Gjirokastra: the fairy tale city

I have been to Gjirokastra four times since my emigration from Albania. My most memorable visit came in 2004 on my first visit back to the country. The bus dropped my mom and I off at the side of the road. I was tired and certainly not in the best of spirits. A relative of mom’s was sent to pick us up. He took us to a clothing shop that he and his family owned. I was still not impressed, though the atmosphere inside the store was pleasant. Afterwards, his wife and us went to a cafe, and sat on its balcony on the second floor of a  building overlooking the main street. Beneath I could see a lot of life; people coming and going, running errands, or just standing and talking to friends. I also couldn’t help but notice how many pretty girls there were; I was young back in those days, only 21… And as I was sitting there in that balcony cafe, something strange happened; I was overcome by an unexpected feeling of traveler’s bliss. The atmosphere of the town was awesome. It was small, cute, warm, and it’s fair to say, I fell in love with Gjirokastra.

After the cafe, we were to go over to another relative’s house which was in the old town in one of Gjirokastra’s several boroughs that climb up the mountainside. If the modern town kindled my love for this place, the old town sealed it. These 19th century villas are nothing short of astonishing. I was amazed by their beauty and looking over them outside on the balcony I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing that was utterly unique to me at that time. This is the most wonderful place on earth, thought I. It’s like a fairy tale. I spent the remainder of the evening in conversation with our relatives ranging in age from the elderly to a  young kid. This particular family sprang from my grandpa’s sister who was still alive. She and her daughter in law cooked dinner for us that evening and even the food was spectacular! Why can’t I get food half that good at the most expensive restaurant in my town? These feelings are those that can only grow from your home.

Gjirokastra gets it right in every way shape or form; more so than any other city in Albania. However, perhaps one may accuse me of over-exaggeration. And it is true that on my subsequent visits to Gjirokastra the magical spell was never quite recreated. But every time I visit, I am struck by Gjirokastra’s beauty. It makes you understand firsthand of the highest possibility of travel: completely unexpectedly running into a part of the world that you did not know about and being overcome by feelings of happiness at your novel surroundings. Personally, Gjirokastra has a special meaning for me because it’s also the home of my family. My mom grew up in one of those historic houses while my dad grew up in a nearby village. Though I grew up in the capital, Tirana, I am not a big fan of Tirana. When I visit, I find it hectic, chaotic and even rude. Gjirokastra is charming and sweet. Though I have never lived there a single day, when there, it feels as if I am home.

Albania: Gjirokastra history

Gjirokastra is a small picturesque old town in southern Albania. Its population is said to be about 25,000 but may range as high as 30,000. Nothing can be definitely known about its ancient history. It does not have ancient ruins but it is within the vicinity of two nearby ancient sites, one of Greek origin, Antigonea, an important polis, founded by King Pyrrhus in 295 BC, and the second one of Roman origin, Adrianopolis, site of an amphitheater that seated up to 4000 people. However, the picturesque old town we think of today mainly dates from the 19th century, though it is true some structures, such as mosque which dates from 1557, are much older. It is in this period from 1800 to 1830 the town flourished, resulting in the construction of magnificent large villas with ornate stone and wood facades, that reveal both unique character and taste. These villas combined with the meticulously cobbled stone streets on a mountainous terrain, make Gjirokastra an artistic city that to this very day stands the test of time.


Gjirokastra was first recorded by the chronicler John Kantakuzenos in the year 1336 as Argyrokastro; this name means Silver Castle in Greek, owing to the silver aspect of its stone walls. The origin of the city is this castle, still standing today in good shape, as Albania’s largest castle. Ceramics within have been unearthed dating back to the 5th century. Here, traces of an ancient wall suggest a pre-Roman settlement. Its early stages began in the 5th century; the general form was established in the 13th century, and it was expanded and finalized under the rule of Ali Pasha of Tepelena in the 19th century. It served as a fort akin to one of today’s military bases where soldiers, and high ranking officials could live with their families. It is said that even civilians lived within it during the middle ages. Today this castle lends a mysterious historic aura to the old town.


In 1336 Gjirokastra was under the feudal power of the Zenebishi family and was part of the Despotate of Epirus, a small successor state of the Byzantine Empire, in the wake of the fourth crusade. By the year 1419 it had completely fallen to the Ottomans who had conquered much of the Balkans, and would stay part of their empire until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century Gjirokastra became a center of Albanian patriotism, hosting a congress demanding freedom the Ottoman Sublime Porte. In 1908, the first Albanian language school in all Albanian speaking lands opens here. After the Albanian declaration of independence in 1912, Gjirokastra fell under the sway of General Zografos who owing to its Greek minority and proximity to Greece, attempted to unite it to Greece. However the Entente Powers, Britain, France and Russia, prevented this majority Albanian town from being taken by Greece.


When Communism fell, in the early 1990s, people emigrated and shuttered many historic villas letting them fall into disrepair. In 1997 Gjirokastra as well as the country at large suffered great instability, when pyramid schemes lured the populace to invest their hard earned savings, and lose all of it. In the anger and chaos afterward, the people burned the town bazaar and another mass exodus and abandonment ensued. Today, however, Gjirokastra is experiencing a renaissance. Moreover, with the opening up of Albania to more and more tourism each year, Gjirokastra is destined to keep growing as one of Albania’s top attractions.

Sources:

http://www.gjirokastra.org/albanian/al_sublinks/per_gjirokastren/mbi_gjirokastren_historia.html

http://albania.al/destinations/gjirokastra/