If you want to visit Zekate House, a traditional Ottoman home in Gjirokastër, Albania, walk up a steep hill, make a right, ask directions from a man tending his grape arbor, go up hill a bit more and then find the building with it’s two wood-capped towers and go inside. No, Zakate house is not locked and no one works here. Apparently Gjirokastër is the sort of town where you can have a perfectly preserved UNESCO protected house full of antique furnishings open and unattended.
These massive arches on the building face support Zekate House’s upper level, where the family lived. (The first floor was for cooking and storage).
Houses with two fortified towers like this were for high status families.
Living arrangements in Ottoman houses were regimented: everything depended on the season and your gender. This room, called The Fire Room (because–duh!—there’s a fireplace) was for winter. Women were invisible to men other than their spouses and only allowed inside certain rooms. The houses were laid out so that a woman could spy on her husband while he entertained guests. She would go up into a hidey place above the entertainment area, count the number of men, and then hurry off to prepare the appropriate amount of coffee and snacks. Then the husband would excuse himself for a minute, leave the room and come back with a tray full of treats for his guests, getting all the thanks of course [rolls eyes].
On the upper floor of the house, between the towers, is a platform where the men of the house could recline and enjoy drinks prepared by invisible women and enjoy a lovely view of Gjirokastër.
That view though.
Pleasing stairwell, isn’t it?
The rooms in Zekate house are each flaked by haman (little steam rooms) and built in toilets. The toilets are simple holes in the ground that must have been flushed out by buckets or something, but this was actually a big deal at the time. I was really thrilled to see an Ottoman toilet since the first thing I usually think about when looking at historic buildings is “Where did they go to the bathroom?”
Zakate House had a few useful signs with information about the layout of the home (and they were even in English). Thanks to these signs, the great mystery of where Ottoman families put their bags of weed and punk has finally been put to rest.
Outside the Zekate house we encountered the rarest site in all of Albania: a public toilet! After using this facility with great relief we greeted an elderly man at the entrance to the house next door and gave him a few Albanian lek, figuring he was likely the guardian of the house.
A short walk away, we located Skenduli House, another traditional Ottoman home, this one circa 1700. The same family had been living in the house for hundreds of years until the communists booted them out in the 1980’s. After the fall of communism in the early 1990’s, the family moved back in and fixed the place up nicely. These days it functions as a museum and unlike Zekate House, has a woman on staff to take an admissions fee and give a tour.
Here’s a close up of the hunting fresco on the upper level.
The building has held up since the 1700’s because it’s brick walls were interspersed with solid chestnut boards (look closely and you can see them in the wall to the left of the entry). This building technique offers protection against earthquakes—an engineering technique we saw often in Albania.
Inside the ground level there’s a large cistern that collected rainwater from the roof during the rainy season.
Skenduli House had special rooms just for newlywed couples, one for winter and one for summer.
It was great having a tour guide since she explained a lot of things to us about the antiques in the house. In this photo on the left you can see a coffee roaster, which was held over the fire by one of those invisible women, and on the right, a coffee grinder. The family that lived here for generations used these vintage housewares until the late 20th century.
Not everything in the house was traditional, however. This is in fact the first washing machine ever to be installed inside an Albanian home.
The Zekate and Skenduli Houses gave us a fascinating view of domestic life in Ottoman Gjirokastër. I’m not going to lie: I was cringing pretty hard about how restricted the lives of women were during the Ottoman era. But hey, I’m just learning about culture, and I don’t have to agree with it. And if you visit my house, I will make you coffee and drink it along with you, just as long as you say thank you, (but I’m not going to tell you where I store my bags of weed.)
How we got to Gjirokastër: furgon from Berat.
Where we slept: Konaku Guest House. Price: €27 for a double. Recommended: highly