochure in the hotel room would be enough, maybe a couple of phrases in Albanian to solve the “lost in translation” dilemma. A lot could be done here in terms of tourism development.

Well with those words I leave you. Have a nice everyone! Today it’s sunny and warm – around 30 degrees in the sun! What a difference a day makes!

Let me take you on a tour

Good Morning to you all!

Today it’s been a week and two days since we arrived in Gjirokastra but it feels like a year already. Even though we still haven’t been around the city or the castle we know our little world around the bazaar and the office as our own “back pocket” This we mean literally because at night it is so dark and there’s no street lights that in the beginning we would stumble over the cobble stone but now we know the way without falling once!

This has been a busy week with a lot of impressions, so many in fact that we are overwhelmed and a bit tired at the moment. It is also tiring and inspirational all at once the possibilities of tourism we see and experience every day. Let me in this blog focus on two examples: The Skandali house and the Ethnographic museum.

Let’s do this by pretending that you are a tourist who has made our way to Gjirokastra because you heard it was a world heritage city. You sleep a night in a hotel and in the morning you want to go explore. Surprisingly enough there is no information center. Hmmm… You ask in the hotel and they might say, follow the signs. So you go out and somewhere in the town you see a sign saying “ethnographic museum” and “Skenduli house” You follow the signs and find these huge old stone houses next to each other.
Ethnographic museum has a simple sign outside saying “ethnographic museum”, Skenduli house a sign with some more information, but it is so far up you need binoculars to see it.

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Skenduli House and Ethnographic museum 

The Ethnographic Museum
Luckily the ethnographic museum is open when you arrive. (the door is open so you assume it is anyway). You might enter carefully as you don’t know but you are met by an old lady coming down from the second floor. She smiles and asks you for 200LEK (in english!) which is about 12 SEK for the entrance. She then follows you around this labyrinth of an house and tells you about each room. If you start asking question you realize she xan answer them all but that is only if you ask, otherwise it is a very “free guided tour” up to you interest and time. The museum is actually just 40 years old and  before it was the the birth place of the communist leader Enver Hoxa, but nothing is said about this if you don’t ask (communism still being a somewhat sensitive issue). But the house is amazing! It shows the folk costumes and cultural artifacts typical of a wealthy Gjirokastra family of merchants or Ottoman administrators living in the 19th Century. And there is no information, ropes, glass boxes, no reception or souvenir shop or anything else touristic. Can you then call it a museum? It’s more the feeling of stepping into this old lady’s house with the exception of a couple of handmade socks for sale that hangs from wooden beams. It is very cold inside and together with the lack of tourist information it makes it feel as if time has stood still and the owners just stepped out. In a good way that is, even though it’s not the intention –In the money was there for investments information boards and other typical tourist comfortableness is likely to appear for better or worse. Definitelythe authentic feeling and uniqueness would be affected.  

But the lack of money takes dramatical forms as we enter a room where another lady sits (awaiting better times?) She sits on the edge of an old sofa. Water leaks from the roof and a black bin bag has been positioned to create a pond in the sofa. The most natural thing in the world one would assume from her expression. Even in that perspective time stands still, a little dripping is all you hear. With this in mind you leave the Ethnographic museum and move on to Skenduli house.

The Skenduli House 
A little old man greets you saying something that sounds like “Chkemi”- Hello! He speaks no English. A brochure is placed in your hands as you pay 200LEK for the entrance fee.
Then you are left alone. To wonder and exhale an “aaaaahhh” for this beautiful house- one of the most beautiful examples for vernacular Gjirokastra architecture, as the brochure tells you. It is a kind of kulla house from 18th century which is a tower house. What this means you have to find out for yourself. The brochure gives you some basic information on other details as seen is the picture.

What the brochure doesn’t tell you are the hidden things, the use of the details, which I know since I went there with Albert, the director of Gjirokastra regional directorate of culture and monuments. He told me the old man is the owner of this house and he runs it all by himself nowadays. It used to be the ethnographic museum but it moved to Enver Hoax house. Albert shows me the inside a cupboard where a hatch can be pulled to secretly lock the door from the inside. In the kitchen he explained what kinds of food would be cooked and how using the kitchenware. The kitchenware, which at first in my mind only were labeled and appreciated for their esthetics, suddenly got another dimension of interest as their use were presented to me. Appreciation and information which for the regular tourist would be lost! An important part of the soul of the Skenduli house would pass you by, lurking in the description of these details, hidden by the simplest thing as a translation represent.

As you go home to your hotel room you Google both of these houses but there is no information to be found. Some general on architecture of the city but they have no webpage or links to sites on the houses. Check for example what Wikipedia has to say about the ethnographic museum here

And these are just two examples where you creative student mind goes wild with imagination about what could be done. Simple things like an English guide, signage improvement, websites etc. What opportunity here lies! And Gjirokastra is full with them.  Fantastic and at the same time so far away because the money issue and the mentality here, to most of the suggestion I provide I am answered ”Really, Would tourist be interested in that??” I really wish and hope I can help with some of this in the next following weeks. Maybe and hopefully just being here, showing our interest, we can change this and make them see that their cultural heritage in well worthy of more exposure and pride.