Albania, part 2: getting a lot better as we travel to the old town of Gjirokastër.

Leaving the nice beaches of southern Albania (with not so nice architecture), we headed across the mountain range to the 14th century town of Gjirokastër. The town of 43,000 has a significant Greek minority and was even the centre of a little war about a hundred years ago involving Greeks wanting to separate it from newly formed Albania. I Googled this because my friend Ines asked the hotel owner why some street signs were in Greek.

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There we found cool architecture! I don’t know how these slate stone roofs compare in functionality to the concrete hotels of Saranda, but they sure look nicer.

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The pleasure came from the fact that despite being a major touristic attraction, the old town remains a real town, with normal people going about their business. We asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were told to look for the one next to the optometrist. This may mean nothing to some people, but to me the presence of such a business means the town is still alive. There is no optometrist in the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Prague or even Riga. They long ago moved away to the suburbs and what use to be their shop now sells souvenirs or ice cream.

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I even got to experience local driving. On the winding cliffside road, you often have to go a few blocks backwards, because there is no place to turn around. Barely wide enough for a car, the roads almost all have 2 way traffic! This little escarpment was the hotel’s parking lot, for three cars. Glad I didn’t rent a GMC Yukon XL, or I would still be there, trying to turn it around without falling off the cliff! By the way: if you are from North America, you probably don’t realize the size of this thing (a Fiat 500); I’ve driven larger lawnmowers!

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Ines, Marion and I, happy to be out of “tourist-only land”!

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And the Albanian lunch, which, unsurprisingly, shares a lot with food inherited from the Ottoman Empire. Qofte (the ground beef pieces), grilled lamb, grilled vegetables, a yoghurt sauce and Qifqi, a fried ball of rice, egg and herbs, traditional specialty of Gjirokastër. Fish and pizzas were good in the south, but for us, this was typical and delicious.

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On the top of the Gjirokastër Castle, the second largest castle in the Balkans. In front of the clock tower, the Albanian and European flags. As you probably know, Albania is not part of the EU, but it is now officially a candidate. The requirements this status imposes is having major impacts on Albania, but I will talk about it in a future story. 

For now, I will only give you one piece of advice: if you visit touristic sights in Albania, get a guide. Tourism is quite important on coastal resorts, but is still very much developing in attractions like this, so don’t expect tons of information panels or audio tours (although the minimum is there, and it is multi-lingual). After Gjirokastër, we always got a guide. Here we got nice views of the countryside, but as far as the castle itself was concerned, we mostly just looked at old rocks.

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A weapons museum had been created inside the castle.

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The view: Çajupi Peak, 1,536 m in elevation, with parts of the new Gjirokastër in the foreground.

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And a casket – I guess – that I stumbled upon in the castle. Again, get a guide.

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This beauty however, was well explained. It it the remains of an American T-33 trainer jet, which encountered problems flying over the Adriatic in the late 1950’s and was forced to make an emergency landing in Albania. The authorities acted decently and promptly returned the pilot to the United States. However, they kept the trainer plane and displayed it to the local population as a captured “spy plane”, supporting their theory that external threats were: “attempting to destabilize and overthrow socialism in Albania”. This kind of paranoia is most evidently illustrated by these…

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Bunkers. Over 700,000 of them, built in a country with a population of less than 3 million.

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This one is a bit of a display thing, in a Tirana park, but  most are scattered all over the country. Because of their very robust design, they are very hard to remove and apparently some of the larger ones have been concerted to storage places or even cafes! Recently, the Government has provided incentives to remove them and the prices of metals has also help motivate people to extract the steel reinforcement from the concrete, so they are disappearing fast.

Thinking about the colossal effort their construction would have represented left me with one question: did the communist regime really fear invasion, or did they want to reinforce fear of invasion in the population to help bolster support? I thought of this because when I visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone from North Korea, I was surprised to find normal farmland instead of defensive positions and tank ditches. As I wrote then: “It seems the DPRK leadership knows very well who is likely to attack who.” So maybe it was the same in Albania, constructing defensive works for propaganda rather than defence purposes. 

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Back in Gjirokastër, the Zekate House. The large 3 storey house is mostly empty, and you simply pay a small fee to the owners living in the nearby modern house. Apparently this kind of house is rare in the region, most having been destroyed over the centuries by war, fire and redevelopment.

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The nicest room, which would have been the room of the master of the house. Notice the very intricate ceiling. We left more money than was requested. Hopefully some will be used to restore the place. It was nice to visit and I mostly loved the view from the third floor.

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However, I didn’t like how much of the second floor I could see THROUGH the third floor!

Tomorrow: things get even better as we reach Berat.

#Albania 

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