Another Ali Pasha Fortress? Gorgeous Gjirokastër Albania

I face more Sarande traffic madness to get out of town; I find myself more bold and aggressive, which isn’t always a good thing when riding a motorcycle on foreign soil. But I make it out of Sarande and head down to the valley through the same mountain pass I arrived two days earlier.

To navigate, I rely much more on my iPhone than I do the Garmin GPS on my bike. The Garmin is impossible to see in the bright Balkan sun, plus the user interface is horrific and feels like I’m in 1999.

The iPhone which connects to my SENA 20S Bluetooth communicator and provides me with prompts through speakers in my helmet. This worked great in Greece, but since crossing the border, Apple maps does not give turn-by-turn prompts, and while Google Maps does, the prompts are often wrong, or worse, missed completely.

So as I approach destinations, I often pull over to look at the phone and get my bearings—old school.

Yesterday I pulled over several times to get to Butrint. Each time, a friendly Albanian approaches me and offers to help—sending me along the right path. Today it is no different. I’m on my way to Gjirokastër, an old Ottoman town that also carries a UNESCO World Heritage designation since 2005.

In Gjirokastër, I will not stay the night, so after hydrating at a local cafe, I ask the waiter to watch my helmet and riding jacket. To be honest, I would rather get out of my riding pants and boots, too. It’s much more comfortable exploring sites in my civilian gear. But when I stop for a few hours somewhere that’s more difficult. Today, I’m happy to make a new friend like Marco here in Gjirokastër, who is glad to keep an eye on my bike and belongings.

Gjirokastër is a well preserved Ottoman city of ancient stone houses with stone roofs. Above the town is a medieval fortress—castle—built in the 12th Century.  In 1419, after a century of Albanian inhabitants under the Despots of Epirus and Esau,  became part of the Ottoman Empire. Over the next several hundred years several clans battled for control, but the Ottoman’s held on.

I cannot get away from that determined Albanian, Ali Pasha, as Gjirokastër came under his rule as the Pasha of Yannina in the late 1800s. Later, in World War I, Greece annexed the city along with most of the former Epirus territory, but this was short-lived as at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the town returned to Albania.

Italians occupied the city after the Italian Invasion of Albania, during the Greco-Italian War, and for a short period, the city fell under German control before ceding back to Albania in 1944.

So there’s no shortage of history and multi-ethnic influence here in Gjirokastër, and most everywhere I go as I head north. It’s often a rich, but always ever complicated history. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. Yet I understand I’ll never fully understand just how this history and the conflicts that have colored the past and region unless I commit to several years of study. For now, I travel to study and learn, but most importantly,  to connect with the people. Along the way, I continue my education with baby steps.

I wander the cobblestoned town and hike the steep path up to the citadel, the castle fortress. A man selling water, fruit and sweets halfway up the steps, motions with his hands as if he’s riding a motorcycle. Then points to the top. He recognizes my motorcycle pants and boots, and without words, tells me I could have saved the hike and ridden my bike to the top.

That’s okay. I wouldn’t have met Marco, or the woman selling figs and herbs also on the steps to the castle. With warm eyes and a face weathered by her own history in this town, I couldn’t resist giving her one Euro for a bag of figs she asked for fifty cents. But I didn’t want the figs or herbs. Yet she insisted, gently place the bag into the palm of my hand—pointing at me and clasping my hand with her other hand, while gently squeezing and smiling at me. “For you,” she motions.

I tried to explain that she should give the figs to someone who is hungry, needs to eat. I take her picture. Later walking down the steps after roaming the castle, I noticed she has moved to the opposite side of the path, taking shade from the brutal sun. She tries again to give me the bag of figs. I smile at her, fold my hands in thanks and bow my head. Respect for her and how hard she works for what I’m sure is so little.

The castle is impressive, and within is a museum with arms and artillery from the last two centuries, such as an Italian tank built by Fiat, guns abandoned by, or captured from the Italian and German occupation forces during World War II.

There is also a US Air Force Lockheed T33 Shooting Star spy plane once forced to land at Rinas airport near Tirana in December 1957. Two stories make the “fake news” for how the aircraft ended up here. The American’s say it landed due to technical problems from foul weather. The Albanians at the time say they spotted the plane and its military forced it to land.

For some 30 years beginning in the 1930s, the castle served as a prison. Today besides the Artillery and Armament Museum, they use the space for music and dance events; it was once home of the Albanian Folk Festival.

The views of the city and to the mountains in the east are stunning. After a few hours, I climb back down and retrieve my helmet and jacket from Marco and head north to the wine region of Barat where I am excited to meet an Albanian who is doing his part to change the face of and attitude toward Albanian wines.

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