If someone had told me when I was fifteen years old, or even thirty for that matter, that one day I would be living in a seaside town on the southern coast of Albania, I would have said they were crazy. However, since Covid-19 has limited where Americans can travel, that is exactly where I find myself today.
Though Albania wasn’t a country I had ever even considered visiting, much less living in, I am so happy that I found this place. The town where I live, Saranda, feels like I am living on the Riviera. Only an hour’s drive inland, I feel like I’m in the Swiss Alps.
Gjokaster is one of these inland cities and is considered a “must-see” by many of the travel bloggers I recently read while researching Albania. The city walls date back to the third century when it was known by the Greeks as Argyropolis (Ancient Greek meaning “Silver City”).
Though Gjokaster has always held a large Greek population, it was awarded to Albania under the terms of the Treaty of London of 1913. Since then, it has been a city of much contention. It was occupied by Italy in 1939 and was given to Nazi Germany by the Italians during World War 2. It was returned to Albania in 1944, where it was an industrial and commercial center for the Albanian Communist regime.
The hour bus ride to Gjokaster was a treacherous affair. I’m somewhat scared of heights, and the mountainous roads leading from Saranda to Gjokaster are not for the faint of heart. The bus drivers have been driving these roads for a long time, and their confidence shows in their complete lack of concern for driving at a slow speed or paying too much attention to the road. Instead, my driver chose to get into an argument with one of my fellow passengers while he was driving. I didn’t understand what they were arguing about, but it seemed to be a heated discussion on the pros and cons of Communism. I guess it’s still a heated topic in the country.
Once the bus finally arrived, I was dropped about three kilometers from the “touristy” part of town. The walk would have been pleasant enough, but it was all uphill, and there was no sidewalk. I had to watch out for cars as I huffed and puffed my way up the cobblestone road.
Once I did arrive in the old Bazaar section of the city, I found it pleasant though not incredibly interesting. I met an English couple there who informed me that the city pretty much closes shop during the winter months. They said that it completely changes in the Summer. The restaurants and shops open and tourists come from all over Europe to visit this historic city.
One area that I was impressed with, however, was the castle. Gjokaster Castle is one of the largest castles in all of Europe. High atop a hill, the castle overlooks the entire city, and you can see the surrounding mountains, which are miles away. I’m normally a sucker for castles anyway, but this one truly was magnificent.
Before entering the castle, I noticed a placard describing the terrible death toll of political prisoners during the Communist regime. I immediately stopped imagining brave knights and beautiful princesses as I normally would while visiting a castle. Instead, I found myself imagining the poor prisoners who had suffered so terribly within the castle walls. Still, the castle itself and the views it offered of the city were breathtaking.
Another interesting item that I discovered there was an old US airplane that crashed in Albania in 1968. According to America, this plane was heading to Italy when it got lost in some fog and crashed. According to Albania, this was an American spy plane that was spying on the Communists but was shot down by anti-aircraft guns. Either way, it’s an odd attraction to see leaning against the wall of a castle overlooking the city.
Because the weather was bad, and I was scared of being on the bus during a thunderstorm, I called it quits after the castle and didn’t get to see much else of the city. I will definitely be back when the weather warms up some. Apparently, there are plenty of Ancient Greek archeological sites that I missed there, so there will definitely be a next time.
Overall, Albania is continuing to surprise and thrill me. Each week I discover some new hidden wonder, which makes me curious why this country isn’t as popular among Americans as it should be. I’m hoping that one good thing that comes from the difficulties of 2020 is that more people discover what a truly fantastic place Albania really is.
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