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An ancient stone-built town climbing the slopes of the Drino Valley in Southern Albania, Gjirokastra was a Byzantine fortress named Argyrokasto (Silver Castle) before it was captured by the Ottoman Empire in 1419. It subsequently evolved into a fabled and wealthy Ottoman merchant town, and in the early 20th century, became a world centre for Bektashism – a Sufi mystical sect.
Today, Gjirokastra, ‘the city of a thousand steps’, boasts 500 historic buildings, a fortress, and cobble-stone streets filled with solid and highly distinctive Ottoman houses constructed with locally quarried limestone – many of them are the former homes of wealthy merchants and landowners. The town’s ethnographic museum – featuring objects and exhibitions related to the region’s social and cultural life, including folk costumes, implements and antiques – is built on the site of communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s birth, and is the place to learn about Ottoman society.Read more
Situated on the top of a hill, Gjirokastra castle is an imposing structure that broods over the town below. Its fortifications conceal an armaments museum, two Bektashi tekes, numerous fine rooms, a prison, some ruins, and an art gallery. The town is the setting for the famous and highly atmospheric Gjirokastra Folk Festival, a joyful gathering which showcases Albanian music and dance, food and drink, arts and crafts, including fine embroidered textiles, wood and stone work, woven rugs, and lace – a precious keepsake passed through the generations.
The town’s social and commercial life is still focussed on the Old Bazaar in the Old Town, where you’ll find the Gjiorkastra mosque and many well-restored houses, several open to the public. One of the town’s most beautiful structures is the three-floored Zekate house in the Palorto quarter; its interior features fine decorations and expansive views from its tower. There are also several archaeological sites in town, including ancient theatre and baths, and some of the oldest Orthodox churches in the Balkans.