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July 9, 2002
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From Tirana we head 180 km south to Gjirokastra. The bus station is on a dirt parking lot outside of Tirana's sports stadium. Forget air-conditioning or soft seats, old school buses act as intercity transport. Albanian roads challenge drivers with potholes and winding turns; buses average 30 km per hour and trips drag. Outside Tirana lies undeveloped countryside or small cities and towns. Most places look like abandoned construction sites: half-done houses, concrete block architecture, dusty streets, mom-and-pop grocery stores instead of commercial buildings. As we bump along on the bus, most Albanians wonder what tourists want to see here; they stare at us for the entire trip. People don’t speak English (Italian seems to be the most useful second language), but they’re willing to work through charades or pictionary to get a point across.
From the days when a Mongol or Turkish invasion seemed to be on the doorstep, Albanians built citadels to watch over their towns. Gjirokastra's citadel is over 700 years old; today it stores outdated cannons, a tank, and the wreck of an American jet fighter.
Albanians promoted the letter 'j' to a vowel (pronounced like an 'ee'), so Gjirokastra could be spelled as Girokastra or even Gyrokastra in English.
Cows, horses, and people share Gjirokastra's streets