Gjirokastra - A view from our expert author

Clock tower Gjirokastra Albania by nicolasdecorte, ShutterstockThe clock tower of Gjirokastra Castle © nicolasdecorte, Shutterstock

The castle still broods on its hill, overlooking the whole city and the river valley below. From that vantage point, the grey stone of the houses below and the grey slates of their roofs blend into the hillside, distinguished from it only by their whitewashed walls. 

The austere and beautiful town of Gjirokastra began to spread downhill from its castle in the 13th century. Gjirokastra first enters history in 1336, in the memoirs of John Cantacuzenus. He was the son of the governor of the Morea, the Byzantine province in the Greek Peloponnese, and would later become Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus. In the 15th century, it was besieged and then captured by the Ottomans, but unlike many other hitherto important Albanian towns, Gjirokastra flourished under its new rulers. It was the administrative centre of a province (sanjak) covering what is now central and southern Albania, and it became a major trading centre.

By the 17th century, the city had 2,000 houses, and the bazaar was constructed at this time. It was subsequently destroyed by fire, and the shops and other buildings which remain in Qafa e Pazarit date from the early 20th century. Most of the large traditional houses were built in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, Gjirokastra produced two particularly well-known sons. Enver Hoxha was one of the leaders of the partisan resistance in World War II and went on to run Albania for 41 years, until his death in April 1985. The site of the house where he was born in 1908 is now the Ethnographic Museum, and a good example of jirokastra traditional architecture. Ismail Kadare is the only Albanian writer who is at all well known in the English-speaking world; he stayed in Albania until late 1990, at which point he left the country for France where he still spends most of his time. Other local heroes are Çerçiz Topulli, who led an uprising against the Ottomans in 1908 and whose statue stands in the square named after him, and the two young women who are commemorated with a monument in the same square, Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima, hanged by the Germans on suspicion of being partisans.

Gjirokastra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2005. It had been awarded the status of a ‘museum-city’ by the Albanian government in 1961, which gave legal protection to its architectural heritage and kept new building out of the historic centre. Thanks to this, and no doubt also to its steep cobbled streets, the town has retained its charming atmosphere.

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