So today we spent the day in Gjirokastra. I still wasn’t feeling tip top, but certainly far better than yesterday. I still can’t shake the sour stomach and may have to wait until I get home in a few days for a solution. However, I certainly felt good enough for a little tour around the gorgeous and well preserved Ottoman village of Gjirokastra, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
First up for the day was a visit to the historic Gjirokastra Fortress, which presides over the town high up the hillside. There has been a fortress on the site continuously dating to the 4th century, but today’s iteration is a combination of 12th century Byzantine and later Ottoman construction.
In 1812, Ali Pasha of Tepelene made extensive renovations to the fortress, including adding a magnificent clock tower. In the 20th century, the fortress was used as prison housing those captured during World War I and II. Later, the Communist government used the Fortress to house political prisoners during the Communist regime. Today, the fortress consists of five towers, the clock tower, a church, a cistern, two prisons, a large portion of the rebuilt original fortress and the remains of the ancient Byzantine walls. Like the rest of Gjirokastra, the Fortress is protected by UNESCO.
We walked into the Fortress and the first thing we ran into was a massive number of cannons. Apparently, the Fortress serves as a bit of warehouse/display case for captured artillery and memorabilia of the Communist resistance against German occupation. There was even an American airplane captured/abandoned in 1956. I wasn’t much interested in this part of the fortress. Quite frankly, I thought that it really took away from the historical aspects of the structure.
Anyway, after we wandered around the interior of the Fortress we walked out into one of the many courtyards and took in the magnificent views of the little town below. As we walked, Gasie told me that members of his family had been imprisoned in the Fortress for resisting the Communist regime. It had already been quite clear to me that Gasie hated the Communists, which I found odd since he wasn’t even born during the Communist regime, but this little revelation made it abundantly clear why.
At one point, we passed a staircase leading to one of two prisons at the Fortress. The prisoners were apparently treated very harshly and had little more than a small underground window for light. At first I didn’t understand how an underground window could give you any light, but once I saw the trenches dug outside the windows and grates covering the tranches, I got it. Gasie told me that there was no heat or cooling in the prisons and no protection from precipitation through the windows. To say the conditions were harsh is a vast understatement.
We moved on through an archway to the backside of the Fortress where the magnificent clock tower sits. While the tower chimes no longer ring (someone stole the bell), the clock continues to tick away. And even though the tower was 200 years old, the tower looker in remarkably good condition.
After we left the fortress, we went down the hill to visit one of the many traditional and well preserved homes in the area, which date to the 17th and 18th centuries. The home we visited was the Skendulaj House, which was built in 1700 by Skender Skenduli, a wealthy Armenian. The house was three stories and had 64 windows, 40 doors, 9 chimneys and 7 fireplaces. Remnants of mosaics showing trade relations with Venice still dot the exterior of the house.
Inside the residence, the first floor included a water system, a storage facility and a bunker, built in the 19th century. They sure love their bunkers in this country.
The second floor included bedrooms for the servants, bathrooms, and a kitchen. The most beautiful floor, however, was the third floor that included a lovely wood carved ceiling, a wedding room with a painted fireplace (no pictures), a nursery with stained glass windows and large bedrooms for the family. The home was in the process of being renovated back to its glory era, but it didn’t take much to imagine how remarkable the home once was.
And the really cool part about the house is that it was constructed to make the home earthquake resistant. Large wooden beams were inserted into the stone wells, which allowed the walls to move during an earthquake. How clever is that?
At this point we had been walking around for a couple hours so it was time to take a mid day break so I could get out of the heat and rest (per the doctor’s orders). We stopped at a little market for some fresh bananas, crackers and water (again doctors orders) before heading back to my beautiful old hotel for an afternoon rest.
By late afternoon, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds and it was much cooler to walk around. Now the thing that makes Gjirokastra so attractive is that so many homes in the town are made of stone making the town look like a series of small fortresses. And all of the streets are cobblestone. However, the highlight of the little town is the ancient Ottoman bazaar, which is being restored to its original glory.
Gasie and I made our way down the street to the heart of the old town and the old bazaar just as a few rain drops began to fall. A storm was coming. Fortunately, the old bazaar is not that large so we ended up being able to get in the sights well before the thunder and lightening hit.
Now Gjirokastra is perhaps only the second town I have been in during my visit to the Balkans where the powers that be have seen fit to resurrect the old Ottoman bazaar in the manner in which it was previously used (the other being Krujë). By this I mean that there were markets and true craftspeople working their trade in the area using techniques handed down for generations. Oh sure there was the souvenir shop with the lots of Chinese chachkis and fake rugs, but there was also the stone mason chiseling decorative plaques, which he had been doing his entire life. There was the charming gentleman who was carving designs in wood and had been doing so for 35 years. And of course there were a few people weaving rugs by hand. It was wonderful to see. And apparently there are plans to add more artisan shops in the tradition of the Ottomans.
In addition, to the shops in the bazaar there were numerous little restaurants serving local delicacies (fig jam made into various confections) and of course the ever present little cups of coffee (no Starbucks here).
As we walked, we ran into the owner of my hotel. The gentleman had been the driving force behind the rejuvenation of Gjiokastra’s old town so in addition to owning two little boutique hotels (with a third on the way) he had helped create the vision of restoring the Ottoman bazaar as a way to keep tourists in Gjirokastra for a day or two beyond the up hill jaunt to see the fortress. And by the looks of the small little tour groups here and there, the occasional bike group and independent tourists, the plan was indeed working.
So after the lovely tour of old town and the bazaar, Gasie and I swung by the hospital for a check-in. The doctor suggested she give me one more bag of fluid to be safe as well as a B-12 shot, which was fine by me. Initially, when I left I was not feeling too hot, but less than an hour later I felt better than I had in two days. I do believe the tide has turned! Tomorrow we leave Gjirokaster heading to the coast with a stop along the way at Albania’s most famous Greek and Roman ruins, Butrint! YAY!!! Ruins!