Monday, July 20, 2015

Up with King Zog and down with American spies: Gjirokaster day two

After visiting the traditional Gjirokaster houses, we had time to rush back to the hotel and watch the British GP in poor quality on a small TV in Albanian. Luckily it turned out to be pretty much the only exciting race so far this season, not a snoozefest like most of them have been. Grand Prix over, we hauled ourselves by foot up another steep path (I threatened to stall like the car did) to visit Gjirokaster Castle.

This was essentially the reason we came to Gjirokaster, since I know Jules is a castle fan and I'm reasonably partial to them myself. It dates back to the 12th century, although the most work was done in the late 15th century by the Ottomans, and major renovations and extensions continued right up until the time of our old friend Ali Pasha in the 19th century.

The impressive entrance hall filled with various weapons

A Communist statue from one of the museums inside - she's casting out a priest and ?? 
The castle was turned into a prison by King Zog in the 1930s, and subsequently used as such by the Fascist Italian and Nazi occupiers and then by the Communists. It was still an eerie place, and the museum told some of the stories of its unfortunate inhabitants. The guidebook I had described "punishment cells" set lower than the corridor where guards could throw in icy or boiling water, according to the season, which wouldn't drain out of the cells, but I couldn't tell if these were them.

Corridor in the prison

An eerie abandoned cell
Let's talk about King Zog for a minute. Just because he came up, and how cool is that name? First the badass flag, now a king called Zog. What doesn't Albania have? I had heard of Zog before, but it was only in the Gjirokaster castle museum that I learned that he was really Albanian. I had assumed he had been parachuted in like the Greek royal family (thus making it extra ridiculous that Queen Elizabeth still apparently sulks about them being kicked out). His original surname was Zogolli, though, which I suppose sounds Turkish, because he changed it to the more Albanian Zogu later on. Apart from his name, Zog is interesting for allegedly surviving over 55 assassination attempts during his reign, as well as being shot in 1923 when he was an MP. Popular guy! Anyway, his reign was brought to an abrupt end by Mussolini invading the country, and he died in exile in France many years later. That's all I have on Zog.

Jules, King of the Castle

Jules and the "spy plane"
Another interesting feature of the castle is the so-called "American spy plane". An American pilot was forced to land in Tirana in the 1950s due to technical problems - not sure what he was doing in the area in the first place. The Communists let him go, but confiscated the plane and declared that they had captured an American spy plane. And here it still is at Gjirokaster castle.

Windy up there

View from the castle - not quite as pretty as the view from Berat castle, but that was really incredible

The old town viewed from the castle
We probably could have seen a bit more if we had stayed longer in Gjirokaster, but we managed to pack the Skenduli house, Ethnographic museum, the castle with its museum, and watching the F1 all into one afternoon, and set out again first thing the next day for the longest drive of our trip, across country to Korçe. 


  1. Did you know that post-Zog the Albanians offered their throne to Charles Burgess Fry, one of the most gifted people of the early 20th century?
    Google him, you'll be amazed!

    1. He seems quite impressive indeed.

  2. Who doesn't love castles? It has a lot of little passages and rooms off to the sides, but they looked a bit too scary for me to explore. Amazing view of the surrounding region.


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