In the Stone City

19 to 20 July 2018

“This was a surprising city, which seemed to have come out of the valley unexpectedly, one winter’s night, like a prehistoric being, and clambered up with difficulty, stitching onto the side of the mountain. Everything in this city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains right up to the roofs of its big houses, a century old, which were covered with stone tiles the colour of ash, like so many huge carapaces. It was difficult to believe that under these hard shells the soft flesh of life thrived and was renewed.”

Beautifully summing Gjirokastër up, these words come from one of the city’s famous sons, the author, Ismail Kadare. It was one of his books set here, The Fall of the Stone City that we both read before arriving in Albania to start giving us a flavour of the country and its history. He is celebrated all over the city and even has a road named after him.

We stayed in one of the city’s early 19th century stone houses, now converted into a lovely guest house, which gave us great views up to the castle, down to the main streets and across to the mountains.

Gjirokastër is surrounded by mountains on both sides and as Kadare describes really does seem to climb up out of the valley floor.

In the heart of the city, cobbled streets climb from four directions to a central point and are lined with artisan shops, coffee shops and a handy barbers. It was time for Stefan to get a haircut.

The old houses really are beautiful, similar in stone and style but each with its own unique twist.

We visited the Skëndulaj House, originally built in 1700. Stefan turned tour guide and explained the house’s architectural features. The ground floor was for storage and housing animals. An ingenius two storey water cistern provided not just a water supply of 130,000 litres for the house but kept the pantry cool.

Upstairs the next two floors are filled with light filled rooms (the house has 64 windows), some with en suite hamams (steam rooms) and long drop toilets! The most important and highly decorated room is used for betrothal ceremonies and its door decorated with pomegranates to bring luck to the children.

Just down the road we visited another example of these houses. This one was the birth place of another of Girokastër’s famous sons, Communist leader Enver Hoxha. Born in the windowless room with the guns on the wall (an ominous sign!) and having left the city to lead the Communist Party, Hoxha’s legacy saw the house first turned into a museum to him and then razed to the ground in the 1960s. It has since been restored and now serves as the city’s Ethnographic Museum

Displays included traditional clothing from the period when the house was first built.

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Outside Hoxha’s birthplace we bumped into souvenir seller and student, Kavjol. He was very chatty and it seemed as good a time as any to ask about how the Albanians view Hoxha and the communist years. At only 19, Kavjol himself was born a year after the fall of the regime but he told us that the different generations have different views about that time. His grandparents living in the countryside and very poor remember Hoxha less fondly that his parents. This love/hate relationship between Hoxha and his people was something we were going to hear about more than once. Kavjol also taught us how to pronounce Hoxha properly. Its Hodga – the xh being pronounced like the dg in judge.

There has been a citadel above Gjirokastër since the Iron Age but the structure now standing is mostly from the Ottoman period with some spectacularly vaulted Ali Pasha extensions. The castle is now home to the Museum of Armaments and the long vaulted galley full of artillery from the Second World War and a ridiculously cute Fiat tank from the time of the Italian occupation of the city until 1943.

A reminder of Communist era paranoia about spies sits on the castle’s terrace. An American jet plane was forced down in 1957. The pilot’s story is that he accidently found himself in Albanian airspace on a routine flight from Naples to the South of France. That’s some detour! Perhaps the Communists were right.

Inside the museum we found graphic reminders of the Second World War in Albania. Not much was translated into English but somehow the images said enough.

A display of Communist era objects including identity cards and Socialist Realist paintings of proud Partisans started to help our understanding of the nationalism and isolationism born after the end of the German occupation in 1944.

The prison with its long corridor full of cells was exceptionally eerie. Used to house prisoners from 1929 to 1968, the Germans reportedly held 500 prisoners in the 50 cells. Stefan tried out a cell for size. It was tempting to leave him there!

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Perhaps the most graphic and poignant display in the prison was a glass case containing the very small, floral patterned clothes of teenagers, Bule and Persefoni, in which they were hung by the Germans for their part in the resistance. The addition of the rope that hung them was altogether unnecessary and sent us back outside with chills down our spines. The girls are remembered less gruesomely in a proud Socialist Realist statue in the square.

In the square also still stands the Communist era turizmi hotel from whose balcony Hoxha made an appearance during a rare return to his birthplace and which is now in private ownership and altogether more welcoming of foreign tourists.

After two days in the city we felt like we had learnt so much about Albania and in such lovely surroundings. So we continued on along the River Vjosa to another important place in Albania’s Communist past, Përmet…

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