Gjirokastër: The Stone City


Panoramic from the valley floor

The Drino Valley is a beautiful place.  Near Gjirokastër the valley floor flat and wide open.  The Drino River isn’t much to look at at this time.  Although, that’s not a problem.  The valley that has been carved through the Gjerë mountains is still stunning.  Green, tranquil, and idyllic.  It’s a perfect spot for the town of Gjirokastër.

If one word were to be applied to Gjirokastër it would probably be charming.  I don’t know what it takes to make a town “charming”, but Gjirokastër has it.  The old town is built on the hillside and its distinguishing feature are the hundred of old stone houses.  These stone buildings have led the entire old town be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  These buildings were constructed during the period of Ottoman rule over Albania, mostly between the 17th and 18th centuries.

A typical street

It is possible to tour several of these old houses.  I only toured one of these, the Skenduli House.  This three story mansion was built in 1700 for one of the wealthiest merchants in the area.  It is still owned by the Skenduli family today.  Even though it is clear that a significant amount of restoration work has already been done on it, it still needs more.  The interior offers great perspective on the living conditions of the upper class during the Ottoman period.

The Skenduli House [apologies for the low quality]

A model of the Skenduli House

A room inside the Skenduli House

Across the street from the Skenduli House is another stone house containing the Museum of Ethnography.  The house itself is good condition and, while less extravagant than the neighboring Skenduli House, it is still quite large and its inhabitants would be have been well to do. The museum contains examples of traditional dress, crafts, and household items.  Unfortunately, there are no signs anywhere, but there are guides that can assist.

Traditional dress on display in the Museum of Ethnography

Carvings in the Museum of Ethnography

The dominant feature of Gjirokastër is Gjirokastër Castle which sits on an isolated outcrop above the bazaar area.  The passageway next to the entrance is lined with captured Italian and German artillery and other heavy weapons from World War II.  There is even a small Italian tank among the objects on display.

The open areas of the castle afford arresting views of the valley, the craggy mountains, and the countless stone buildings.  It makes the journey up the hill worth it.

The castle yard

Looking down from the castle

A clock tower sits at the edge of the fort.  This was built when the area was controlled by Ali Pasha (he’s the one that Lord Byron met) to assist in keeping track of the Muslim call for prayer.  These days it doesn’t function, but provides some aesthetic appeal.

The castle clock tower

The fortress is home to two museums.  The Museum of Gjirokastër is small, but well assembled.  All the signs are in English and provide a significant amount of background on the area and its long history from the Bronze Age through the modern era.

Displays in the Museum of Gjirokastër

The other museum, which is adjoining, is the Museum of Armaments.  There isn’t much English signage in this area.  A large portion of it is dedicated to the World War II period during which Albania was occupied by Italy and then Germany.  A number of small arms used by the occupying forces are on display, as well as those of anti-occupation partisans.  Statues, paintings, and photos provide a small amount of context.

Statue of a partisan fighting a German soldier

Armaments on display

The Museum of Armaments is located in the part of the castle that used to be a prison.  It was first used in this capacity during the rule of King Zog in the pre-World War II period.  Every successive regime used the prison until it was closed in 1968 during the communist period.

Hallway of the castle prison

While old town Gjirokastër is the main draw, a modern town exists down on the valley floor.  Though not large, it is a hive of activity compared to the sleepy hillside.  There is not much in the area to draw travelers other than the bus station, but it is still a pleasant area to walk around and remind yourself that modern civilization still exists.

View from the new town

My accommodations were basic, but for about $8 a night to have a private room I cannot complain.  As well, food was cheap and satisfying.

I think we can all agree that this qualifies as "basic"

Gjirokastër was a great place to spend a few days.  Just walking around the old town is a treat in itself, though there are enough attractions to hold your attention for a couple of days.  If you are in the region I highly recommend it.  It is easily accessible from Greece or elsewhere in Albania.  

Stone buildings in various conditions