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krisek Gjirokaster - A travel report by Krys
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Gjirokaster,  Albania - flag Albania -  Gjirokastër
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krisek's travel reports

Unique architecture & great castle. Gjirokaster.

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The UNESCO-listed Gjirokastra has a charming old town and spectacular ruins of a gargantuan castle. It is a small place surrounded by mountains, built on the southern slope of a lovely valley. It has developed a unique, very interesting architecture.

Main Bazaar in Gjirokaster
Main Bazaar in Gjirokaster
Gjirokastra was not on my original itinerary for Albania. I thought I did not have enough time to go that way and stop there for the night. Yet, landing at the port of Saranda (linking Albania with the Greek island of Corfu), where I had planned to stay overnight, made me realise that this would have been a mistake. Only then did I decide to proceed to Gjirokastra. It is not always easy to keep travel plans flexible. Rigid timescales and fixed budgets are the main obstacles.

Fortunately, as it happened, Gjirokastra was located almost in the direction I was going to go anyway, so after a quick recalculation and re-plotting of the route, I was on a coach heading to a new item on my itinerary.

When I got to the town, a massive fortress dominated the skyline. It was unbelievable, unlike many fortified towns in Europe. Not unique, but the scale was surprising. I had not expected to see strongholds as old and as monumental as this one.

The old town, although parts of it were visible from the main highway, did not immediately offer its charms. In fact, the ambiance of the old Gjirokastra was subtle. The mountains and green hills commanded the low-rise structures housing shops, markets, cafes, simple eateries, but also mosques and guesthouses. They were hidden and subdued by the shadow, the might and the scale of the castle and its walls. Only larger houses built in the distinguished Gjirokastra style, carefully erected on the slopes of the mountains around the town delicately projected unique character of the place.

One did not have to spend much time to explore Gjirokastra. The old town was very compact, although reaching all of the interesting spots and houses required a bit of sweaty hiking up and down the hills. The fortress required perhaps a couple of hours of thorough examination. Its walls over magnificent views of the spectacular landscape around and the picturesque old town below, whose layout could really be appreciated from above.

Favourite spots:
Inside the fortress of Gjirokaster.
Inside the fortress of Gjirokaster.
By far, the castle was my favourite place in Gjirokastra (also known as Gjirokaster or Gjirokastër). It was massive from the outside. It looked mysterious in the inside. The interior, also of a considerable size, stimulated imagination. The unusually high ceilings made the fortress almost surreal, as if it was intended for a palace or living quarters of a royal family rather than a military fort. Wandering about the dark chambers felt like being teleported back to the Middle Ages.

It seemed to me that the authorities only recently started to care for this incredible monument. Clever lighting has been put in the cleaned up areas, which was converted into a some sort of military museum. Yet many areas of the castle were inaccessible to visitors. Building material and padlocks on gates indicated that perhaps in the future, more space inside the fort will be tidied up and prepared for admiration.

What's really great:
Western part of the town on a slope with typical architecture.
Western part of the town on a slope with typical architecture.
The population of the town seemed really friendly. People gave an impression that they welcomed visitors. Particularly those, who mingled with them, and spent their money at local restaurants, cafes, bars and gift shops. The Albanians I met, liked to practise their English and Italian. The latter was actually more popular amongst the Albanians.

The town, built on a slope provided a great opportunity to exercise a little, by scaling those hills. I like it when I can do some exercises while visiting new places!

There was one thing I did not like about Gjirokastra. It was the architecture of the new town. For some reason, the locals thought it was a good idea to abandon their fabulous traditional forms, and started erecting square blocks with flat roofs. And the roofs were, without exception, places were to keep ugly grey water tanks. The unimaginative flat facades were decorated with nasty looking air-con units and satellite TV dishes. Such a pity!

Part of the old town panorama of Gjirokaster taken from the walls of the fortress.
Part of the old town panorama of Gjirokaster taken from the walls of the fortress.
On surface, Gjirokastra seemed too small to have many sights, apart from the overwhelming fortress. And then, once you climbed the hill all the way to the fortress's walls, there were plaques at the view points indicating a number of places of interest. Some of the spots included the Bazaar Mosque and Medresa, dating back to 1757, sticking out slightly over the cluster of the small, old, whitewashed structures with light brown roofs; the Angonate House - the largest of the Gjirokastra-style architecture, the Zekate House, dating back to 1812, also in the same style built by one of Albania's leaders by Bequir Zeko; a tall Obelisk - marking the spot of the very first Albanian school in Gjirokastra; the large Ethnographic museum; and the Zagoria Han - an inn, a purposely built hotel, designed for the travellers, who kept coming to trade at the Bazaar.

Bathroom in the room number 3 of the Alpo Hotel.
Bathroom in the room number 3 of the Alpo Hotel.
Alpo Hotel must have been a new establishment in town, located in a new building, looking like an oversized villa. The top floor was still under construction, but there was not much noise when I stayed, apart from some morning rumbling at 05:45! They charged €25 for a single occupancy in a twin room, complete with a shiny new toilet/shower room. The tiled floor in the bathroom was so clean that it looked like it was wet! Tiny soap bars, minute tubes of shampoo, and s toilet roll complemented clean towels. I was given room #3, which was small-ish, but had a wardrobe, a chair, phone, small fridge, and a TV with World Cup showing. The bed linen was colourful and crisp. The small window with shutters had no view. The air-con unit would not come on. Perhaps the batteries in the remote were flat. It was not oppressively hot, so I did not report it. One person from the personnel (maybe owners?) spoke reasonable English. But no-one else. The hotel had a large restaurant.

Clock tower, part of the fortress of Gjirokaster.
Clock tower, part of the fortress of Gjirokaster.
The Remezzo lounge, by the main roundabout (still decorated in giant Christmas Tree, and it was June, some six months after and/or before December 25... very intriguing indeed), was one of the decent nightlife spots in Gjirokastra. It had two levels, the top one was located on a covered terrace. Comfy seating, good mix of young people and relatively good music, combined with central location made it a really good option to mingle with the locals after sunset.

There was also the David Club, whose neon looked prominent on the night skyline. I did not go there, as too much partying on Corfu the night before, a slow and hypnotic coach ride, a hot day of hill climbing and a large pizza for dinner all finished me off.

The First Bar, on the top of Hotel First, with a view of the old town and the fortress.
The First Bar, on the top of Hotel First, with a view of the old town and the fortress.
Gjirokaster did not have a square, where a string of cafes or bars would have their terraces and tables on the pavement. That would have been a perfect place for a snooze over a cold beer. Instead, there were a few bars along the main avenue. There were no tables on pavement, but there were terraces. Mostly shaded. One cafe however, had a tiny balcony with three small round tables flooded in the afternoon sun. Perfect for me, who wanted to get some colour in order to look slightly healthier and more relaxed. The balcony overlooked the main drag, yet on a Sunday afternoon plus a World Cup match featuring Italy meant no-one to watch on the streets.

I found a roof terrace bar on top of the Hotel First. The bar was called The First. It was located on the seventh floor and the view was breathtaking. Both of the castle in the east and the mountain in the north. And they had real Albanian beer there, called Korça (150 leke (£0.90, €1.09, $1.40) for 0.33l bottle).

Natyr (vegetarian) pizza at the Erai Pizzeria.
Natyr (vegetarian) pizza at the Erai Pizzeria.
Little pizzeria called Erai on the main street leading up to the old town served a range of pizzas for 550 leke (£3.33 or €4 or $5.15) each. They were popular with locals and did deliveries as well. I ordered a vegetarian one called 'natyr' and a bottle of Albanian (allegedly) beer called ... Amstel ;) The pizza came 12 inches across and it was tasty. The beer was ice-cold!

The Fantazia restaurant at the view point once occupied by a gargantuan statue of Albania's socialist leader was not very popular at all. No locals seemed to go there and visitors preferred a few small places right beneath the view point. So, I did not go there either. Perhaps it was too expensive or the spot was cursed or something, and I would not be surprised if it was.

Other recommendations:
The Zagoria Han - the inn for travellers, who came to trade at the Bazzar.
The Zagoria Han - the inn for travellers, who came to trade at the Bazzar.
Gjirokastra was well connected with the capital, Fier and Saranda. Comfortable and air-conditioned, although slightly dated, coaches made the north-south route. From Saranda, which in turn was connected with the Greek Corfu island by a daily passenger hydrofoil (not a ferry), was only 1.5h away. The first 36 kilometres of the road from Saranda was in terrible condition (June 2010), and therefore making this journey so long. The stretch of the last 20 kilometres, just before Gjirokastra, was excellent, which the coach did in only about 15 minutes. There was a coach every 2 hours or so, in both direction - south and north.

In addition to coaches, small vans and minibuses served the same destinations and more. They were faster, but less comfortable, more expensive and had no air conditioning. Yet, the coaches were less frequent, and operated from certain points only, while the minibuses stopped virtually anywhere en route.

Published on Sunday September 5th, 2010

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Tue, Sep 07 2010 - 03:36 PM rating by eirekay

Krys, what a terrific find! Great report!

Sun, Sep 05 2010 - 11:19 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Wondeful report ! Thanks

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