If the walls of Gjirokastra's brooding castle could talk, they'd tell tales of Ali Pasha's 19th century reign, when the tyrant used his hilltop fortifications as a communist prison. What remains of their secrets is now revealed in gun-filled corridors, overgrown gardens and dark punishment cells. Closed as a prison in 1971, the space is now the National Museum of Armaments.
To reach this UNESCO World Heritage site, our band of cyclists ditched the bikes and began at the top of the cobbled street punctuated by artisan shops. The steep trek to the castle disclosed the truth behind Gjirokastra's nickname: City of 1,000 Steps. In its dank interior, more secrets of a prison built in 1929 emerged: the vaults were once holding cells for King Zog's enemies, then used by the Nazis during their occupation of Gjirokastra.
What made the trek to the top truly worthwhile was the jaw-dropping vista of Gjirokastra spread before us. With its slate rooftops and 19th century buildings glinting in the sun, I understood why the Albanian government declared it a Museum City in 1961: to preserve its architectural heritage and authentic Albanian spirit.
Finally, we came to the coup de grace: remains of a two-seater jet. The truth behind it depends on what story you believe. The Communists': it was an American spy plane forced down in 1957. The pilot's: he sought permission to land at Rinas Airport when his plane developed problems. At which point, Albanian authorities confiscated it.