Gjirokastra is on every tourist itinerary as it is a wonderful example of an Ottoman town dominated by its castle and houses tumbling down the hillside. The town flourished under the Ottomans becoming the administrative centre for the area and a major trading centre. It was a planned town with mosque, shops, houses and cobbled streets. The houses housed the extended family and reflect the wealth of their owners. They were built as defensive structures against the threat of bandits. Ground floor were for storage with living quarters above with white painted walls. The stone roofs glisten after rain, giving Gjirokastra the name of ‘Silver City”.
Much of the old Bazaar was destroyed by fire in 1872 and most of the buildings in this area date from the turn of the century. This is where the shops are and it is always busy.
Gjirokastra was the birthplace on Enver Hoxha which ensured the survival of the old town which was awarded the status of a Museum City in 1961. The later high rise development is round the edges of the town. Many factories were built during Communist times and there was mass emigration after their closure at the fall of Communism. Many buildings were left empty to decay or even collapse.
It is now a World Heritage site and many of the old houses are being restored. “Skendule House”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/albania/day_four/four_four/index.html is a typical C18th/C19th house which is now being lovingly restored by the family and is open to visitors.
The road climbs steeply to the castle. Little is known about its early history although the area seems to have been settled from the C7/6th BC. The first records are from the C14th. The first stone structures are C13th with a circuit of walls around the eastern edge of the ridge, when it was the stronghold of a feudal war lord. It was extended to the south west by the Ottomans in the C15th when it had both a military and administrative function and a mosque was built for the garrison. The castle was captured by Ali Pasha in 1812 and he was responsible for building the clock tower as well as an aqueduct bringing fresh drinking water to the castle cisterns. After his death the castle housed a small Turkish garrison.
Around 1930 King Zog had a large prison built inside the castle which was used until 1963. It was expanded after the war by the communists who used the yard for executions during Enver Hoxha’s regime.
The castle prison is now open as a museum and the castle also houses the National Museum of Armaments.
The castle stands on solid rock with the walls high above the road way. Inside the main gateway are a series of underground passageways. To the left, these house the gallery of artillery with examples of weapons either captured from or abandoned by German and Italian forces during the Second World War. This includes a small Italian tank made by Fiat between 1941-3 as well as the Partisan Statue.
A doorway leads out onto an open terrace with views back of the castle buildings and down onto Gjirokastra with the bazaar mosque and madrasah.
At the far end of the terrace is the ‘spy plane’, a USA Lockheed T-33 shooting star, which the Communist regime claim, as part of their propaganda campaign, was forced down on a spying mission. In fact the plane had developed technical problems and the pilot sought and was given permission to land at Rinas Airport where the authorities confiscated the plane.
Beyond the open terrace is a large flat area with the National Folk Festival stage. This is held every five years and features the best of Albania music, dance and costumes. Beyond, an archway leads to the Clock Tower, with more good views down onto the Drino Valley and mountains.
Our visit was hurried and we didn’t have as long to explore the castle or the town as I’d have liked. There are more pictures “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/albania/day_four/index.html