Balkans 2014 travel blog

The Gjirokaster Castle

Look down from the Castle

Captured American Air Force Jet

Entrance to the Cold War Tunnel

Map of the Cold War Tunnel


The plan for today was to roam the cobblestone roads of Gjirokaster again. It didn't work out that way.

The day started normally. I first explored the Gjirokaster Castle that looms over the town. It turned out to be a curious mix of Ottoman, World War II, and Communist Era artifacts.

It's no wonder why there would be a castle here. High up at the top of the hill, it provides a commanding view of the entire valley. The earliest archaeological evidence points to an iron age settlement in the 7th century BC. By the 13th century AD, there was a imposing fortress here. Most of what exists today was built in the 15th century by an Ottoman sultan. After World War II, the communist government used the castle as a prison for political opponents. Since then, the castle has fallen into neglect and disrepair. The result is a rambling assortment from various ages. Unfortunately, with few signs and no guide, it was difficult to make any sense of what I saw.

What was obvious is that this would have been a nearly impenetrable fortress before the invention of cannons. Even after they had cannons, its altitude would have given it considerable advantage. As I wandered through the castle, I tried to imagine what it might have looked like during its long history. I concluded that the worst would have been when it was used as a prison. Anyone trapped within these dark foreboding walls would have been in a sorry state indeed.

During the cold war, they excavated an emergency tunnel system underneath the castle. Just as in the United States we prepared bomb shelters to protect from communist invasions, the communists prepared shelters to protect again American invasion. This tunnel appears to be open to tours during the summer but is closed now.

After lunch, I went back to my hotel for my typical afternoon nap. Once back at the hotel my coughing got bad again. It was quite clear by now that whatever problem I'm having, it's caused by my hotel room. I apologized to the hotel owners, packed up and headed for the bus station. I was lucky to find that there was a mini-bus leaving for Tirana (the capital of Albania) in 10 minutes. I quickly bought a ticket and boarded the bus.

For the first full hour of the ride, I was coughing almost continuously. At times, the coughing was so bad that my ribs hurt and my brow was sweating. Although the other passengers didn't appear to notice, I'm sure some of them thought I had ebola or some other nasty disease. I was pretty sure that these symptoms were from my allergies acting up so I was quite sure that I wasn't contagious. About an hour after leaving town, my coughing finally slowed down which further confirmed my hypothesis.

The 22-passenger mini-bus finally pulled into Tirana five hours later at about 9pm. Recall that there is no bus station in Tirana. The bus just pulled to the side of the road and dropped us off. I hiked to a hotel that we had recently passed while on the bus and checked in.

Imagine my horror when I discovered that the room had feather pillows and a down comforter! I cautiously removed them from the bed. I made a makeshift pillow out of my clean clothes. I pulled out my silk sleeping bag liner. I put on the long-johns I had packed in case of cold weather and went to bed without a comforter or any blankets. I was now determined to leave Albania tomorrow!



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