Beauty and the Bunkers: Albania

We arrived at the Albanian border around 3 am…and rolled into Gjirokaster about an hour later.  The old, cobbled streets were bathed in light from the full Hunter’s Moon and full of mysterious fog.  Despite the chilly temperatures and having nowhere to wait out the chilly predawn, we were instantly charmed by this little town that has been entirely declared a World Heritage Site.  We ended up sitting on a terrace where a TV screen was visible through the window…some strange vampire B movie playing with Albanian subtitles.  Good thing we have blankets from the good folks at Trotters in India…we wrapped up and waited for the first cafe to open.

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As the sun rose, the fog thickened,  but at least we had a cozy corner to sit in, complete with strong coffee and wifi.  The cafe worker also recommended a tasty local restaurant that opened in the early hours.  Around 9am, we finally got checked into our hostel, located in a lovely traditional building with a 200 year history.  At which point, we laid down for a much needed morning nap!  A couple hours later, we woke up fresh and, like magic, the fog had lifted to reveal a fairy tale landscape of a castle perched high above the white saltbox houses and ancient stone streets.  Stark mountains rose sharply from the green carpet of the valley below and we felt a thrill of excitement at the prospect of exploring.  We started by circling the base of the castle through the windy old streets, seeing the first little changes of autumn in the vines and trees interlaced with the old houses.

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Ended up a little lost in the twisting and turning alleys that wrap around the curves of the mountain foothills and eventually ended up back on the castle road on the other side of town, somehow.  Following the steep road up to the castle entrance, we paid the small entrance fee and found ourselves in the ancient arching hall full of tanks from the Communist era here and even earlier, during the Nazi occupation in the area.  Turning a corner, we found the entrance to the museums…the Gjirokaster castle museum, the military museum, and the old prison cells.  There was a separate fee, but it was so low we paid to go in, and I’m glad we did, because the castle museum was truly excellent and really informative.  The military museum didn’t have English information but it had a lot of interesting neo Socialist paintings and endless aisles of old weapons.  Last, the prison cells didn’t have info either, but it wasn’t necessary…they acted as  a Nazi prison, then as a place for Hoxha to dump his detractors.  Creepy factor…very high.

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After that, we were happy to go out to the castle’s huge open courtyard and old fields.  Odd treasures awaited us…an American plane that was seized and treated as a spy plane in the late 1950s…a huge wooden stage used to host the major folk music and dance festival every four years…and the iconic clocktower that can be seen from almost anywhere in town, and even on the other side of the valley.  Dramatic clouds provided for some really lovely photos as we traipsed high and low.  There are no forbidden or blocked off areas in the castle, so if you are brave or foolhardy enough to enter the old stone vaulted rooms, you can.  Finally our stomachs convinced us to stop playing and brought us down to the town bazaar to get a traditional lunch and relax.

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Evening approached and we took another stroll through the small labyrinth of streets that makes up the oldest part of town, admiring the sunset turning the mountains pink, then purple in the fading light.  Totally by chance, we found this packed little restaurant down a side street that served the best and the cheapest food in town.  Full bellied, we headed to sleep in the hostel that we had all to ourselves.  The next morning, we decided to take a hike to the high hills we could see on the other side of the farming valley.  Crossing the valley, we ran into friendly locals and passed a hundred different kinds of fruits and vegetables, still growing in full flourish.

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We climbed a steep goat path and found a rutted dirt road at the crest of the ridge that led us through a huge field of flowers with some of the largest insects I have seen anywhere, ever.  Whoa.  The views of the backing mountains were spectacular and we found this old stone church perched at the highest point of the hills.  Right next to it were the ruins of the castle that used to be here….but inside the ruins were a different kind of ruin.  Empty bunkers from the period of Hoxha’s paranoia…strange circles of concrete and entrances to tunnels that had overgrown with human sized weeds.

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We continued our hike down the hill where the road ran out.  The insects got bigger, we found strange ancient stones, came across a funky animal skull…and a human bone.  Trying to come down the hill, we finally spotted a road and some roofs.  Scrabbled down the steep hillside into an old goat pen…which led onto an abandoned Communist military compound.  There was certainly an eerie feeling about the place…and I knew there had been several death camps in the area during the reign of terror.  We got out of there quickly and silently made our way back to the roads and villages of the present.

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The next morning, we headed to the capitol of Tirana, where we got off the bus in the middle of a knot of confusing streets.  After asking for directions five different times, we just ended up springing for a taxi to our hostel.  The center of the city is easily covered on foot, from the wide Skanderbeg Square with its opera and museum to the graffiti riddled Hoxha Pyramid to the party center of The Block to the quiet, blue lit Mother Theresa Square (she was ethnically Albanian, born in what is now Macedonia).  Our walks around the city were short, as Sangbyeong had hurt his ankle.  Also, sadly, we don’t have so many photos because my beloved little digital Pentax finally gave up the ghost.  Luckily, though, we were in a country where everything is as cheap as you can possibly find it in Europe.  So with our new camera, we snapped away at the city sights…from the sheep heads roasting alongside chickens, the bird market set up in the center of the rotary, and the gigantic mugs of beer on offer.

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Bright and early Sunday morning, we headed to a random street corner where we caught a bus to Shkoder…and then onto Montenegro!

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