Hometown of a DictatorAugust 10 in Albania
Our last stop in Albania was the city of Gjirokaster. When I first saw it on the route it seemed odd. I'd heard about most of the other cities on the route, but not this one. It turned out to be a very good choice, as it was nothing like anything we'd seen before in this country. With the exception of Thethi, every other city was more or less 20th century in architecture and layout. Not this place. It was a well preserved ottoman era city, established in the late 1400s. The streets were made of cobblestone and were winding and steep. All the buildings seemed to be of that era, too. Our hotel sat on high ground - it was family run and had a nice out door dining area.
The drive to Gjirokaster was a lot of fun. I was still feeling the food poisoning so Colton drove the whole way. We wound down the coast of Albania, saw some paragliders launching from atop a mountain and stopped for a break at the beach. Eventually the route turned east, into the mountains. We stopped to check out the blue eye, a famous mountain spring. Picture a river emanating from nowhere and you get the idea. It was so cool, Colton decided to leap from the obeservation deck, directly into the eye. Twice. Normally this trip was a constant game of one upmanship, but I was still feeling green so I passed.
About an hour from our destination a storm broke out as were driving on one of those windy mountain roads. We were used to mountain driving at this point and Colton handled it with ease and I trusted his driving. It was actually kind of fun.
Gjirokaster is the home town of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled Albania for decades. While many other cities had been transformed into more Stalinist architecture during his rule, Gjirokaster went untouched. I'm guessing this is why he seemed slightly less hated here. In every gift shop we had seen along the way you could buy little statues of Skanderberg, the 15th century hero who led the rebellion against the Ottomans - he is depicted as a bearded warrior who looks like he could give William Wallace a run for his money. Here, you could also buy Hoxha statues in some places. Weird.
Looming over the town is an old fortress dating back to the 1500s and expanded/updated in the 1830s. You can see it from most places in the city. Hoxha used part of this castle to display his military trophy collection. A great hall was lined with mostly broken artillery pieces left behind by axis forces in WW2. Outside the hall, near the edge of one of the castle walls sat the rotting shell of an American T33 fighter jet from the early 1950s. It had been forced to land in Albania. The stories of how are varied - Hoxha said Albanian jets damaged it, America says the pilot got lost and was forced to land due to weather. The pilot detained and released after several weeks but the plane was kept and put in Hoxhas trophy room.
Gjirokaster would be our last stop in Albania, and it was a great way to end our time there. The next day we would enter Greece, where the roads are wider and the prices are higher.Read more