Gjirokastra (also spelt Gjirokaster) is a UNESCO wonder - a time capsule of beautiful Ottoman era stone houses, winding cobbled streets, a bustling bazaar and a show stopping fortress/castle complete with a captured American fighter plane!
Gjirokastra is the birthplace of both Dictator Enver Hoxha, who effectively shut the country away from the world in a terrifying Stalinist bubble until the 90s, and Nobel nominated Albanian author Ismail Kadare and is classed as a Museum City, which luckily protected it from Communist modernisation.
Here are 5 top things to do in Gjirokastra, Albania!
1. Wander the historic streets.
Be prepared for a legs workout, Gjirokastra is a mountain town and its streets are wound dizzyingly up very steep hills. The two story houses give Gjirokastra its nickname, the city of stone. The lower half of the buildings ar
e grey stone brick and the upper half are white plaster, and the roofs are made of flat stone slabs which amazingly are only held in place by their own weight, defying the steep inclines of the streets!
Some of the historic houses that you can go inside include the Zekate House, which has hardly changed since it was built in 1812, and the Skenduli House, which was partially rebuilt in 1827 from a 18th century house.
2. Gjirokastra Castle:
Arguably Gjirokaster's top attraction, and certainly one of Albania's top attractions, Gjirokaster Castle is located up on a hill overlooking the historic centre and has a fascinating history. Beginning as a fortress in the 4th century, the castle that you see today dates from the 14th century. It changed hands from Ali Pasha in the 1800s (he had its famous clock tower built) to King Zog in the 30s, when it became an infamous prison for political prisoners. The cells that you can still visit continued to be used by the Fascist Italians and Nazi Germany as both seperately occupied Albania, and again under Hoxha's communist regime.
The castle became a museum in the 70s, and on the flat plain on the roof is a festival stage covered by a metal domed frame where the National Folklore Festival takes place every four years. From up here you can also enjoy spectacular views over the Drino River valley to distant mountains.
The castle's mysterious American plane has a curious and disputed past - some say it was shot down during the Cold War, some say it was a spy plane that ran out of fuel, no one is sure. Inside the cool dark passages of the castle itself are two separate museums: one all about the history and people of Gjirokaster and the Arms Museum, containing a large haul of captured Nazi weapons.
3. Ethnographic Museum -
This house is built on the site of the house where Enver Hoxha was born and grew up - the original building burned down in the 1960s and was rebuilt in the style of a typical Gjirokaster house. Today the museum doesn't have anything to do with Hoxha, but is set out over four floors with Albanian household items and traditional costumes to give an idea of what 19th century life would have been like in Gjirokaster and the town's history.
4. Explore the bazaar -
Below the castle, Gjirokastra's old bazaar rubs up and down the cobbled streets in the centre of the historic old town. While there has been a market here since the 17th century, the shops here date from the 19th century, after a post-fire rebuild.
Shops are tucked into the traditional Ottoman style buildings and their wares spill out onto the pavement in front. You can buy traditional artisan crafts like wood work and carpets, and typical souvenirs like magnets, t-shirts and cushion covers.
There are lots of small cafes if you need a pit stop!
Speaking of pit stops, Gjirokaster has a couple of local delicacies that you need to try.
The first is Qifqi, a crispy fried rice ball similar to and Arancini but without the gooey filling in the centre, and the other is Oshaf, a creamy whipped pudding type dessert that is made with sheeps milk and is layered over dried figs. It's divine!!!
There are several restaurants in Gjirokastra that serve a mixed plate of traditional food so that you can try lots of different things, we went to Restaurant Tradicional Odaja which served a yummy sharing platter of Albanian food for 1000 Lek (about £7).
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