Travels in Albania: Gjirokastër

Jesse and I arrived in Gjirokastër, the city of Silver and Stone. There is a castle here above the city and many dry stone walls, narrow stone streets running uphill (and then on the way back, downhill), many homes with famous stone slab roofs and many classic homes built in the Ottoman style.

We took a break from staying in guest houses and for our two days in Gjirokastër and stayed in a hotel. Located on one side of a soccer field and downhill from the castle, though we could see the castle way off in the distance.

The view from our hotel…yes I walked up there

Jesse was not feeling well so was confined to the hotel room for the majority of our stay which left me to explore the city for a few hours on my own each of our two days, before returning with bland food and bubbly water to calm her stomach.

My first trip out was to wander the city; there are a few Ottoman-style homes that can be visited for little cost, but the first two I encountered were closed. The third was the charm. The Skënduli House was where I was greeted by a young man who took me through the base level of the home, where the animals were kept back in the 1800s, and then let me explore upstairs. These were the rooms where the family lived; 25-30 people lived in this house. Here are some of the upstairs rooms.

The wooden ceilings were also original:

I overheard a tour group and a woman telling them that her father was born in the house. I waited for the tour group to leave, and was joined by a British woman and we asked many questions. She told us that her family had the house taken from them in the early 1980s; before that they had to share it with seven other families. In 1991, once Communism ended in the country, it took the family one year to get the house back. She talked to us from the marriage room; it was only used for marriage ceremonies. The bride and groom sat under the two matching circular wood ceiling designs above, and they were joined by their families. On a second level, facing the room, were the single women, hidden behind a curtain, who watched the ceremony with envy, she told us.

There were also some painted frescoes still on the wall, like the one below, and instruments and pieces of art that the family had when they lived in the house.

They had a pretty spectacular view from the balcony of the city and mountains:

As I was leaving I stopped and said thank you to the young man who had given me the tour of the ground floor. I said the woman upstairs had told me all about the marriage room and how nice she was, and he said that was his mother! It was truly a family affair, and for only 200 Lek it was so worth the visit.

Later on I got a bit lost but finally found myself in the Gjirokastër Bazaar, located in the Old Town. It is a series of bars, restaurants and ice cream shops, as well as artisanal shops selling wood carvings, exquisite ceramics, as well as the normal souvenirs and post cards. It is lively but relaxed. You can also see the clock tower from the castle above.

Afterward I headed back to the hotel to make sure Jesse was feeling better with some bread, fruit and fizzy water in hand, and we watched some American comedy shows before bed.

The next day I took the long, hot and sweaty walk down from our hotel to the main roundabout in town and then took the long climb up to the castle. I had to rest along the way; at the base of the castle and at the beginning of one of the streets that led into the Gjirokastër Bazaar, up another two flights of stairs, was the Bazar Mosque (Xhamia e Pazarit). Below is the picture of the Mosque from the Castle.

Bazar Mosque (Xhamia e Pazarit)

I took off my shoes and went inside. It was a single room mosque, with a very beautiful hanging light fixture with many lamps, and the dome was painted with colorful circles with designs on the bright white ceiling.

I sat for a while and before I left the mosque; then proceeded up the stone paths until finally reaching the castle, or fortress. The city of Gjirokastër is named Silver Castle, which was named silver because of how the sunlight reflected off of the stone roofs of the town. People have lived in the area around the castle, on and off, since the 6th or 7th century BC; and the earliest castle fortifications go back to the 600s AD. The Castle itself dates back to the 12th century, and its name is first used in Byzantine records in the 1300s. The Ottoman Turks captured the Castle in 1417 and ruled it for almost 500 years, until 1913. There is no one still living in the Castle, like there is in Berat Castle (the Castle that Jesse and I had visited just a few days earlier).

The cost was a very reasonable 400 Lek (about $3.50), and the entrance gates are below. Once inside, to the left is a long hallway with cannons of all types and sizes:

There is a model of the whole castle, wall hangings that tell the history of the castle, and while much of the castle on this side is under renovation, it can still be explored. The best part to see here are the tombs of Baba Sulltan and his son, Baba Kapllan, who lived in Gjirokastër in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were Bektashi Sufi Muslims; Bektashism was brought to Albania during the reign of the Ottoman Turks, and it is known for its tolerance of other religions and liberalism. The Bektashi world headquarters is located in Tirana, Albania.

There is only a tiny window to view into the dark mausoleum, however the night setting on my camera allowed me to take a clear picture of the inside.

Next I returned to the main entrance, and proceeded past the cannons, and saw a small Italian tank, a copy of large statue to a partisan fighting the fascists, and some large steel plates of fighters.

The castle also allows visitors to explore everywhere; so when I saw steps going down, I went down, when I saw a hallway leading into another hallway into a dark room, I went and peaked into the darkness. Just seeing the faintest light between stones and taking pictures of the countryside and city through stone windows, makeshift or not, was very cool.

Eventually I made it to the outside, open part of the castle; there are many more cannons, as well as American fighter jet that has an interesting back story on how it came to be in Albania.

The views of the city and surrounding countryside are pretty awesome as well; the picture at the top of the post was taken amongst the outside cannons. After passing the jet I saw the Clock tower.

To the right of the clock tower is a new grandstand, and every five years the National Folk Festival is held here. It is impressive in its own right.

From the backside of the castle, I was able to see the city, mountains and countryside.

Finally I made it up close to the Clock tower, but it was the only place in the castle that was not open to exploration.

There were a lot of the ruins, that were being patched up and repaired by a bevy of workers. Here are some of my favorite shots taken outside amongst the castle ruins.

I returned to the inside the main castle, and while I had walked past the Castle Museum on my way outside, I returned to visit it. For the low cost of 200 Lek (about $1.70) I was able to learn all about the history of Gjirokastër, the surrounding area, and the history of Albania at large, including its controversial dictator, who was born in Gjirokastër, Enver Hoxha. It was all very fascinating, and every explanation and exhibit was translated into English as well. On the first floor, my favorite was the statue of Princess Argjiro (which was made in 1988) and references the story of the Princess and her baby. When the Ottomans attacked and conquered the castle, she jumped off the castle walls with her baby; she died, but the baby lived (so the legend went).

Princess Argjiro, sword, and baby

I also learned the story of Ali Pasha, a brutal yet economically innovative Ottoman regional governor who rose to power in the early 1800s, met a traveling Lord Byron, and eventually was killed because he dared to challenge the Sultan.

Ali Pasha

There was also a cool exhibit on the local dress, with some pieces on display and a nifty chart:

I was told there was also a second floor of the museum, and when I entered the stairwell leading to it I had a odd feeling; it was no where near as well kept, with an odd group of statues, with no labels, in a corner under the stairwell; the lighting was not great, and the plaster was cracking in many places.

As I climbed the stairs, I realized I was the only one there. In the first room there were many, many guns in glass cases; rifles from the World Wars, but off to the left there was a door, held open by a rickety chair, and I went inside. Most recently, from 1944-1970, they were the cells belonging to dissidents of the state, prisoners; there is a sign on the front of the castle (you can read it in full below) but Gjirokastër Castle was a hell for many political prisoners, where they were tortured and many died.

Once I left the jail I explored more of the military exhibit, where there were many more guns, as well as some paintings and a few statues.

You may notice all the three feature women holding guns; I asked the docent on the way out what was the significance, and she told me that when the Italian and later German fascists invaded in the early 1940s, 6,000 women joined the fight against them. After that I headed back down the corridor of cannons and left the castle.

Gjirokastër is quite a fascinating city and I very much enjoyed my time here, and it should definitely be visited on a trip to Albania. I especially enjoyed seeing it right after Berat as they provide an interesting comparative study on the two castles as well as cities.

Mirupafshim Gjirokastër!

Next we head to south Albania and its pretty beaches for a week! Stay tuned!

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

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