I had been meaning to visit UNESCO world heritage site and Albanian city Gjirokaster for along time and I finally got around to it last weekend. It was no easy trip (10 hours one way from my city in the North of Albania) but it was well worth it. I usually explore everything there is to see in an Albanian city in just a few hours, taking the american volunteers who live there to places they hadn’t been before and pointing out stuff they hadn’t noticed. In Gjirokaster, I dedicated one full day to just exploring and I still missed stuff!
Some nice gjirokaster folks I had raki with during my self guided tour pointed out to me a cousin of former dictator of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Enver Hoxha, which reminded me of how ever present yet hidden in plane sight Albania’s communist past is. Fun fact: Gjirokaster is he birthplace of Hoxha. Additional fun fact: Gjirokaster is the birthplace of Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare.
I also went to the “ethnographic museum” which used to be a really cool museum about how the communist partisans defeated the fascists and liberated their frequently-occupied country in world war 2. At the end of the current boring house tour which just talks about turkish house layout, I asked the guide how long she had worked there. “30 years” she answered. I asked her to tell me what it was like before democracy and she informed me that when the Pyramid was built in 1988 or so as a museum to Hoxha, much of Enver Hoxha’s stuff was taken there from the museum (The museum is his birthplace). Also much of the things that used to be in the house are now in the Arms museum in the Castle. Then she handed me a pamphlet from when the museum was a communist war museum. I was shocked because suddenly I felt she had transported me back 30 years with that pamphlet. I then looked at the back of it to read it was published in 1987! Then she let me keep it! At this point I had an Albanian history nerd-gasm.
Another fun fact about Gjirokaster is that after the Albanian state was formed in 1913, the city broke away from Albania to become an independent republic affiliated with Greece. The rebellion was later crushed to maintain the 1913 treaty borders. Albanians are quick to point out how Albanians live in Macedonia, kosovo/serbia, Montenegro but don’t like to mention the large Greek speaking population in the south of their own country. A typical Balkan attitude.
If you visit, don’t be tricked into a hotel room in the new city by tourist poachers. Walk to the old part of the city where there are plenty of places to stay. also, there are no maps or tourist documents online and the tourist office is now closed because… it is Albania. You’re kinda on your own until they reopen it. but, there are touristic signs about and the website does list things to see.
There is much more to say about this rich city but i will leave it at that for now.
Check out these pictures of some of the cool stuff to see there…naturally Ii focused on the communist era stuff. I didn’t even take pictures of the famous historic center’s urban design. To be honest, the ambiance of much of the historic city is basically ruined by automobile traffic.