ONE DAY IN GJIROKASTER: WHAT TO DO
We had waited for the sun to start dipping behind the rippling slopes of the Gjerë Mountains before making our way into the old town of Gjirokastër.
The limestone, shale, and slate of the hillside had preserved the heat of the scorching day and the whitewashed walls of the buildings looked as parched as we were, but as we walked upwards (always upwards!) we were quickly distracted by the character of one of Albania’s most beautiful towns.
There has been a settlement in Gjirokastër for over 2500 years, but what makes it beautiful today is the 600 Ottoman buildings that scale the hillside, and the enormous 4th century castle. There are souvenir shops lining the streets of the old bazaar (as they have for hundreds of years) and people selling crocheted rugs or lace tablecloths from low walls lining the roads. There are antique stores with army surplus artefacts (poignant reminders of the country’s history), men setting up games of backgammon in the street, and women pouring water into dishes for the occasional stray dog or cat to drink. Occasionally you’ll hear the squeak of car tyres slipping on the cobbles or smell the heat of a struggling clutch on the slopes. As it gets darker the cheap fluorescent lighting flickers on in the bars, which are little more than empty living rooms with a single glass-front refrigerator featuring bottles of local beer from Tirana and Korçë. Empty, because the furniture has been pulled onto the street, all the better for people watching. For all this activity, Gjirokastër has a quietness about it. It is calm and watchful. It pulls you into its winding, vertical, slippery streets so that you forget that at the bottom of the hill is a busy road, a dusty town, peeling shopfronts, overflowing dumpsters. Gjirokastër is where we learned what it means for a town to be a ‘hidden gem’.
Here are 5 ways to get the most out of this magical hilltop town in just one day:
1. Visit the castle
Originally built in the 12th Century, this imposing fortress looms over the town. Inside, you can explore hidden tunnels (and prison cells that were in use until 1968) and high walkways, or soak up the beauty of the 19th Century clocktower, or the small field on the top of the castle that is now used to host the annual folk festival.
2. Go to the cold war bunker
In the 1960s Albania’s communist leader, Enver Hoxha, built this giant bunker under the town castle in preparation for the ‘invasion’ he was paranoid about (and made his people live in fear of). The bunker was built to hold 3000 people and designed with space for its own school and law court. It was only discovered in the 1990s, and now tourists are offered daily guided tours.
3. Hike to Ali Pasha
It’s a huge hike (we took our ebikes and even that was brutal) to get to the remains of the old aqueducts that serviced the city, but you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the rustic hills rolling into the distance. You will also pass by the local houses, see shepherds herding their flock, and meet children playing ball in the streets.
4. Buy something from the bazaar
If Turkish-style carpets and souvenirs are your thing, Gjirokaster’s bazaar is a pleasant shopping experience. it’s a relaxing change from the souks of morocco or the crazy markets of Asia - you can talk to the artisans, hear their stories, and find something special to take home.
5. Go Skenduli or Zekate house (or both)
These are both beautifully preserved houses from the Ottoman era and the perfect opportunity to see inside the beautiful facades of the town. Zekate House is probably the most impressive, with carved wooden ceilings, stained glass windows and frescoes, but Skenduli is special because it doesn’t have opening hours for anyone to wander through - it’s appointment only.
And here’s how to finish your stay the perfect way:
Have dinner at The Barrels
Nestled in the vineyards just outside of the old town, this place has to be top of your list when visiting Gjirokastër. Not only will you get beautiful food in a beautiful setting, but the owner will share the story of his country and his cuisine with you. It's more than a dinner, it's an experience.
Everything is fresh and delicious - the home grown vegetables are the best you'll find anywhere, and the goat is cooked to perfection (literally melting in your mouth) according to ancient tradition.
Marcel even took a photo of him picking the figs we enjoyed for dessert to show how fresh they were! This place is such a find: we can't recommend it enough!