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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

10/2: The Magical Town of Gjirokaster, Albania

Even though we only had a short time together, I felt sad leaving the lovely couple who owned the villa in Berat. The woman and I had spent a fair chunk of time together and had had fun laughing together and enjoying each other's company.

It was an early start with the 8am departure from the tiny bus station in Berat for our three hour ride to Gjirokaster, our next stop in Albania. It was hardly the most comfortable for anyone with 22 people in the van that had just 19 seats. 
The extra people were put on stools in the aisle so there was no space whatsoever in the rows where there were five people all cheek by jowl. Alas, poor Steven happened to be in one of those rows.

Views from our drive: Open air market and live animals for sale.

Gjirokaster is a town known as the ‘City of a Thousand Steps.’ As we entered town, we could see why that name rung true. Luckily the Kotoni B&B where we were staying was at the top of the old town and not in the new part of town at the bottom of the hill. 
Our room was awfully pretty with lace curtains and other lace accents made by the young owner. We had a spectacular view out the window of the castle and the local mosque. It was only later we discovered that the room wasn’t quite as advertised on 
There was supposed to have been a kitchenette or at least access to one, a coffee maker, a satellite TV, etc but none of those were available. We don’t travel halfway around the world expecting a TV with US or British stations but figure the accommodation certainly should have what they advertise on
The view outside our window:
We hiked up the short distance on the worn cobblestone steps toward the shops in the Old Town and were so glad we hadn’t chosen to come here in the height of the summer when the temps are about 100 degrees.
Gjirokastra Castle is mentioned for the first time as a city and a castle in 1336. At that time, it was the center of the Albanian Zenebisheve feudal family. During the regime of Ali Pasha of Tepelena in 1812, he occupied the fortress with a garrison of 5,000 soldiers. Chronicles of the period mention that 1,500 people worked on the construction of Ali Pasha’s castle. 

En route to the castle, we wandered briefly through the Ottoman bazaar which was still the social and commercial center of the Old Town of Gjirokaster. The bazaar in this case was the main street inthe small town and not a separate area as it is in most other towns or cities.
The  bazaar made me feel like I was in a fairytale movie with stone roads, tiny sidewalks and small tables on the sidewalk of the one main street. I could certainly understand people wanting to drop a bundle here on wonderful crochet-type handiwork. 
There was a nice selection of very pretty shops and rambling streets that I couldn't wait to explore when we had more time.

During the First and Second World Wars, the castle served as a bomb shelter for the town inhabitants. The northern part of the castle was turned into a prison by the president and self-declared King Zog and his government from 1928 until 1939. It housed political prisoners during the regime of the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
 After ‘feeling the heat’ from the steep climb, the coolness inside the castle was particularly welcome.
The Great Gallery, with its eerily lit corridor, contained two columns of large German and Italian field guns, remnants of WWII. Zachary: I imagine you will enjoy looking at these photos.

We could hear the cooing of the pigeons in the rafters.

There was a National Armaments Museum located in the castle which contained a collection of weapons, photographs and artwork but we gave that a miss as that is not our thing.

More views of  the castle:

Our B&B was behind the tree on the street here:
The views from the castle were magnificent back towards the Old Town and also across surrounding plains, the valley to the cloud-topped mountains on the other side.
According to the information provided, these guns arranged on the terrace were part of Ali Pasha's armoury. Many of them were British in origin and, while some were purchased, others were received as diplomatic gifts. Official Ottoman policy deliberately kept many fortresses poorly equipped in order to prevent generals or governors from consolidating their own local oower bases. The ambitious Ali Pasha took matters into his own hands and established both an artillery school and a foundry where he could produce cannon.
There was a downed US military jet in the courtyard. There are two very different stories about its origins: One, that the pilot experienced engine troubles and was forced to land in Albania and another that the plane was captured. I wonder which story you believe!

The castle's Festival Stage is home of the internationally-renowned Gjirokaster National Folk Festival held every four or five years. It was a most incredible outdoor stage.

More great views:
The 200 lek ($2.50) per person entry fee allowed us lots of nooks and crannies to explore which we had the luxury of doing without many other tourists.

The castle had various underground storehouses, which were used to secure munitions and food storage.
Before the Ottoman invasion in 1417, the region was predominantly Orthodox Christian. By the end of the 16th century, after nearly 200 years of Ottoman occupation, the majority of Gjirokastra's population was Muslim. Meanwhile, the suurounding villages remained largely Orthodox Christian. Haxti Bektashi, born in Iran in 1249, travelled extensively before establishing a tekke, similar to a monastery, in eastern Turkey. Bektashism developed as a liberal branch of Shia Islam and its headquarters are in Tirana, Albania's capital.

Bekhasi's tomb was in a very out of the way spot on the castle grounds. It was closed and we couldn’t see in through the window above the door but I put my camera on the flash mode and stood on my toes and pointed it down through the opening and hoped for the best shot I could take under those circumstances. Guess I should just try and wing it more often as the photo turned out well, considering I couldn't see anything!
This opening where candles had been lit was just like the one we had seen yesterday at the church in the town of Berat.
I waited for a long time for the flag to unfurl in the breeze. Luckily Mother Nature finally cooperated!
We had read that there was a tunnel with a nuclear bunker under the castle that had been built during the former president Enver Hoxha’s brutal years in power. 
It was a little daunting walking through as it was unlit and there was no light at the proverbial end of the tunnel for a long time. Turned out this wasn’t the Cold War Tunnel after all, but merely a passageway under the castle! Our imagination had run amok. 
The passageway took us, after a bit, back to the Old Town which meant more fun meandering through the streets and ogling the merchandise.
These animal skins were some of the strangest souvenirs I can ever remeber seeing!
The sign proclaimed the 'Revitalization of Old Bazaars and Artisanship.'
Gjirokaster is noted on UNESCO's World Heritage list as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, those of a citadel town built by notable landowners." 

We finally did see the sign for the Cold War Tunnel but unfortunately access was blocked off. Oh well, we weren't too disappointed as we had seen the mother of all tunnels and bunkers several days earlier in Tirana.
Gjirokaster's main street:
We decided next to visit one of the town’s traditional homes, the Skenduli House. It was 300 years old and not far from our B&B. Gjirokaster was the birthplace of Enver Hoxha who awarded it the status of 'museum city.' Thanks to this, special care was taken to retain its traditional architecture during the Communist era.

The owner was trying to restore his house which was used during the Communist regime as Gjirokaster's Ethnographic Museum. I read but don’t know how true it is that he wasn’t receiving any money from the government or UNESCO to do so.

There was no printed material available when we toured the house and, as we had not chosen to pay for the guide's services, what follows are only photos of the home, therefore, with no descriptions.

Most of the rooms were pretty devoid of furniture but we could still get a sense of how the generations had lived. I overheard the guide tell other tourists that the house had 9 chimneys, 64 windows, 44 doors, 4 steambaths and 6 toilets! 

This beautifully decorated stove cum chimney was the most striking piece to me in the home.

After leaving the traditional home, we walked past this memorial. It looked like a prime example of Soviet-style realist art.
Since we had seen the mosque’s minaret from our bedroom window, we wanted to visit it next. Dating from 1757, the Pazarit Mosque was a true testimony of the Communist religious ban in Albania. Spared from destruction from its religious importance, the mosque was transformed as a circus training center only to return to its original setting after the 1990s in the form of a Muslim school according to information I read online.

After climbing up the stairs to enter the mosque, we noticed a number of men were praying, both singly and in small groups. But since there hadn't heard a recent call to prayer, it wasn't one of the set times during the day Muslim men are required to pray at the mosque, we were made to feel very welcome. We were offered cookies, cups of sweet tea and dates that this man, Nasser, had just brought from his home in Saudi Arabia. Some of you may know how much I absolutely love dates and these yellowy orangey ones were mouth watering! What an incredible welcome to this lovely place of worship.
I was given the okay to take photos of Nasser and Steven sitting side by side inside the mosque but unfortunately, I had to delete them as the sun was streaming in the window behind them, so they were no good. Nasser explained that he and his wife have five children and that he had come to tiny Gjirokaster to meet his Albanian 'brothers.' I am sure he meant his religious brethern. We mentioned to him that, when planning our itinerary, we had also hoped to visit his homeland but that, unfortunately, Saudi Arabia does not allow non-Muslim tourists.
A few minutes after sitting down for dinner at one of the tiny tables on the incredibly narrow sidewalk on the town's main street, a parade started coming our way. Even the chef popped his head out to take photos!
 Each of the countries' participants were dressed in their own national costumes and national bands preceded that country's marchers. The parade first started naturally enough with representatives from the home country of Albania. You can just see, in the lower right hand side of the photo, the edge of another restaurant table to give you a sense of how close we were to the action!

We knew by the flag that Kosovo was the next country.

They were followed by Greece.

These poor women must have been sweltering in their heavy costumes even though the temperature had dropped by then.

The Montenegrins were the next country to be respresented. Note the Albanian/American banner in the background.

 I wondered whether we had been lucky enough to have seen the ending of one of the quadrennial folk fesivals hosted on the castle's Festival Stage as had seen banners all over town about something happening that weekend. 

After the last participants trooped by, it seemed like all the residents of Gjirokaster followed in their wake. 

We were thanking our lucky stars we had come to Gjirokaster a day earlier than planned having cut our stay short in Berat. Talking about being in the right place at the right time as the parade had been so much fun to watch and was a huge highlight of our day!

Posted from Athens on October 12th, 2016. 

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful parade. You could identify each country's flag. Don't try to bring back any animal hides - they could be from endangered animals. Lil Red


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