O’er the hills and not very far away from the Albanian Riviera, lies the beautiful old town of Gjirokastër. But before we proceed any further I have to mention that the drive from Saranda to Gjirokastër on a grey, wet winter day was oh so delightful.
From sea-level at Saranda, east to the mountains, up, up into the clouds. Snaking along the narrow road, past farms and old buildings, Albanians whipping by to pass you all the while, until you’re over the summit and now pointing back toward the earth instead of away from it. Steadily descending from above the clouds to below them at last, where the windy mountain road meets the highway to Gjirokastër on the valley floor. Road signs now both in Greek and Albanian, informing drivers of what villages they’re passing on their ways to wherever. Mountain villages that have seen men and women come and go since before forever.
Heading to Gjirokastër, turn left off the highway where the Google Maps robot-lady tells you to, mispronouncing the street name so badly that even though you don’t speak much Albanian at all, you just know she said it as wrong as it was possible to. Laugh hysterically. Keep following her direction though, those lanes that appear way too narrow to lead a vehicle anywhere, in fact, do.
After a short scoot from the turn-off, you find yourself in a parking lot at the base of the rather formidable and impressive-looking castle. Is this the right parking lot? Considering the modest size of Gjirokastër, reason dictates that it must be. Defined by its castle, roads paved with chunky limestone and shale, imposing slate-roofed houses and views out to the Drina Valley, Gjirokastra is a magical hillside town.
Our host met us at Restaurant Sofra, right beside where we parked and remained parked for nearly a week with a jammed window stuck open the entire duration and no sign of a curious attempt to get in the vehicle or even reach in to permanently and anonymously borrow anything. Our host was a very sweet and gracious woman who walked us to our lovely little Duplex Apartment Viktoria in the epicentre of Old Gjirokastër. My wife’s unerring knack for booking in the best location once again coming through. This place is perfect if you like old stone walls, cozy nooks, views of a castle fortress, and an ancient bazaar out your doorstep.
After introducing us to our home for the next 4 days and making sure we were happy and satisfied with our accommodations, as well as informing us that breakfast at nearby Kodra restaurant was included. Before our lovely host departed, she promised to send someone by for our laundry the next day. Which she did.
He came to the apartment to pick up our laundry, took it away and returned it the following evening, smelling nice (the laundry, not him, not that he didn’t, but I didn’t get that close. I’m not that kind of guy), and perfectly folded, for a price so fair I felt guilty about it. Sort of. I hope the generous gratuity illustrated our appreciation.
The incredible level of hospitality we received in Gjirokastër taking us by surprise yet again. At that point, you’d think we’d be used to it. We’d been in Albania for over two months by then. But no, it’s personal to every experience, and thus, genuine and special, unless all Albanians are expert fakers to such a deep level of mastery that every visitor is utterly fooled. Somehow I don’t think so.
I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I love Albania, and I’ll say it again as many times as I feel the need to. I love Albania.
Because it was winter outside and everything we needed was only steps away, including our breakfast restaurant, and our apartment was so cozy, we didn’t go too far from home the entire stay in Gjirokastër. That was fine. Staying in most of the time and reading or watching shows and movies suited us to a tee. Perfect winter behaviour. And if living in northern parts of Canada at times has taught us anything, it was how to get cozy when the weather turns cold. For those brave souls that don’t mind the cold, there’s a really great full-day tour you should check out.
Our included breakfast at Kodra was typically Albanian. The uninitiated can’t possibly understand what this means, so I’ll explain. First off, it was delicious. Pretty standard. It was also delivered in waves of such staggering quantity that the reality of finishing it was next to impossible, without us killing ourselves in the process. There was something from near every breakfast-group you can imagine: pancake-dough-like deep-fried nuggets of amazingness, scrumptious all by themselves but even more so caked in butter and honey, yogurt made in heaven, with home-made fruit preserves for flavour, meats, eggs, and cheese of course. And some different cheese here. And another type of cheese as well. Also good.
Eating had become frighteningly painful but I couldn’t stop. Some fresh juice and a bit of mountain tea to clear the throat, and then just a few more bites from this epic cornucopia. Stagger away from the carnage in a food-induced delirium, vowing to avoid Kodra for a day. Returning tomorrow because I can’t not. As I said, breakfast was typically Albanian.
There is plenty to see in beautiful Gjirokastër, plenty. And when we return soon, during weather more conducive to exploration, we’ll see as much as we deem necessary. Or maybe we’ll go back to Duplex Apartment Viktoria and loaf about again, going only as far as we need to for food, drink, and daily exercise. But probably not. There’s too much to do to squander such a place in good weather. So expect another post, post-winter, after we see what the outdoors has to offer. But I would advise anyone who likes raw, mountainous beauty and beautiful, ancient towns & ruins not to wait for that to make the trip themselves.
Top Things To See in Gjirokastër
- Skenduli House
- Gjirokastër Castle
- Gjirokastër Bazaar
- Zekate House
- Ethnographic Museum
- The Cold War Tunnel
You can find all of our Balkan journeys here.