I’m on the bus to Gjirokastër, following a highly satisfying day spent exploring the archaeological remains of Butrint, in southern Albania. Before we can enter the city the bus is pulled over at a police checkpoint.
Two policemen clamber into the vehicle; both grizzled, both overfed; the narrow central aisle of the old Toyota minibus barely able to contain their stocky girth. Both look incredibly bored.
Their eyes flick one-by-one over the passengers – all of whom are local, except for myself – skimming over most, pausing momentarily on a few. Identification cards are requested.
Ah, I think, I wonder if they’ll want to see my passport?
The thought makes my heart quicken – my passport, along with the rest of my possessions, is safe and sound in my guesthouse in Gjirokastër, on the far side of the police checkpoint.
Nuts, I think, why’d I leave it there?
Ordinarily I do carry my passport on my person when I’m travelling abroad. Albania is so laid-back though, so easy-going – they don’t even bother stamping your passport when you enter or exit the country by land – that I couldn’t imagine a situation arising that would require it.
The first policeman arrives by my side. Passaporte, he says, his voice neither hostile nor friendly.
Umm, umm, it’s in the hotel, I say, pointing vaguely to the distant city, the outskirts of which are just visible through the dust-smeared window.
Hotel? the policeman says, suddenly alert. The fog lifts from his eyes, a fire has been kindled.
I nod, realising how suspicious I sound.
The policeman is knocked forward, his partner brusquely shoving past to check the ID papers of the passengers at the back of the bus. Policemen Number One steadies himself, returns his gaze to mine. He folds his arms, taps a finger idly on his sleeve as he considers his options. The fire in his eyes is already dimming.
Mind made up – no need to pursue this matter any further – he gives me a weak smile, and turns away.
Both policemen withdraw from the bus. The engine is ignited; we continue on our way.
The upshot of the experience?
That my first impressions were correct; Albania is laid-back, it is easy-going.
Perhaps that’s why I like it here so much? 😀
Founding of Gjirokastër
The history of Gjirokastër is a little hazy, and I don’t mean that in a sinister or underhanded way; it’s just that Albania’s history is nowhere near as well documented as that of other European countries.
There is evidence of settlement in the area stretching back 2,500 years, and parts of the Fortress have been dated to at least the 6th Century CE.
The early history of the city, however, is largely missing. Until 1336 CE, that is, when it first enters written records.
By this time the city is already a thriving commercial hub, and a settlement of some note.
The enormous Fortress – the second largest in the Balkans is the claim – is part museum, part monument, part archaeological site.
Inside the casements you’ll find German and Italian anti-aircraft guns, and a surprisingly well-presented museum.
Atop the ramparts lie the decomposing remains of a U.S. Airforce fighter plane.
The former communist government of Albania used to claim that they’d shot the plane down – a spy plane, no less – but in fact the aircraft suffered mechanical failure and was forced to make an emergency landing.
Between 1417 and 1913 the lands of Albania – along with the bulk of the Balkans – were ruled by the Ottoman Empire. During these five centuries the population of Gjirokastër went from predominantly Christian to predominantly Muslim.
At its peak Gjirokastër contained no less than 15 mosques, 13 of which were still standing at the end of the Ottoman era.
Just one mosque survives today – known as Gjirokastër Mosque, built in 1757. The rest were ripped down during the purging of religious institutions under Albania’s former communist regime.
Gjirokastër Fortress’ most notable feature – its clocktower – was constructed in the 1800s by the Ottomans.
The clocktower was purportedly built for the convenience of the city’s Muslim citizens, in order to assist them with the timeliness of their prayers.
The Old Town of Gjirokastër contains more than 600 identified cultural monuments, the majority of which were built between the 17th and 18th Centuries during the height of the Ottoman Era.
In 2005 UNESCO deemed Gjirokastër, along with its cousin city, Berat, worthy of World Heritage status.
Practical information and how to reach Gjirokastër:
Read more on the historic centre of Gjirokastër in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.