Gjirocastra – Gjirocaster

Gjirokastra /Gjirokastër, Argirokaster, Argirokastro/ or Gjirokaster – meaning “silver fortress” is the uniquely picturesque city with authentic architecture in south Albania. Town of Gjirokaster has some 35000 inhabitants. It is set on the eastern slopes of the great Mali i Gjërë Mountain – Wide Mountain, encircled with valley of emerald Drim River. Gjirokaster features an outstanding heritage of various epochs and cultures, especially features of the Ottoman merchant town.

Gjirokastra is one of the most beautiful cities in Albania and one such of the few still surviving in the Balkans. Situated in southern Albania, 78 km away from Valona, 93 km from Berat, 56 km from Saranda the seaport that connects southern Albania to Corfu in Greece, and 31 km from the border crossing at Kakavia, Gjirokastra perches on the steep side of the Drim River valley overlooking an historic landscape framed by snow-capped mountains, in the strategic area between the Ionian Sea, the interior and the border with Greece. Situated in a particularly sensitive area of strategic and military importance, and with a very close proximity to the Greek border, Gjirokastër has been the stage of many important events in the history of Albania. The edifices seen today in Gjirokastra is the result of a long period of development and comprises myriad vaults, passages, tunnels and oubliettes as well as the mighty battlements with their dramatic views. This ‘city of a thousand steps’ comprises hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses with distinctive grey stone roofs, wooden balconies and whitewashed stone walls.

Dominated by the sheer flanks of its vast castle, Gjirokastra is a magical city with a tumultuous past known also as the “City of Stone. During the 13th century the present Gjirokastra was also knows as Argyropoline, Argyrokastron or the City of Argyro. In the 14th century it was part of the Despotate of Epirus and in 1417 was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The historical core of Gjirokastra dates from the 17th century when town prospered as a trading center for farmers. Gjirokastra is best known for its fortified stone tower houses, among which is the Zekate House, one of the grandest surviving buildings, making the town core known as the town-museum.

The Old Gjirokastra Bazaar (Pazari i Vjeter) extends along four cobbled main streets that link it to the rest of the city. The Gjirokastra market (Pazari) has been a market area since the Ottoman times – the 17th century until the later reconstructions in the 18th and the 20th century. The Gjirokastra Bazaar area features some 100 stone fronted shops with wonderful artisan center that include various crafts – skilled woodcarvers who cut wood and make master pieces, and also manufacturers of traditional costumes…, is known locally as the Qafë (neck or pass) and in the summer months it bustles with life, along with numerous souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, small hotels and guest houses. The surviving Bazaar mosque of Gjirokastra was built in 1754. The Gjirokastra town is famed for its tall 17-19th-century Ottoman tower houses, of a type found throughout the Balkans belonging to wealthy merchants and landowners. The charming architecture of the Gjirokastra houses reflects the turbulent history of the area where security was paramount in the minds of the occupants: raiders, foreign invaders and blood feuds dominate the history of the region. Visitors are impressed by the architecture of the city, the surprising landscape of the Drim River Valley, and the invincible lime peaks of the Bureto and Lunxheri mountain chains.

The 19th century houses of Gjirokastra are a rare experience, with their original grey stone roofs sometimes level with the road, and the unique, stone fronted shops. From Byzantine administration of the Despotate of Epirus to feudal stronghold and to Ottoman jewel to Italian colony, the city of Gjirokastra has known many rulers and has inspired poets, authors and artists. Walk around the network of cobbled streets of Gjirokaster that climb steeply out of the Ottoman bazaar dating from the 17th century transport every visitor back in time. The Gjirokastra area has a rich textile history, with much of the production of costume and textiles traditionally undertaken by women. However, in recent decades many of these traditional skills have been dying out. Make sure to visit the 11th-century Gjirokastra Citadel, which features a stunning view of the countryside, as well as the interesting Ethnographic Museum /one of total 23 of museums/ located in the birth house of Enver Hoxha, communist dictator of Albania from 1944 to 1985. The Ethnographic museum Gjirokastra is situated in the Palorto Quarter, which is the best preserved district in the old town of Gjirokastra. The museum building was constructed in 1966 after the original house was destroyed by fire. From 1966 to 1991 the building served as the Anti-Fascist Museum. In 1991 the exhibits from the previous Ethnographic Museum of Gjirokaster were moved into this space. The house has four floors, all of which are open to the public. The rooms are arranged as they would have actually been used and are decorated with numerous household items, folk costumes and cultural artifacts typical of a wealthy Gjirokastra family of merchants or Ottoman administrators living here in the 19th Century. The Ethnographic museum of Gjirocaster is open all year April to September 08:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 19:00 daily October to March 08:00 to 16:00 Wednesday to Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday) Admission is 200 Lekë. Tour of the large 13th-century Gjirokastra castle which used to be prison, brings alive the adventurous tales of medieval rulers and communist atrocities. The Gjirocastra castle is open all year round (April to September 09:00 to 19:00, October to March 09:00 to 17:00 ) with an admission price of 200 Lekë.

However, Gjirokastra is the home of an internationally famous and colorful festival of traditional Albanian folk culture, which takes place in the autumn of every forth year. The first festival was held in 1968 and has since become the symbol of Albanian national folk culture. Held in the open air of the Gjirokastra’s castle, the Gjirocastra Folklore Festival features the best of the Albanian and the Balkans folk traditions, including music, dancing, arts and crafts, and lovely costumes. There is much to see and experience in Gjirokastra and the surrounding areas, and stay in wonderfully restored and bed and breakfast accommodation in one of the converted Ottoman houses makes an excellent base for exploring the region. Gjirokastër was declared a “Museum City” in 1961 and a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO in 2005.