All research that I’d done prior to my arrival in Albania, was that many a person makes a day trip from Sarandë to Gjirokastër; but not so many opt to stay overnight in the mountain city. And I am just here to tell you guys: staying a night in Gjirokastër is 100%, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt WORTH IT. The old town, known as Albania’s Stone City, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with traditional ottoman houses, steep winding stone streets, and an extremely high concentration of colourful carpets. (Let’s face it, you can’t go wrong with a colourful carpet, can you?) To cut a long story short- this place is stunning and I basically fell in love with it. But to elaborate on a mere 24 hours in Gjirokastër: here is my tale and tips, in all their glory.
How to get to Gjirokastër
I knew roughly where the bus stop was to catch a bus from Sarandë to Gjirokastër; the guy from the hostel had informed me it was ‘just the other side of the park,’ but also that I would just have to ask any bus that was leaving if it was going where I needed to go, and they would tell me. So, approximately an hour before the bus was due, I thought I’d wander through the sweltering hot city centre and see if I could locate the bus stop. I was stepping up onto a cracked pavement next to a souvenir shop selling Albanian flags and postcards from circa 1997, with my bus stop destination still approximately 5-10 minutes away, when an old man hanging out the open side door of a dilapidated minivan began yelling ‘Gjirokastër, GJIROKASTËR!!!’ directly into my face. He had style, he had pizzazz, he had VOLUME.
I stopped dead in my tracks and repeated back to him questioningly, ‘Gjirokastër?’
He nodded- ‘GJIROKASTËR!!’ and with zero second thoughts from me and one sweeping gesture of the arm from him (the one that wasn’t keeping him held on to the side of the vehicle), I clambered up into the van and hastily took a seat behind the driver. The old man slammed the door shut and off we went, rattling through the streets filled with concrete apartment buildings and gaudy hotels, the stunning turquoise sea accompanying us on one side until we began to get further out of the city. Every now and then the driver would stop the van with no warning and at no visibly marked stop, to let a passenger in or out.
I’m not gonna lie pals, there was a moment about half an hour into the journey that I began to worry- but I was actually worried about my lack of worry, as opposed to the situation itself. I mean, who in their right mind just willingly hurls themselves into an unmarked minivan which has seen far better times, just because someone was yelling in their face? People who are being kidnapped, that’s who. Looking around at the assortment of local faces, I was pretty sure I wasn’t being kidnapped, and it turns out I was right. This bad boy minivan was actually a ‘furgon,’ which is basically a shared transport between cities. There’s no timetable because they just leave when they’re full and turn up when they feel like it.
An Albanian lady hopped on in next to me with a plastic carrier bag of shopping and nodded her ‘hello’ to me. Naturally I nodded back.
Nods exchanged, she made a great travel companion for the duration of the mysterious journey, despite the fact that she spoke to me in a combination of Albanian and Italian, neither of which are languages that I actually speak. What an absolute legend.
We twisted our way up through the mountains with the radio blaring, passing the odd goat strutting sassily along the roadside with bells clanging away around each furry fellow’s neck. Every time we rounded a corner and were met with yet another stunning view of the dry mountains and trees all over the place, birds of prey soaring overhead, my old lady friend would tap my arm and say ‘Bella, bella, no!?’ It turns out that Italian TV is kind of a big deal around these parts, so naturally the people of Albania have found it a rather easy language to pick up.
After about an hour and a half in the van which would most certainly have failed its MOT test, we finally reached a roadside in a valley where the driver yelled out ‘GJIROKASTËR!’ and I handed him my 400 lek (which is around €3.20), launching myself out of the van along with some German backpackers who had joined at various points along the way. Opting out of a walk up the steep hillside through the modern part of the city in such crazy heat, all six of us crammed into a taxi which was waiting at the bus stop, paying a couple of euros each for him to take us right the way up to the old town.
I was staying in the Hotel Gjirokastër, right by the castle, and the owner was a darn tootin’ lovely chap who presented me with a plate of watermelon and a bottle of icy cold water as if by magic as soon as I arrived, then showed me up to the room I was staying in, which was complete with good carpets (classic Albania), olde worlde furniture and a pair of crocs. I opted out of the crocs, but I appreciated the sentiment.
Wandering the streets of Gjirokastër
Located 300 metres above sea level, this place is a whole world away from the Albanian Riviera where I had just been. Although the more modern part of Gjirokastër is not particularly pretty- it has all the trademarks of communist architecture due to the fact that it was built during the regime of Enver Hoxha, who was in fact a local lad who grew up in the city (not that they make a big deal of that these days, it was kind of a dark time for Albania)- the old town is an Absolute Stunner.
Winding cobbled streets steeply criss-cross around the mountainside, and the houses look as if they’re made of the same cobbled stones as the pavements. And although tourism is very gradually on the rise around here, I barely saw a single soul away from the main streets of the Old Bazaar. Just the odd cat, or an old man emerging from a doorway and disappearing down an adjacent alley. The streets are quiet, and the views across the valley are to put it simply, breathtaking. With only one night in the town, and being more the kind of person to take exploring at as relaxed a pace as possible, I didn’t get to see all of what Gjirokastër has to offer, but I still managed to take in a fair amount of the town while I was there.
I stumbled across Zekate House in my wandering around the silent streets, and when I realised it cost a mere 200 lek to take a look inside, I obviously stepped into the courtyard to explore further. It was a no-brainer, for goodness’ sake.
This is an amazingly preserved and very grand Ottoman home which was built in the early 1800s, and once you step inside you’re pretty much free to go wherever you want. The rooms inside are downright beautiful, with some smaller more basic rooms for couples to live in, and other more opulent rooms with stained glass windows, hidden hammams, intricately carved doors, and stunning views of the valley. The most beautiful room of all had a screened balcony overlooking it where the women and children were allowed to watch the festivities happening below without joining in or being seen. There’s not a lot in the way of descriptions of what you’re looking at, but the owners of the house live next door and pop over to pipe up with some info every now and then.
The crowning glory of Gjirokastër is undoubtedly its fortress. I made my way up the hill later in the day, passing old ladies selling lace and an assortment of carpets (carpets, everywhere you turn), knowing that hopefully I’d be there in time to see a tiny bit of sunset action.
Like pretty much everything you’d want to see in Gjirokastër, entrance to the fortress is ridiculously cheap at a mere 200 lek, but information about the actual place is limited; which is a shame as this place undoubtedly holds thousands upon thousands of stories. The castle was built in the 12th century, and was lived in by the people of Gjirokastër for years. Byzantine and Ottoman rulers came and went, adding gradually to the whole majestic development, but eventually when King Zog appeared on the scene around the 1930s (no relation to Zig and Zag off of The Big Breakfast, he was in fact a real live king, and the only king Albania ever had), the fortress was converted into a prison. Weirdly there’s the shell of an old US army plane from World War II parked in the castle, nose overlooking the valley. Some say it was shot down, others say it simply fell out of the sky; essentially it was quite a while ago now so let’s let bygones be bygones, shall we!?
Nowadays the castle houses an assortment of old tanks and weapons, which are imposingly lined up in a grand hall like troops as you enter, and it’s also the home of the National Folklore Festival which happens once every five years, with a stage built right at the top of the whole grand artifice. The views of Gjirokastër and the valley the city is nestled in are overwhelmingly AWESOME, there’s no way to deny it. And as the sun slowly curled up behind the backdrop of the mountains, the shafts of light that poured over the mountainside were nothing short of incredible. Even if history is not your thing and you’re in it for the views alone, this place is an awe-inspiring location to visit.
The Old Bazaar
Here the streets are lined with tiny shops packed with hand-crafted products, antiques, and I’m not gonna lie- a whole range of tourist-luring objects which were possibly not actually made in Albania at all. I’m no expert, but there are some real gems to be found amongst the tourist tat, made by lovely locals who are very much up for a bit of business. The carpets (you might have guessed that I’m all about the carpets) are called qilim, and are so richly patterned that if I could have bought twenty, I would have done. Also look out for çifteli- the wooden guitar-looking things with a mere two strings- and qifqi pans, which are specially moulded frying pans for cooking rice balls, ie qifqi. I’m a real fan of all of them.
The Bazaar dates all the way back to the Medieval days, and was a centre of activity for the residents of Gjirokastër for centuries. That is, up until the Hoxha regime kicked in, and people began to move away to the more comfortable modern apartments down the mountainside. Life around here was becoming a bit ghostly until the old town of Gjirokastër was recognised as an architecturally downright awesome place and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since then the area has gradually been given a new life, with tourism one of the driving factors. Part of the Old Bazaar was actually being reconstructed while I was visiting, but it was still a beaut little place to explore.
I really appreciated wandering through the shops and chatting to the owners, who without exception seemed like full on lovely smiley people who are proud of their city and their country. In one shop on a corner, a lady holding her baby asked ‘do you want to see something awesome?’
The answer, naturally, was YES, ALWAYS.
She flicked a switch and a glass circle on the floor was suddenly lit up from beneath, revealing an old stone well that disappeared into the distance below. Her parents had decided a couple of years ago to refurbish the inside of the shop, and discovered the Medieval well whilst the building work was being done. Naturally they decided to make a feature of it.
Most evenings, a group of singers in traditional costumes gather in the Old Bazaar to just sit at a table and bash out some tunes for anyone to hear. But not just any tunes, oh no siree. These are Albanian Iso-Polyphonic tunes, and they are a strange but beautiful thing to hear, especially on a street filled with richly coloured carpets as the sky is turning plum-coloured. I felt pretty lucky to be within earshot of that, pals.
The following morning, there was a different vibe on the street as old men gathered outside cafes for their morning coffees and a chat, before disappearing into the buildings again as the sun got a little too toasty to be sitting in.
The Old Mosque
In 1967 during the Communist days of yore, Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first and only official ‘Atheist State,’ persecuting followers of any religion, and destroying as many places of worship as possible. Don’t get me wrong, those days are long gone now (thank goodness), and the country still doesn’t have an official religion; but around 58% of the country is Muslim, with the rest of the population made up of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, other forms of Christianity, or just no religion at all. Maybe the one good thing that came out of the ‘atheist’ rule of the Communist days, is that now Albania is considered to be one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world, with each group coexisting seemingly in perfect harmony with each other. Religious discrimination, and hate crime, just isn’t really a thing around here. It’s pretty cool, you guys! I’m a real fan! The rest of the world should try it sometime!
The 17th century Old Mosque was somehow saved from destruction in the 60s, and in a brilliant twist of events became a training hall for circus acrobats. There’s no denying that’s a fantastic way of keeping life in a building, is there? Restored to its former glory as an actual place of worship as opposed to a trapeze playground, the mosque is free to visit, although unfortunately I had no idea you could step inside when I was there. I did however, still get a lot of appreciation out of this place. Five times daily, you can hear the call to prayer drifting out from the minaret across the rooftops of the city, and call me easily pleased but I’d never heard that before, and I full on loved it.
What to eat in Gjirokastër
To be honest. I went to a restaurant, made friends with the waitress and ordered a little bit of everything that she informed me were ‘things you should eat in Gjirokastër.’ Because I wanted it all, and also because it still only cost me about €6 which is just ridiculous. First on the agenda was those qifqi that I mentioned earlier, because these bad boys are considered traditional specifically to Gjirokastër- hence the abundance of qifqi pans for sale in the Bazaar. These are fried balls of rice, seasoned with copious quantities of dried mint, and they are DELICIOUS. Also, not that I’m vegan myself, but these are a fully viable vegan option in Albania!
Meatballs, grilled vegetables, fried cheese and byrek (a flaky pie filled with whichever filling you feel like ordering) were also all on the table- literally- in smaller portions for me, because the waitress obviously saw the eagerness in my eyes coupled with the fact that surely I wouldn’t be able to eat ALL THAT FOOD. Know what I’m saying!?
If you want a cool place to get coffee and some super delicious cake, I’d say head to Sweet Cellar, ran by an American lady who moved to Albania years ago after falling in love with the place. The cafe itself is full on cute, and the homemade cakes are mouthwatering, although obviously not along the ‘traditional Albanian food’ thread.
On the morning I left the city, breakfast was an extraordinary event in its own right. I had chosen to stay in a hotel basically because it was such amazing value that it was kind of a no-brainer after staying in hostels and Airbnbs for a good while on my travels during that particular Grecian/Albanian trip. And to be honest, I had read the reviews of the Hotel Gjirokastër, and they all declared that breakfast their was incredible.
I sat down at my little table after calling out a ‘morning!’ to the really lovely lass behind the bar, who then proceeded to bring out the most mahoosive array of dishes that I’ve ever tucked into. It was a bit like that memory game ‘I went to the supermarket and I bought….’ where you add an extra item on to the list each round and see if you can remember them all. Yoghurt, two kinds of honey, a plate of watermelon, grapes, bread, cheese, fried eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, a massive biscuit, homemade pies, some kind of fried dough ball dumpling things, plum juice, mountain tea, and finally a plate containing a solitary pear.
I was dumbfounded I tell you.
So if you want all that plus an awesome room in the mountains for a night which comes with a complimentary pair of crocs, it’ll cost you a mere €30 a night, folks.
The owner of the hotel is a Lovely Lad. At around 11 when I had to check out, I went to ask if he knew how often buses went back to Sarandë.
‘Yes. It is a new city. By the sea. Very different to here.’
‘Yes, that’s where I’m going! To Sarandë! But when does the bus go there?’
‘Yes! A new city. And there are buses there! Yes. Very far.’
I felt bad because his English was clearly way better than my completely non-existent Albanian, and the guy was doing his absolute best. Eventually we got there, and he told me to jump in the car with him and two Italian women who he was driving down the mountainside to the main road as well. Their partners were on Harley Davidsons, which they very slowly crawled down the narrow cobbled streets behind the hotel owner’s car, who was honking and yelling warning cries at any oncoming traffic that there were two gargantuan motorbikes following him. What a good lad.
After the two ladies got out of the car and waved goodbye to me, I started to open my passenger door, but the owner said ‘no no! Not yet!’ So I clicked it shut again and settled down. We carried on along the busy main road with traffic all around, and before long he was approaching another clapped-out minivan at high speed, ending up driving parallel alongside it. The driver wound down his window to listen to the hotel owner’s question over the wind and car noise- ‘Gjirokastër!?’
Immediately the van pulled in to the side of the road and the hotel owner gave a proud ‘ta-da!’ signal to me with his arms. What a good man! I hopped on into the front seat of the furgon, with a massive crack running diagonally upwards across the windscreen and a seatbelt that was completely jammed, and marvelled at the beauty of this place and the way it works.
Aside from the fact that Gjirokastër is clearly a beautiful place, and so unlike anywhere else in the Western World that I’ve ever visited, a strong factor in what makes it so amazing is that tourism is only just starting to be a thing here; I really felt like I was uncovering a true hidden gem.
Unlike other parts of the world which are heaving with visitors and struggling to cope- even having to temporarily or permanently close in order to preserve the very places that people are coming to visit- the hotel and shop owners that I spoke to in Gjirokastër are very much up for tourism to the area, recognising that at least at its current (fairly low) level, it’s an extremely beneficial industry for a country which has only in the past several years begun to find its feet after decades of Communist rule. At the moment, getting around Albania is fully possible, but involves a fair bit of planning and throwing caution to the wind. I really really hope that as the tourism industry in this beautiful place grows (as it undoubtedly will), Gjirokastër retains the peaceful, off-the-beaten-path quality which I loved so much.
- Currency in Albania is the Albanian Lek, and currently a euro is equal to around 121 Lek.
- Although a few places will take euro, it’s probs better to get as much cash as you think you’ll need in local currency and get by with that.
- Cash machines are around, but they’re few and far between and often charge. Again- better to withdraw or convert as much as you think you’ll need ahead of time.
- Although there are buses a few times a day between Sarandë and Gjirokastër, the furgon system of travel obviously serendipitously worked like a dream for me! Albanian transport seems to run on its own time, but that happens to be a time that is perfect for me, and therefore is infinitely better than the entirety of the UK rail network. (I’m looking at you in particular, Southern Rail. You’re rubbish and I hate you.)
- Having said this- it’s fully possible that I was just incredibly lucky! Travelling in peak summer time (I was there in mid-August), means that there’s a higher demand for transport and it’s bound to be more frequent.
- I didn’t once feel unsafe in Albania, in fact it’s one of the safest-feeling places I’ve ever visited. Everyone I interacted with was incredibly friendly and welcoming of a visitor to their country, and as a very small lass travelling alone I didn’t experience any problems at all.