Gjirokastër / Gjirokastra / Αργυρόκαστρο is situated in the valley of the River Drino, in the northern part of Albania. The legend says that the city was founded by the Greek Princess Argjiro and took its name of her. However, it must have been only a legend.
500 years of the Ottoman rule has exerted a large impact on the city. This is why Gjirokastër is a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town built by land owners.
The city was probably founded in the XII century. At that time this area was part of the Byzantine Empire and was called – Αργυρόπολις, (from Greek), which means ‘Silver City’ or Αργυρόκαστρον, this is, ‘Silver Castle’. The present name of the city comes from this Greek expression.
In 1914 the city was taken by Turkish army and fell under Ottoman Empire Rule for a long time. The city experienced dynamical development; according to preserved sources there were 163 houses in 1431 while this number grew to 434 in 1586. The city began to considerably flourish under the reign of Ali Pasha of Tepelena who rebuilt the fortress and erected huge underground stores that served as air-raid shelters in the First and Second World War.
As a result of the Empire’s deterioration the city was captured at the beginning of the First Balkan War by Greek armies. However, under the terms of the Treaty of London as well as the subsequent Protocol of Florence the city was awarded to Albania. As a great number of inhabitants were of Greek origin, the city was for a long time a subject of dispute between Albania and Greece that established in this area the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus which has never been accepted by Albania. A short time later the First World War broke out and at the end of 1914 Greek forces again invaded the city. After the war, during the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 it was decided that Gjirokastёr should be annexed to Albania.
In 1939 Gjirokastёr as well as the rest of Albania was taken by the Italy’s Fascist army. One year later the city was recaptured by Greek troops and ruled by Greece till the army was forced by the German invasion to give the city to Italy. It was again returned to the Albanian control in 1944. After the war the power was seized by communists headed by Enver Halil Hoxha born in Gjirokastёr.
The distance from Sarande to Gjirokastёr is less than 60 kilometers. The road is in a very good condition but it goes through the mountains. It took more than 90 minutes to cover this distance by bus. The beautiful views out of the window are compensation enough for the slow travel. In 2009 the busses from Sarande used to leave at 6, 8 and 11.30 a.m. There should be no difficulty in reaching this place also from other parts of Albania since there are regular connections with Tirana and Berat. Kakavija – a border city to Greece is situated 25 kilometers from Gjirokastёr.
Gjirokastёr is picturesquely located on three hillsides. A Medieval citadel as well as a clock tower which can be seen from a long distance dominate the town. In order to reach these places, one has to take advantage of moving stairs. I am not sure whether there are really one thousand stairs but the number of them is undoubtedly considerable. Typical houses covered with stone slates date back to the Turkish rule period. Due to the citadel and the well-preserved Ottoman architecture Gjirokastёr was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.
The most distinctive point of the city is the mentioned castle with typical Turkish strongholds dating back to the 13th century. The citadel had already existed in diverse variations in the XII century – probably under the reign of the Illyrian tribes. However, no considerable archeological research has been carried out in this area so far. The city owes its present shape to the rebuilding ordered by Ali Pasha of Tepelena after he had captured Gjirokastёr in 1812. Within the boundaries of the fortress there are the mentioned Clock Tower and a small Orthodox church. Not far away from the Clock Tower there is a stage, on which the biggest National Folklore Festival in Albania is held. The Festival has been organized every four, five years since 1968.
Inside the castle there is a museum of weapons presenting also the Italian aggression in 1939, the Communists Resistance as well as the liberation of Albania. Along the corridor, in the front of the museum’s entrance one can see some cannons and small tanks; a little bit further, on a small square the tourists are even given the opportunity to see an intercepted American aircraft Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star!
T-33 also called T-Bird was a two-seat American jet trainer aircraft produced in the years 1948-1959. This one that can be seen in the castle had some technical problems. As a result it had to make an emergency landing at the airport Rinas not far away from Tirana in December 1957. The pilot returned to the United States while the aircraft stayed in as a specific trophy from the period of the Cold War. In 1967 it was transported to Gjirokastёr and exhibited next in the Weapons Museum where it was supposed to remind of the still existing Imperialism danger.
The largest hotel in Gjirokastёr is located in the old part of the town – Cajupi. Apart from this hotel, there are several smaller ones such as the family hotel Kalemi. We arrived on the day the Festival took place and so all the hotels in the city happened to be chock-full of tourists! Luckily, once again it turned out that there is no ‘catch 22’ in Albania. The keeper of the hotel, which we found, said we should not worry. There are – as he added – no free rooms but his female neighbor owns a big house and will be pleased to rent us a room. We were accommodated in a beautiful brick house being 100 or more than 100 years old. It had wooden, creaking floors and sculptured ceilings. From our window there was a view on the Clock Tower. The grandson of our host was telling us stories about Albania. Warm greetings.
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