Our shop in Bajram Curri
We are super happy to announce the opening in April 2021 of the Journey to Valbona (and Beyond!) tourism shop, info center, cultural treasure house and all-around cool place to hang out. (Whew!)
Located in Bajram Curri, on the “pedonale” opposite the museum and the huge statute of Bajram Curri himself (the big guy with a gun in his hand – Welcome to Tropoja!), the shop is designed to make a great entry and exit point for your travel in Tropoja, including – but not limited to – Valbona. Er, and beyond, of course.
This shop plans to ‘wear a lot of hats’ because, you know, why do anything the simple way?
You can buy stuff, because . . . well, it’s a shop. What kind of stuff? Well, that’s probably going to depend on the day. We thought that foreign tourists would like to be able to pick up useful things, when heading out on their adventures (maps? camping food?) – as well as small portable gifty things, before going home. So you can buy whatever paraphernalia we’ve been making (including our much-praised hiking maps) and/or accumulating (t-shirts, tote bags, postcards, etc – feel free to tell us what you’d LIKE to find, and we can have a whack at making that too!).
BUT! We have also been working for 3 years to reach out to a network of local people, the idea being that although tourism has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past 10 years, it is still mostly only benefiting people with guesthouses, taxis or working as guides. Which seems kind of limited to us. The fact is that every home in Tropoja makes something – probably lots of things! From hand knitted socks to raki, honey to doilies, everyone has something to sell, which could be substantially improving the economic being of, well, everyone! And despite Albania’s recent economic upswing, Tropoja remains one of the poorest parts of Europe (by GNP – lots to quibble about there!) with 60% of people living off of subsistence agriculture combined with public assistance – which is around 30 euro per month for a family. Enough to buy soap and flour, but not pay an electricity bill. Or school books.
But how can local families connect with tourists? Well, obviously they need a shop. So . . . we made one.
|November – May (inclusive):|
|Friday||13:00 – 19:00|
|Saturday||11:00 – 17:00|
|Sunday||11:00 – 19:00|
|June – October (inclusive):|
|Every Day||11:00 – 20:00|
UNLESS you’re going to show up at some other time and need to pick something up, in which case contact us and we’re happy to meet you at a time that suits you.
Shop as Info Center
Course you might not want to buy anything. But you might need help. You might have questions! All of the itineraries on this website are free for you to use, well, for free. But if you need help nailing down any arrangements, come and see us! Maybe there are other activities you’re interested in (Kayaking? Horse experience? Climbing?) that you didn’t know if you could do here. Maybe you’d like to join a family in whatever seasonal agricultural activity is on the go? Want a cooking lesson?
Our goal is to connect you in real, non-virtual time/space, with the things that we love here which we hope you will love too. We want to support and promote the people we know who are trying to do good things. We also, as Tropojans, echo the sentiments of Bislim Ismail-Isufi who amazed me years ago by saying “Of course I want tourists to come, but I don’t want any money from them. I only want that when they leave, they speak well of us.”
So feel free to stop by just for a chat. Back when I lived in a hotel in Valbona, I found that so many people had questions they were burning to ask. Come ask us. We love talking about Tropoja and Albania. It’s an amazing place.
But then we realized we can do other things.
Selling “me Shumice” : Shop as Fair Trade Wholesale Center
There are also the domestic tourists, who know about the ‘treasures’ of Tropoja – chestnuts, wild blueberries, raki, homemade cheese, honey, all sorts of berries in season, wild herbs, all sorts of nuts in season, homemade jams – but have no idea how to find them. These people probably want to buy things in quantity, but where can they find them? They need a shop! AND they need the ability to preorder, to make sure they find what they want, in the quantity they want, when they get here. And we can organize all of this through the shop and website.
And then again, while we’re at it, why not host a sort of farmer’s market on the weekends? We’ll see how that evolves.
And if we’re going to do that, why not work on making a sort of collective of producers, so local restaurants can find the local produce they ought to be featuring on their menus?
And if we can do that, why not start marketing to shops all around Albania – like E Dua in Tirana – which feature Albanian products?
Yikes! Well, let’s get open first.
Shop as Cultural Center
For starters, we had to decorate the shop. I mean, I guess we didn’t HAVE to, but it would have been pretty boring, otherwise. And boy have we been having fun. We started by asking people in Dragobi to make us a whole stack of traditional goat fencing, which is basically a sort of weave of twigs and sticks. This got delivered (aka, dumped in front of the shop) one day, and then sat there for a month or so while we figured out how to hang it from the ceiling – we wanted to cover these really horrible colored disco lights that were still there from its previous incarnation as a kind of tacky bar. Every time we were working there – repainting the (equally tacky) walls, which took ages because we were deliberately trying to achieve a sort of mottled, antique look – curious locals stopped by. “Are you putting goats in here?” they asked, nervous. “No – why?” “Well, what’s the fencing for then?” “We’re hanging it from the ceiling.” “WHAT?! Nooooo – it’s going to look ridiculous! People will laugh at us! And by the way, you should really paint the place – look how uneven the paint is!” Sigh. Trust us.
Miracle of miracles – once the walls were painted (WITH sponges AND looking ‘antique’) and the fencing was up, and, thanks to an amazing gang of volunteers from Germany who bizarrely included a woman who ordinarily worked as a retail shop designer, we’d built a bunch of stuff from pallets and created a whole new lighting design (cost : 150 euro, thank you very much!) – the locals LOVED it. “This looks like US” they said, amazed, “and it’s BEAUTIFUL!”
And then the sweetest thing happened. People started bringing us stuff. Old tools, bric-a-brak, handmade carpets, traditional costumes, ancient “bride’s chests.” Liridon turned up with a terves one day, the traditional low, round table that sits on the floor. “My uncle said: ‘Tell Catherine that 17 children grew up eating around this table!’” Someone sold us an old koha Enverit (communism) sofa for 20 euro. People from Tirana practically burst into tears at the sight of it. “I slept 14 years on this sofa!” said one man. “I gotta sit on it. Just one thing. There ought to be a cat.” (The first stray kitten we see is going to be dragged inside and offered a home. We have a slight pigeon problem on the 3rd floor . . . )
A month ago a local agricultural supply shop called us. They were getting rid of their old counter – which happened to be an enormous hand carved piece of wood which I’d been ogling for years. “Yours if you pay for our new counter!” This thing ought to be in a museum. So we agreed, and now here it is.
Half the stuff in the shop isn’t for sale, and has a story attached. So just come by to have a look and a chat!
And then we realized we can do other things.
Shop as Community Center
We are also building a sort of garden in the small square in front of the shop. Why?
Last year we had to help someone collect questionnaires for a research study. The researcher’s idea was to stand around in front of the shop with a clipboard. “Nope,” we said, “Let’s do this Tropojan style.” “Eh?” he said. “Hospitality!” we said. So we put some tables and chairs outside. Decorated them with tablecloths and brik-a-brac from the shop. Put out qerasje – traditional welcome treats – juice, caramels, snacks, beer and raki (Yes, Virginia, even at 9 am). And before you knew it, people were hanging out in front of the shop. I went upstairs for 5 minutes, and when I came down again, a tiny little old man was sitting there, playing the lahuta and singing ancient epics. I have no idea where he came from. People sang along and applauded. Amazing!
So ‘if we build it, they will come.’ But . . . the shop can sell a lot of things made by women. So why not bring the women here? People can enjoy themselves, have a place to gather, work together – crocheting doilies, spinning wool, knitting socks – I dunno! Anything! And make a buck. And wouldn’t you, Dear Reader, love to stumble across a place with a lot of super cool Albanian women hanging out, ready to let you try to spin wool, while you’re waiting for your bus?
Shop as Cool Place to Hang Out
Now that the shop is already nice and cozy to hang out in – what with looking like your Tropojan Grandmother’s idealized home – and primed to have a gaggle of locals in residence doing local things . . . why not hang out?
We realize that until now most tourists simply pass through Bajram Curri on the way to Valbona, with at most a couple of hours to kill – let’s say from 11 am until 2 pm. Well, although Bajram Curri has been transforming at an astonishing rate the past few years, it’s still mostly catering to locals. So come kill your hours with us!
Our NGO’s office on the second floor has a basic kitchen, and Aferdita is determined to cook up fresh bread, byrek, and aspires to the odd lunch and what not. We suspect she’s hoping that if it catches on, she’ll have a stepping stone to starting a fabulous restaurant featuring local, seasonal produce. Until she realizes that ambition, you’re welcome to join us for whatever culinary adventures she’s undertaking. And who knows? The ‘women’s collective’ may well be potting up jams or making cheese or something. There’s bound to be something going on. And you are welcome to join in!