Gjirokastra (often referred to by the Albanian name Gjirokastër ) lies in the foothills of the Mali i Gjerë (“Wide Mountain”) mountains, part of the Rrezoma nature reserve, with splendid views of the Drina Valley.
Ottoman Houses of Gjirokastra
The description of the hometown of the writer Ismail Kadaré in his novel Chronicle of the Stone City. Stone scales form the skin of this sleeping dragon that lies inert looking at the mountains. Stone tiles on the houses, cobblestone streets …. whose uniqueness led to the old town of Gjirokastër being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005, three years before Berat was awarded the same title.
The majority of the population are Muslim and Orthodox Albanians, but Gjirokastër still has a sizeable Greek minority and is considered one of the centres of the Greek community in Albania.
Inhabited for 2500 years, today there are some 600 Ottoman-era houses, which attract tourists with their uniformity. For the Albanians, the city is also synonymous with the former dictator Enver Hoxha, who was born here and saw to its care and protection. Today, however, the former prodigal son is forgotten after his iron-fisted dictatorship.
The toponym derives from the Latin composition of Argyrokastro ( argyron and castrum) , fortress or silver castle, and is also found as Argyropolis , although there is a theory that it is the figure of a legendary princess, to which authors such as Kostas Krystallis and Ismail Kadare have alluded in their works. The current name is the Greek derivation.
Archaeology has dated a settlement to the Bronze Age, with the discovery of pottery dating back to the Iron Age, made in a style that first appeared in the late Bronze Age at Pazhok, Elbasan County, and is widespread throughout Albania.
The first written mention of Gjirokastër dates from the Middle Ages, when it was given the Greek name Argyrocastron by the Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacucene in 1336. The city walls date back to the 3rd century. Its stone walls were built from the 6th to the 12th century. During this period, Gjirokastër became an important commercial centre. The town was part of the Despotate of Epirus and during the 14th century the Byzantines had clashes with Albanian tribes. However, in 1417 it became part of the Ottoman Empire and was renamed Ergiri. The neighbourhoods of Gjirokastra at that time were both inside the castle – like Berat – and on hills around the fortification, inhabited by different religious and ethnic communities.
From the 16th to the early 19th century, Gjirokastër changed from a predominantly Christian town to a Muslim-majority town as a large part of the urban population converted to Islam. In 1811, Gjirokastër became part of the Yanina Pashalik, later led by the Albanian Ali Pasha of Ioannina, becoming a semi-autonomous fiefdom in the southwestern Balkans until his death in 1822. During the period of Albanian nationalist exaltation (1831-1912), the city was an important centre of independence advocacy, anchored by the medieval figure of Skanderbeg. In 1880, the Gjirokastra Assembly of 1880, considered one of the important moments on the road to Albanian independence, was held here.
The town was reclaimed and taken by Greece during the First Balkan War of 1912-1913, after the Ottomans withdrew from the region.However, it was granted to Albania under the terms of the 1913 Treaty of London, which led to protests from the pro-Hellenic population. During the outbreak of World War I, the Greeks captured Gjirokastër, along with Saranda and Korçë, annexing southern Albania to Greece. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 restored the pre-war status quo, and the town was returned to Albanian control. Gjirokastër remained a multi-ethnic town during the inter-war period. With the outbreak of World War II, it was occupied by Italy after the Italian invasion of Albania. After Italy’s capitulation in September 1943, the city was taken over by German forces and eventually returned to Albanian control in 1944.
During World War II, Gjirokastra was under the siege of Greek, Italian, British and German troops, whose continuous attempts to control it caused it to dance aimlessly from hand to hand. The bombardment of the city caused extensive damage to the Stone Town.
The post-war communist regime, led by Enver Hohxa promoted the city as an industrial and commercial centre, but as the dictator’s hometown, it was given the status of a museum city.
WHAT TO SEE IN GJIROKASTRA
Ottoman architecture characterises the historic city centre. Gjirokastër, less crowded with tourists than Berat, lends itself to strolling through its cobbled streets, visiting the castle, Byzantine churches such as Saint Sotir, a small Orthodox temple, the old bazaar, the only mosque – of the fifteen that once existed – as well as the monumental Zekate House, or that of the dictator Hohxa, which now serves as an ethnographic museum. The new town is located in the valley, so the new communist-era concrete buildings do not “spoil” the view of the beautiful Ottoman centre.
TYPICAL HOUSES OF THE “CITY OF STONES”
The typical Ottoman houses that characterise Gjirokastër were mostly built during the 17th century and are known as kule . The white facades contrast with the slate roofs. This style of tower house is similar to that of Berat or the town of Ohrid in the Republic of North Macedonia. They consist of several storeys, the lower one being used in winter, as it is more protected from the cold, while the upper one is used in summer as it is cooler, with balconies and large windows. Inside, the typical decoration consists of painted floral motifs. The design is thought to have been derived from fortified country houses typical of southern Albania.
Once owned by merchants and landowners, the kule in Gjirokastër today are listed as an architectural heritage site and there are around 600 of them, many restored after years of neglect.
The castle (Kalaja e Gjirokastrës in Albanian) is located on the top of the hill and is visible from all parts of the old town. It is accessed from the lower part of the town via the Rruga e Kalasë or Castle Street, a road that runs along the edge of the hill, through arches.
Inside Gjirokastra Castle
Although only ruins remain of what was once the medieval fortification, it offers the best views of the town and the mountains. It is the second largest castle on the entire Balkan peninsula, with construction phases beginning as early as the 3rd century AD and its sturdy walls dating from the 13th-14th centuries. Inside the fortress, the tour takes you past beautiful clock towers, ….. In the 19th century, Ali Pasha Tepelene carried out several alterations, and in the 20th century, King Zog I of Albania completed further works.
Those who arrive in Gjirokastër having read little or nothing about the town are surprised by the American aircraft on display inside the castle. It is erroneously claimed to have been shot down and captured in World War II, but in fact it is a much more modern aircraft and has no sign of having crashed. The official communist government version is that it landed in Albania in 1961, possibly after it was discovered flying over the country carrying out espionage work during the Cold War. In any case, the American Air Force plane is the subject of photographs, often stealing them from the beautiful landscape of Gjirokastër houses and the Lunxhëeria mountains in the background.
The castle is home to the Weapons Museum, a military museum with weaponry from different periods, including German artillery batteries.
The Citadel overlooks the city and the valley. It is open to visitors and contains a military museum commemorating the communist resistance to the German invaders in World War II. In addition to artillery captured from the Germans, it contains an American Air Force plane captured during the Cold War. The citadel dates back to the 18th century and was built on the orders of Gjin Bue Shpata, a local tribal leader. It underwent several additions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, under the governments of Ali Pasha Tepelene and King Zog I of Albania. Today it has five towers, a clock tower, a church, fountains, stables and other facilities. The northern part of the castle was converted into a prison by King Zog’s government and held political prisoners during the communist regime.
Before becoming a tourist attraction in Gjirokastër, the castle was used as a prison by King Zog’s government in the early 20th century and held political prisoners during the communist regime.
Below the castle you can still see part of the aqueduct built by Governor Ali Pasha to supply the city with water. Its ten-kilometre length shows the grandeur of this civilian infrastructure, which was almost completely destroyed in 1932.
The Gjirokastra Bazaar – Pazari i Vjetër – traces its origins back many centuries, although it was established as a proper bazaar in the 17th century by Memi Pasha. It burned down in the 19th century, and reconstruction only lasted until 1997, when the popular uprising following the collapse of the government’s pyramid system took place. Today it is alive again, and is the ideal place to learn about the ancient traditions of leatherwork, carpet weaving and carpentry by strolling the cobblestone streets or sipping a coffee on the main Varohs road that crosses the bazaar.
The Gjirokastër Mosque, built in 1757, presides over the bazaar. It is the only surviving mosque in the city and is open to non-Muslims during non-prayer hours.
Next to the Greek consulate is the entrance to the Cold War tunnel or bunker, dug under the castle hill. The autarchy in which Albania lived during its communist period meant that in addition to thousands of bunkers, air-raid shelters like this one were built. In the event of an attack, the military or the political elite could take refuge in this network of underground corridors that could accommodate a couple of hundred people. Built in secret during the 1960s, it has 80 rooms and was not known to locals until the 1990s.
Ethnographic Museum – Enver Hoxha’s House
The former house where the dictator Enver Hoxha was born houses a collection of ethnographic objects in the Palorto district. Not far from the museum, two houses stand out, Zekate and Skëndull. Zekate is a majestic three-storey house with a double-arched façade and twin towers. It was built 200 years ago (1811-1812) by Governor General Ali Pasha for his administrator Bequir Zekom and it is possible to visit the inside. Skëndull is another example of an Ottoman house open to the public, originally from the 18th century but renovated in the 19th century. It is still owned today by the same Zeko family, handed down from generation to generation.
Ismael Kadare’s house
The most internationally famous Albanian writer has his family home here, which we can visit to learn more about his work.
The most important event in Gjirokastër is undoubtedly the National Folk Music Festival, which takes place every five years in the castle’s interior. Musical groups from Albania and Balkan countries with ethnic Albanian population participate with dances, songs and other folklore performances.
EXCURSIONS AND TOURS TO GJIROKASTRA
HOW TO GET TO GJIROKASTRA
Arriving by plane
Tirana airport is the only airport with commercial flights to Albania, so another option is to fly to the island of Corfu in Greece and ferry to the port of Sarande.
Arriving by car
Gjirokaster is only 1 hour’s drive (55 km) from the port of Sarande, and 225 km from the capital Tirana, which is about 3 hours and 30 minutes by car.
Arriving by bus or minivan
It is possible to get to Gjirokaster by bus / minibus from Sarande (about an hour’s drive). There are usually about 8 per day, and also from Tirana where there are more frequent departures of minivans (six-seven hours). Remember that the minivans leave when they are full, while the buses have fixed schedules. The bus stop is in the new town, from there you have to walk or take a taxi to the old town.
Private transfers are a quick way to get around Albania, and the prices are cheap, especially if you are travelling in a group.
ACCOMMODATION AND HOTELS IN GJIROKASTRA
In Gjirokaster it is possible to sleep in traditional houses with centuries of history at very cheap prices. They also help the local economy.
WHERE TO EAT – RESTAURANTS
Gjirokaster has a wide variety of restaurants, most of which are located around the old bazaar. The most special dish in town is qifqi : a baked rice ball with egg, fresh mint and seasoning. To try this dish we can go to eat at the small restaurant Gjoça .
One of the best restaurants for price and quantity is Rrapi , on Qafa e Pazarit Street, with a family atmosphere perfect for tasting Albanian cuisine. Another alternative is Restaurant Kujtimi , which also has a vegetarian menu. In some places you can only pay cash
WHAT TO SEE NEAR GJIROKASTRA
Some of the excursions that can be done from Gjirokastra are the impressive Ali Pasha Bridge or the
Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër) .
CAR RENTAL IN GJIROKASTRA
More information on what to visit in the city can be obtained from the tourist office located on Rruga Gjin Bue Shpata Street in the castle citadel.