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Ancient Carnival revived in deserted Albanian village

Ancient Carnival revived in deserted Albanian village

The spring carnival is the pride and joy of the village of Narta in southern Albania, held at the end of the Orthodox Easter Fast – but as emigration shrinks the local community, some fear for its future.

Legend has it that hundreds of years ago, a cholera epidemic decimated this marshy region in south Albania, known for its picturesque monastery built centuries ago on an island surrounded by the lagoon, and as well, for its tasty fish and eels and strong red wine.

As the inhabitants of Narta recovered from the plight, they decided to organize a large festivity where they would beat a young bear to tame it, as well as eat and drink, at the close of the Orthodox Easter Fast.

Centuries later, local inhabitants are trying hard to protect those traditions following a different type of epidemic: mass emigration and population collapse. 

The carnival summons home those that emigrated years ago for three days of festivities. Photo:Nensi Bogdani.

Following the collapse of Communism in Albania in 1991, the inhabitants of Narta, who speak Greek as their mother tongue, left en-masse for Greece and other countries, searching for a better life. 

During Communist times, the village had a reputation for poverty. It was typical fishing village with scarce agricultural land, whose bareness gave birth to a reputation for good quality wine. 

Today, the village is home of no more than 250 inhabitants, a tenth of the 2,500 people that were there three decades ago. 

However, scores of those who left don’t miss the chance to return home for the carnival.

The young wear a bear skin that the older and wiser folk in the community beat to ‘tame them’. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Andrea, one of them, told BIRN that he had returned home each year for the last 33 years, after emigrating to Greece in the early-1990s.

“In no other place you can find such festivities as in Narta,” he told BIRN with pride.

Beating the bear’ is a game played at the carnival, where the clarinet is the main musical instrument. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

The clarinet is playing and the youngster are overjoyed as the actors play their roles, some wearing a bear skin, others playing the palaço, the local clown, aiming to have a laugh following the tough times of the winter.

The festivities last for three days at the square in front of the Church of Shen e Diela (St Kyriaki). 

The costumes and masks symbolize their ancestors who are raised from their graves to go around the village for the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Konstantino Zarka, another local who has lived in Greece for decades, says the carnivals are an opportunity to get back to childhood and reconnect with friends, but also with ancestors. He believes that about 10 per cent of the previous population returns for these holidays. 

“These costumes and masks symbolize our grandfathers and grand-grandfathers who are reborn each Easter and go around the village for three days, as it happened with Jesus, who died on Friday and was resurrected on midnight between Saturday and Sunday,” he said. 

A youngster playing the stubborn bear that is to be ‘tamed’ by way of beatings. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

“These costumes are inherited from our forefathers,” agreed Dhimitrula Franxhi, an 88-year-old local. “It was following an outbreak of cholera. Our forefathers started the carnival to get away as much as possible from the bitter reality of that time,” she added.

But she fears that passing time and continued emigration is eroding the old traditions.

“The costumes are being worn out and the youngsters do not seem eager to preserve the tradition as they should,” she observed.

“In our time, the carnivals followed strict order and discipline, there was a rule about who danced first – and what the ornaments and dances should be,” she said, pointing to the somehow chaotic environment around her.

The rain doesn’t stop the festivities when it is carnival at Narta. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Narta inhabitants dance in traditional costumes. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

The majority of those enjoying the carnival have travelled from far away to get back home.Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

This mask is referred to as ‘Gjika’. Each inhabitant has their own explanation of what Gjika symbolizes. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

The clown is in no way missing at the carnival. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Narta inhabitants dance in traditional costumes. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Narta inhabitants dance in traditional costumes. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

The mask and costume, or Erzon, symbolizes a local captain. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Carnival at Narta village. Photo: Nensi Bogdani.

Source: Balkan Insight