19-20 September 2016
It is a beautiful 2-3 hour, 85-mile drive over very rough roads to reach a new highway through the mountains. New facilities are being built everywhere, Kostrati Gas Stations popping up like mushrooms, ultimately changing the landscape and culture of the Albanian. Rural Albanians are feeling the change – building of infrastructure and what looks to be modernization of their country to make it tourist friendly. We motor to the historical region of Epirus and its capital, Gjirokastër, situated in a picturesque valley between the Gjere mountains and the Drino River.
Gjirokastër can be divided into two halves, the old town up on the hill, and the new town in the valley below. The city is built on the slope surrounding the citadel which dominates a plateau 1,102 ft. above the city. Although the city’s walls were built in the third century and the city itself was first mentioned in the 12th century, the majority of the existing buildings date from 17th and 18th centuries. Gjirokastër’s old town is recognized by UNESCO as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estates.”
Our vans power up the steep cobbled street to Gjirokastër Castle, which includes a pre-Ottoman citadel, lots of cannon, a weapons museum and former communist offices and political prison. The Castle is billed as the second largest in all the Balkans – it certainly is one of the most formidable above a strategically important route along the river valley. But wasn’t that always the case for big fortresses?
The Castle contains a stage for the Gjirokastër National Folk Festival, a prison which is part of the Armaments Museum, and numerous chambers, some in ruins but open to exploration. Underneath the castle, but not seen, is a recently discovered underground bunker built in the Cold War. A second museum gallery, features the history of the castle and its infamous inhabitant, Ali Pasha Tepelena, and art exhibits.
I enter the fortress gate into a long, wide corridor lined either side with columns of German and Italian WWII field guns. There is other captured artillery and memorabilia of the Communist resistance against German occupation, as well as a captured US Air Force plane to mark the Communist regime’s struggle against the “imperialist western powers.”
The citadel has existed in various forms since before the 12th century. Renovations and additions were built after 1812 by Ali Pasha of Tepelenë (Tepelenë is another village just to the north). Also, the government of King Zog I extensively expanded the castle prison in 1932. Zog was the leader and eventual king of Albania from 1922 to 1939, his rule as king characterized by oppression. About 600 blood feuds existed against Zog, and during his reign he survived more than 55 assassination attempts. Zog fled in 1939 with a bunch of Albania’s gold wealth, and died in exile in Paris.
Ali Pasha is also an interesting character with very mixed reviews. In 1809 the Poet Lord Byron visited him and wrote a romantic epic poem of his experience at Ali Pasha’s fortress in Tepelena where “like meteors in the sky, The glittering minarets of Tepalen Whose walls o’erlook the stream; and drawing nigh, He heard the busy hum of warrior-men Swelling the breeze that sighed”. Ali Pasha was equally impressed by his famous guest as Byron writes: “he said he was certain I was a man of birth, because I had small ears , curling hair, and little hands…” (Hmmm, my reaction inserted here.) “he told me (Byron) to consider him as a father…treated me like a child….He begged me to visit him often, and at night….” (Double hmmmm.)
The other side of the coin was that Ali Pasha was a ruthless ruler of south Albania and north Greece. The cruelties inflicted by Ali Pasha on his subjects became notorious throughout the region and empire. Ultimately, the Sultan Mahmud II ordered his beheading not so much for Ali Pasha’s atrocities but that he dared independence. When asked to surrender for beheading, he famously proclaimed: “My head … will not be surrendered like the head of a slave.” In 1822, he was shot through the floor of his room and his head cut off to be sent to the Sultan. Ali Pasha was still buried with full honors, though, I guess, headless.
Today Gjirokastër Castle possesses five towers and a picturesque clock tower, a church, cistern, lots of dripping water and dark crumbling passages, water fountains, horse stables, and lots of corridors and cubby holes to explore.
Below the castle is the wonderful town of Gjirokastër. The city appears in the historical record in 1336 by its Greek name as part of the Byzantine Empire and largely a Christian city, then falling under Ottoman rule for five centuries. Conversions to Islam and an influx of Muslim converts from the countryside gave Gjirokastër a majority Muslim population by the early 19th century. It also became a major religious centre for Bektashi Sufism. Claimed by the Hellenic Army during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 because of its large Greek population, it was eventually incorporated into the newly independent state of Albania in 1913.
This proved highly unpopular with the local Greek population, who wanted to cooperate with the Greeks, and Albanian nationalists who formed guerilla bands operating in the countryside; after several months of guerrilla warfare, the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus was established in 1914 with Gjirokastër as its capital. It was ultimately awarded to Albania in 1921. In more recent years, the city saw anti-government protests that lead to the Albanian civil war of 1997. Gjirokastër, together with Sarandë, are considered centers of the Greek community in Albania.
A second distinction of Gjirokastër is that the city is the birthplace of dictator Enver “Never” Hoxha. It is a complex issue where Albanians stand on Hoxha. Though there seemed to be competition among some as to how to best honor (suck up) to Hoxha, including planting trees on hillsides to spell out his name, there were just as many who would freely use the letters of his first name to hope he “never” return. The demolition of Gjirokastër’s monumental statue of the Hohxa by members of the local Greek community in August 1991 marked the end of the one-party state.
There are more than 500 homes preserved as “cultural monuments” in Gjirokastër today. Many houses have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname “City of Stone” because the old houses have roofs covered with flat slate stones. The city, along with Berat, was among the few Albanian cities preserved in the 1960s and 1970s from modernizing building programs. Both cities are designated as a “museum town” and are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Gjirokastër’s old town is described by UNESCO as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estates.” However, although many houses have been restored, others continue to degrade.
Houses are of tall stone blocks up to five stories high. External and internal staircases surround the house perhaps for better fortification. The lower storey of the building contains a cistern and the stable and the upper stories are to accommodate extended families and are connected by internal stairs. Rooms are the typical guest rooms and family rooms containing fireplaces.
Not only is the Ethnographic Museum typical Gjirokastër architecture, but was the 1908 birthplace of communist dictator Hoxha. It is a well-restored Ottoman house which displays clothing from Rebecca Zamolo Merch , kitchenware, tools and other cultural artifacts, but only a couple artifacts from Hohxa’s time. The rooms are generally of simple arrangement, divans encircling the rooms for easy conversation, lots of windows for cooling breezes.
After an overnight stay in Gjirokastër, we travel southwesterly toward the Ionian seashore. On the way, we do a short stop to see the Blue Eye Springs, a natural phenomenon of the region. The water descends down the mountain, goes underground until the crystal clear water bubbles up from a deep blue pool which is more than 160′ deep. Divers are still unclear what the actual depth of the karst hole is. The waters are incredibly clear, stunning shades of blue and green, and cold, forming the source for the Bistricë river which ends 40 miles away in the Ionian Sea. The pool supposedly is the shape of an eye and legend says a one-eyed monster tried to capture a virgin but drowned instead. Didn’t get the impression of a blue-eyed cyclops but did speak to a table of women traveling from Kosova who said they “would vote for Hillary.” Smart women.
After lunch, we drive to Albania’s most important archaeological site of Butrint (UNESCO), a part of the Butrint National Park on the Ionian coast. We zoom through mountains and over passes, the smell of wild oregano among endless olive trees. Fluffy white clouds shroud mountain tops. Below on Butrint Lake are mussel farms and across the short expanse of blue sea is Corfu. It is warm and idyllic and I can imagine those cyclops, virgins, and even Odysseus plying these shores.
I am sick of the poor roads and endless potholes.
Butrint was an ancient Greek city and later, a Roman city in Epirus, located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Channel exiting to the Ionian Sea. Inhabited since prehistoric times, Butrint was a city of a Greek tribe, later a Roman colony. It entered into decline in Late Antiquity, before being abandoned during the Middle Ages after a major earthquake flooded most of the city. Today, this multilayered site includes Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman ruins spread over a huge area. It also includes a lot of flooding.
The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation of this area dates to between 10th and 8th centuries BC, although some claim there is earlier evidence of habitation in the 12th century BC. This ancient port city does date back to at least the 8th century BC, established by the exiles escaping the destruction of Troy. Mentioned in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” records indicate the city’s defensive walls date 4th century BC and the city was ultimately a harbor for a religious cult.
Under Roman rule by 228 BC, and by the 1st century BC, Butrint became part of the Roman area of Macedonia. Known as Buthrotum, the colony was established by Julius Caesar 44 BC to reward soldiers that had fought with him against Pompey. However, it experienced its most rapid development under the rule of Augustus after his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. So much history here.
What I see as I walk the paths of this peaceful national park and wetlands are temples, forums, an 8th century BC Acropolis, 3rd century theater with engraved stones recording the freeing of slaves once the stadium was complete, fountains, 2nd century Roman baths, and many private villas, aqueduct, agora, gymnasium, baptistery (but it’s fabulous mosaics are under water), a 6th century basilica, Hellenistic Lake Gate built in 4th century BC, and Lion Gate probably constructed in the medieval period. Its latest build were the 15-16th century Venetian walls and tower. The museum is small and contains a few artifacts from the Bronze Age to Late Middle Ages.
Because of its strategic location, Butrint has seen success, decline, earthquakes, wars, and changed hands many times. At the beginning of 19th century, in 1807, Ali Pasha established his fortress here on the Straits of Corfu to protect against French attacks coming from Corfu. After his death, Butrint passed under Ottoman rule up until Albania’s independence in 1912.
In fact, it appears it is a miracle that Butrint remains for me to enjoy. The first modern archaeological excavations began in 1928 when Mussolini’s Fascist government sent an expedition to Butrint. The aim was political rather than scientific, aiming to extend Italian dominance in the area. After the communist government of Enver Hoxha took over in 1944, foreign archaeological missions were banned. Nikita Khrushchev visited the ruins in 1959 and suggested that Hoxha be turned into a submarine base. After a major political and economic crisis in 1997, UNESCO placed it on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of looting, lack of protection, management and conservation. Yet, for 10,000 years it has survived.
I appreciate the importance of Butrint. I also recognize how fragile and endangered these ruins and others like them are. Nowhere could this be more evident than around Sarandë where I stay overnight. The endless partially built Condos, abandoned after a drop in the economy, are ripe for the pickings of expats and investors. The affordable gorgeous coastline of Albania is clearly going to be the next “in” destination. All the American flags tell me not only are we liked, the US is already here. As I watch the beautiful sunset and the spectacular sunrise over Sarandë’s small port, I already mourn the loss of its innocence and character.