Any UNESCO site is naturally a tourism honeypot, so not my natural habitat of choice. However, Albania is blessed with more than its fair share of these designations. As I was visiting early in their season, I was still keen to see those I was passing, so the town of Gjirokastra was first on my list, with ancient Butrint and Berat to follow.
The old town of Gjirokastra is quite small and majors on fine examples of fascinating, traditional Albanian architecture. Much of the area is under restoration, thanks to funding attracted by its protected status. However, this does not detract from its beauty or its popularity with visitors.
The bazaar area is compact and includes an artisanal area still under renovation at the time of my stay. In amongst the units offering obviously mass-produced souvenirs, it was refreshing to find a stall selling handmade needlework and vintage bric-a-brac, which included old militaria and second-hand Albanian goods.
Just a few doors down two craftsmen were at work; one a finely skilled woodworker producing intricately carved souvenir ornaments and plaques. The other, with chisel and mallet in hand, etched slate in a similarly wide array of potential gifts.
Always keen to support such local craft, I soon had my gift list to take home to family and friends fulfilled, with a couple of little souvenirs for myself finding their way into my bag. Weighed down with these items, I turned up the steep hill leading to the castle. With hindsight, I realised I hadn’t thought this through!
The steep and winding road, leading up to the fortress which dominates the whole town, is cobbled and long. Buses and cars trundle past as you ascend it, their passengers looking pityingly down at you.
It is a huge relief to get to the top and pause to admire the panorama from this rocky tor. The Drino Valley stretches out below, with mountain ranges beyond as far as the eye can see. I have visited many castles over the years, but this one still had that “wow” factor for me, as I entered beneath its majestic arches.
There have been major fortifications on this site since the 12th century, but it was the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha of Tepelena who was responsible for much of what still stands today. Inside the impenetrable walls, a military museum houses an impressive or horrifying, depending on your stance, array of armaments. Canons from various nations, a rare Italian tank and the wreckage of a US aeroplane (of which various versions of its tale exist), add to the atmosphere.
For me, the more interesting part was a modern ethnographic exhibition of Albanian social and archaeological history. This included the story of two incredible women. The first, Urani Rumbo, was one of the country’s pioneering feminists. In the early 1900s, she campaigned for women’s rights, opened a primary school for girls, co-founded the League of Women and ran training courses to encourage women to join in public life.
Musine Kokalari is the other Albanian woman celebrated here. Her tales written in the Gjirokaster dialect were to be the first written and published by a woman in Albania. Tragically, in 1944 her two brothers were executed without trial, by the communists. She demanded justice, so was imprisoned for 18 years and branded a “saboteur and enemy of the people”. Following her release, she was condemned to internal exile, worked as a street sweeper and was never to return home.
As a modern woman, free to travel globally and write pretty much what I like, these stories really hit home. Sometimes we need to read these stories to appreciate how lucky we are. Another area of the castle was to lift the mood, as it celebrated Albanian tradition which has survived suppression over the years.
The National Folk Festival, showcasing the rich cultural traditions of the country in dance, music and costume is held here every five years. This living heritage is kept alive with the inclusion of rituals, stories, cooking skills and craft, with the help of Albanians who travel from all over the world. A large stage and amphitheatre are sited in the castle grounds where once a bustling neighbourhood existed – a suitable site for such important heritage.
As I left the castle, I noticed a few local people had set out displays of their needlecraft for sale. One stooped and quite elderly woman approached me, dressed completely in black with headscarf covering snowy hair as is the norm in Albania. She spoke no English, but through gestures ushered me to inspect her handicraft with a view to purchasing.
To further encourage me, she bared one of her calves to display her varicose veins. I gathered the profits from her sales would finance surgery. As her range of fine lacework was beautiful and demonstrated great skill I was happy to oblige and chose a small piece that I liked. By her reaction, anyone would have thought I’d bought the lot! I was blessed and kissed on the cheek and patted on the arms and back and presumably thanked profusely, had I understood what she said. Yet again I was impressed by the people of this country who have so little, yet are happy with so little.