Exploring Gjirokaster, “City of Stone”

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picture of the famous intersection in the old town. picture stolen from the NYT. you see those nice stone paved streets? they were laid by “volunteers”

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.

"glory to the martyrs of the national liberation war from the neighborhood 'January 11th' (albania calls world war two the natonal liberation war)

“glory to the martyrs of the national liberation war from the neighborhood ‘January 11th’ (albania calls world war two the natonal liberation war)

another war memorial. Notice how the guy at the top has a medal... it is because he was a "hero of the people"

another war memorial. Notice how the guy at the top has a medal… it is because he was a “hero of the people”

Another war memorial, this time for the Varrosh neighborhood. i think it is missing pictures or something... but is otherwise very well maintained and the star shines as brightly as ever.

Another war memorial, this time for the Varrosh neighborhood. i think it is missing pictures or something… but is otherwise very well maintained and the star shines as brightly as ever.

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this is a communist era obelisk dedicated to Albanian literacy and culture. the volunteer who was recently placed in Gjirokaster to work on preserving the heritage asked me how I knew this  was of the communist era... I was at a loss because it could not be more obvious. there is even a star at the top! (not pictured). Then I returned to my site in the northern mountains where I am working on agriculture projects because there is literally nothing else here to develop. not bitter tho, lol

this is a communist era obelisk dedicated to Albanian literacy and culture. the volunteer who was recently placed in Gjirokaster to work on preserving the heritage asked me how I knew this was of the communist era… I was at a loss because it could not be more obvious… there is even a star at the top! (not pictured). Then I returned to my site in the northern mountains where I am working on agriculture projects because there is literally nothing else here to develop. not bitter tho, lol

"to the pioneers of the albanian language who in dark times of occupation/slavery kept alive the love of freedom, education, and culture."  All the money spent on tourism in Gjirokaster and no one has bothered to simply provide translations...

“to the pioneers of the albanian language who in the dark years of occupation/slavery kept alive the love of freedom, education, and culture.” All the money spent on tourism in Gjirokaster and no one has bothered to simply provide translations…

You can see the obelisk on the left.

You can see the obelisk on the left.

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typical houses

A somewhat hidden Memorial for 500th anniversary of something to do with Skenderbeg. made in 1968

A somewhat hidden Memorial for 500th anniversary of something to do with Skenderbeg. made in 1968

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"in this place on the 23rd of April 1944 were barbarically killed by occupiers and traitors to the country:" How are people who dont know albanian supposed to appreciate this?

“in this place on the 23rd of April 1944 were barbarically killed by occupiers and traitors to the country:” How are people who dont speak albanian supposed to appreciate this?

you can see why they decided to use this place for the once-every-5-years cultural festival in Gjirokster. If I attend I can see the next one in 2014.

you can see why they decided to use this place for the once-every-5-years cultural festival in Gjirokaster. If I extend my peace corps service for one more year I can see the next one in 2014.

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2 responses to “Exploring Gjirokaster, “City of Stone”

  1. I would like to comment on few points as I’m originally from Gjirokastra and know the city relatively well.
    It is not true that there is a lot of money spent on tourism in Gjirokastra. That is mostly government propaganda. As a matter of fact Gjirokastra is in the worst shape it has ever been.

    Nobody bothers to translate communist monuments because they don’t even know that foreigners are interested in them. It is the same story all over Albania. We don’t know how to “sell” them like other countries such as East Germany or some East European countries are doing. We don’t even have a museum of bunkers, which would have been a real touristic attraction.

    And lastly, I don’t know how you have formed the perception that Albanians don’t talk about ethnic minorities in Albania. In fact, Greek minority in Albania is well known and Albanians have never hidden it. On the contrary their living standards during the communist decades were above average (by Albanian standards of that time). There is no way someone can compare the living conditions of Albanian minorities in Macedonia or Serbia with that of Greek minority in Albania. And not to mention the Albanian ethnic minority in Greece (Chameria) which according to Greece doesn’t even exist.

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