Tales from an Albanian Taverna
Rain. Not my favourite weather choice admittedly. And yet, as my recent trip to Albania proved, it’s something that can often bring about surprises and experiences that would otherwise have been missed.
And so it was in response to a rather moist day that together with Gent, my Albanian friend and guide of many years, I switched previously conceived plans to trek part of the so-called “Byron” trail in Southern Albania along which the 19th century English Lord once travelled and took refuge instead in a small taverna not too far from the impressive Labovë e Kryqit Church, one of the oldest in Albania.
My first impressions of the taverna were more ‘community hall in a deprived area of Birmingham’ rather than ‘quaint pub in the Cotswolds’ but here we were, taking shelter from the downpour outside, and enjoying a drink or two of raki, Albania’s rather potent national drink when suddenly a group of men on the table to our immediate left started singing. And what singing this was. Not the footie anthems or karaoke one might have expected (feared?) but instead an incredible example of polyphonic singing, inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage asset by UNESCO. It was truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard and yet I was amazed by the fact that barely anyone else in the taverna even seemed to acknowledge this pitch-perfect outpouring of harmonies from a bunch of men who looked as unassuming as any group of men in a bar could look. There was no applause and no expectation of one; this was just something they wanted to do purely for themselves.
Feeling quite chuffed now with my decision not to have donned my waterproofs to undertake a wet (and probably by now rather muddy) trek, I was further delighted to see a small band suddenly appear and start playing traditional Albanian music to which the rest of the taverna’s clientele (but notably not the polyphonic-singing men) started dancing in a big communal circle with interlocking hands and the occasional rhythmic flick of a handkerchief. Reminiscent perhaps of dances I’ve seen in Greece and amongst Turkey’s Kurdish communities, it was nevertheless distinctly different and, as Gent was keen to assure me, wholly Albanian.
Several songs, dances (and glasses of raki) later, the rain cleared and it was time to move on to nearby Gjirokastër but I think I left a little bit of myself in that otherwise non-descript taverna in the foothills of the Bureto Mountain in Albania’s stunning southern region.