Tirana, Tirana and …. what was next?
I couldn’t make up my mind until the very last moment. Closing the gates of the Tirana Backpacker Hostel, I was still unsure whether I would end up in Berat (a UNESCO city of thousands of windows) or Gjirokastër (a UNESCO city of a thousand of steps). I was feeling more inclined to go to Gjirokastër, but literally everyone I met on my way recommended Berat as the most beautiful place in Albania.
I don’t like crowds. Since everybody was in Berat, I thought, it must be quite crowdy…
This “hate-crowds” logic made the decision for me: I chose to visit the birthplace of Enver Hoxa, a city of a thousand of steps, Gjirokastër!
After approximately 5 hours of driving in a small and incredibly hot and sultry mini-bus, having experienced one almost-accident and seeing some really stunning panoramas, I got off the bus at the foot of Gjirokastër. (This town doesn’t spread. It “climbs”, literally).
The moment I got off the bus, a taxi driver approached me and asked if I needed a ride. I showed him the address of my hostel and asked how far it was. He grabbed his head, started bouncing around me, shaking his head, waving his arms and said (or almost shouted)“It’s 6 kilometers up the hill, you can’t walk this!!!!!!!” and pointed to … the hill I was trying to ignore since I got off the bus.
Well. I was quite out of shape after the long and bumpy mini-bus drive, so I broke my rule again and went with the taxi driver.
At least, in Albania they don’t rip you off (providing that you ask about the price before getting on the car!).
The driver, talkative and excited by the fact that I was from Poland, told me everything he knew about my country, from Warszawa and.. Katowice, to..Lech Walesa. How’s that even possible?
After quick check-in at the hostel (a room for three people in an original Ottoman house made of wood and stones only for myself!), I set off to explore this lovely town.
Soon did I find out why it’s called a city of “thousands of steps”. I swear, in whole Gjirokastër there is not a single horizontal street. Everything goes steep up or down and that’s what makes this place look so gorgeous (and kind of .. sweaty).
I started my sightseeing with a visit to a gloomy castle overlooking Gjirokastër. Although the construction works began in the VI century and it definitely IS a historic site, there were maybe 10 other people apart from me, two from Poland (we are EVERYWHERE).
The castle has a rich history. It was most often used as prisons, first by the King of the Albanians, Zog I, then by the Nazis and finally by the communist regime.
Since 1971, it’s been a house of a military museum. If you want to see artillery and memorabilia from the times of the Communist resistance against Nazi occupation, you have to pay extra 100 or 200 leks. If you’re not too curious, you can still see dozens of war tanks for free plus a United States Air Force plane captured by the Communists.
Most important for me was the breathtaking, stunning, oneiric panorama of the town. One side of the town clinging to a mountain, spreading slowly onto a vast, green, flat surface changing abruptly into a range of sublime, domineering mountains.
Admiring this view in silence interrupted only by the sounds of insects and gusts of wind is definitely what I call a paradise.
After seeing the castle, I decided to play “wherever” game – my number one way of sightseeing which always leads me to great places and ensures that I don’t get lost.
The only rule of the “wherever” game is to go exactly where you feel an urge to go. For example, I see a kid chasing a cat in some little alley and I go there. I notice an old lady dressed in black sitting in front of an half-empty shop and I go there and have a chat with her (even if we don’t speak the same language). This way, I somehow always manage to reach the recommended places, like museums, plus I see much more than described in guidebooks.
This game is not for people who can’t stand sweating and not knowing where and when they will end up. It’s for those who enjoy the state of being on the way, and the final destination is not necessarily their ultimate objective.
Below are some snapshot of the “wherever” walk around the old town of Gjirokastër.
Ottoman bazaar and historic wooden houses dating back to the 17th and 19th centuries.
Enver Hoxa’s house turned into Ethnographic Museum.
That’s where I bumped into an organized trip from Poland, a real nightmare. 40 people crowded in this poor house trying to see the objects the guide was just talking about. Noise, lack of space, lack of time, forget about taking some good photos. Why do even people sign up for such trips? Why? I waited till they left and had all the house for myself.
Zekate House, the oldest Ottoman tower house built in 1812.
The owners of the house are the guides. It doesn’t matter if you are single or in a group, they show you every room in the house and explain its functions in greatest details. For free. They are fluent in Italian and good at English. Admission fee was around 1 or 2 Euros. Eh, Albania.
This is why I love this country. They have such gems everywhere around the country, some of them are not even difficult to find and still, they don’t rip you off and offer excellent service, in my opinion, worth more than their prices.
It’s not going to last for long, though. The tourism-machinery is pacing up…