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When the fog covers all traces of the city of Gjirokastra, the Castle of Gjirokastra rises majestically over the city. Like a giant ship, it extends across the 1100-foot-high hillside on which it was built during the 4th century. A monument to nearly two thousand years of history, this castle is nowadays one of the most visited places in Albania.
The namesake of this castle is Argjiro, the princess who flew from its heights into her death in order to escape the Ottoman enemies. For centuries, this castle has been witness to the long and ruthless journey of the Albanian people’s struggle for independence. The phases of this journey manifest themselves on the many changes this castle has seen since the Ottoman conquest, at the end of the 14th century, up to the early 1800s and until King Zog’s times. The leader of Janina, Ali Pashë Tepelena, is responsible for the construction of the Clock Tower in the 1800’s. During the first and second World Wars, the castle was transformed into a shelter for the city’s inhabitants against airstrikes. At the entrance of the castle, you find a large array of cannonballs as well as a collection of myriad weapons, collected from antiquity up to the first and second World Wars, all used as resistance to Western occupation.
This space also preserves the infamous prison built in 1932 by King Zog, used by his and all subsequent regimes, including the Fascists, Nazis, as well as the communist regime, until 1968. This prison became a museum in the 70’s. Residents of Gjirokastra still recall the cries of torture coming from the so-called “prison of the seven windows” and the walls still bear the inscriptions of the convicts. One of the most interesting modern curiosities exhibited in this castle is the American two-seater aircraft forced to land near Tirana in 1957, as it was considered a spy plane. At the time of the Cold War, this event marked a triumph over the West and, thus, the aircraft has merited a place in the castle exhibitions.
Fortunately, the castle has its bright and cheerful side, too! Every four years, the National Folklore Festival of traditional Albanian songs and dances takes place on the field on the castle’s roof. There are many other annual festivals, as well, that take advantage of this grand space and spectacular view. Gradually, the Castle of Gjirokastra is having its beautiful revenge on those endless centuries of turmoil and finally becoming a haven, a place of joy!