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September, 2019

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Just outside the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra, is the small town of Libohova in the Bureto Mountains. It is noted for its 6th century church, early 19th century fortress and Bektashi teqe. We visited the first two sights.

Labova e Kryqit or Labova of the Cross, was built between 527 and 565 by the Emperor Justinian. He built the church as a mark of respect to his mother and is said to have been married here. It was reconstructed in the 13th century and during the communist period (1942 to 1991) was used for storage. The three steps into the church represent the Holy Trinity. The True Cross (a piece of the Jerusalem Cross) that had been on display was said to have been stolen by Enver Hoxha’s daughter in 1989 along with numerous icons. Although the latter have been returned, there is doubt as to whether they’re the originals, and the cross is still missing. The ornate iconostasis was made from gilded wood and decorated with eagles and dragons. One of the icons was of a ‘blue Jesus’ as opposed to him being portrayed in red clothes: the red depicts him being made from flesh and blood whereas the blue portrays him as a celestial being. When one of the icons was removed for restoration, they found a much older 16th century icon hidden underneath. Roy was invited to view this which was on display in a small dusty corner and he duly took a photo of what he hoped was it.

The frescoes were in good condition and as our guide, Irving, was telling us about them, four other visitors took advantage of his chat by lingering ever closer, which always irritates. In addition, they were rather loud and at one point, appeared to be going through the Royal Doors which is strictly verboten.

We climbed up the rickety wooden stairs to the gallery and had to either limbo under or cock a leg over supporting beams. Unusually, we were allowed to take photographs.
On leaving, we were given candles to light by the key holder and told to place them in a sandy tray. When mine went out, Irving said that when he was young, he worried he’d done something wrong but now realised it was just physics.

Next stop was the fortress. Our driver, Edmond, was struggling to find the entrance but I remembered reading in Bradt that it was through someone’s backyard. Having found the entrance and parked, we walked through the yard, where home-made rakija was being made in a still. We continued through a set of gates to the fortress, which was basically a rather intact large wall around a field. Edmond was very fit and was quickly on top of the wall. I followed and after a large pull from Edmond and a push from behind from Roy, I was virtually at the top. Roy continued on and then not wanting to be left out, I scrambled up. The top of the wall was quite wide, and we walked along it to one of the central towers with its flag flying. To get down, Edmond helpfully found a couple of stones to make steps to allow me to make a dignified descent.

We drove back into Libohova and stopped for coffee and fortifying raki at the Hotel Libohova where a magnificent plane tree covered the whole of a large terrace.

On the drive back into Gjirokastra, we had a photo stop at a large bunker and Ottoman bridge – two ubiquitous sites in Albania.

Helen Jackson

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