During our four-week tour of Albania, we visited several ethnographic museums, but the one located in the grounds of Kruja Castle was our first and is said to be the most interesting. It’s located in the house, built in 1764, for the powerful and prosperous family of Ismail Pashë Toptani. Later in the capital, Tirana, we saw the huge, modern Toptani Shopping Centre presumably named after them.
The whitewashed three-story house had a tower placed in the middle with carved wooden windows, of all sizes, letting the breeze flow freely and creating a feeling of open space.
The ground floor of such houses is where livestock were kept, with the herdsmen sleeping with the animals. The space was now devoted to displays of traditional crafts and pastimes e.g. raki making (a powerful schnapps-like drink), a huge wooden olive press, a watermill for grinding wheat for corn and felt making to produce the native white hats.
The family lived upstairs, centered around a large covered balcony in the summer. The doorways off this balcony had a stepped threshold which acted as a draught excluder when the door was shut. The doors were low and arched which meant those entering had to lower their head, thereby showing respect to those inside. For today’s visitor, these both provided obstacles to be negotiated.
The first room we saw was the ladies’ room with models displaying ethnic costumes. The ones with the biggest Ottoman influence were from the central areas as people had fled when the country was invaded and were replaced by people more easily persuaded. Clothing worn by those in the mountains were not Ottoman in style as these areas hadn’t been invaded due to the inhospitable terrain.
Women would spend hours working on embroidered clothing and household items as they were expected to produce a dowry on marriage, and we saw the huge, carved wooden dowry chests.
The men’s room had holes high within the walls and hidden staircases, so the ladies could look at their proposed husbands without being seen and listen in on the negotiations.
Both rooms had low circular tables and cushions on the floor for seating and contained many items which would have been part of daily life (90% are said to be original to the time).
There was a large hammam or steam room and the kitchen next door ensured the fire could be used for cooking and heating the water. The kitchen also had an upstairs gallery where children would have played.
Although entrance to the castle was free, there was a modest fee for the Ethnographic Museum of 300 Lek/£2.22 for non-Albanians and 200 Lek for nationals.