After not travelling solo for almost a year (last time was Mongolia in April/May!), it was finally time for me to head off on my own again for 4 days of solo explorations in the Eastern European country of Albania, on March 18th. I’ve always been fascinated by the east, and Albania has especially piqued my interest, because of how unknown and unexplored it is by other travellers – even its beaches, which are said to be the best in Europe, are undiscovered by holiday-goers (although I’m sure that will change soon!).
As you probably know by now, I love exploring the unknown and going to places that only few travellers include on their itineraries. So Albania was the perfect country for me to explore on my few days off.
I left my apartment in Copenhagen early in the morning to go to the airport, and found myself in the air at 8.55 AM, headed to Bergamo, Italy. I had a three hour stopover in Bergamo before heading to Tirana, the capital of Albania. At 2.15 PM, we finally left Bergamo and 1,5 hour later, I was in Albania.
As soon as I got out of the airport, I was harassed by taxi drivers (just like every other country in the world, this is definitely not just an Albanian issue), and one guy asked 1500 lek (12 USD) just to take me 14 kilometres to Tirana. Instead, I decided to wait for 45 minutes and caught the bus to Tirana, which cost me as little as 250 lek (2 USD).
The bus driver dropped me off at Sheshi Shiqponja, ‘Eagle Square’, where the South Bound Bus Station is located. I had decided to head straight to the south to save time, and so I could be in Tirana on my last full day, so I would be closer to my flight in the morning. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, but Saranda was my initial plan. The bus for Saranda would leave at 10 PM, so I would have to wait 5 hours if I went there. Instead, I chose to catch a bus to the ancient city of Gjirokastra, which is only an hour away from Saranda, and the bus left Tirana at 6.30 PM, a much better time for me!
The bus to Gjirokastra cost me 1000 lek (8 USD), which is cheap considering it was a 5 hour journey (and compared to the taxi!!!). Oh, and the bus had a toilet!! That’s a big deal, because I hardly ever see that outside of Western Europe (and trust me, those 20 hour bus rides without toilets in Iran were hell…).
4 hours after we’d left Tirana, we arrived in Gjirokastra one hour ahead of schedule, and I immediately started my search for the only hostel that I could see on the map. Unfortunately, I hadn’t researched places to stay in Gjirokastra, as I hadn’t expected to stay there overnight. I found the hostel after a short search, but there was a sign on the door stating that it was closed until Spring 2017… So the search for a cheap hotel began instead. I knocked on so many doors and walked up and down countless streets to find hotels that were marked on the map, but nothing was open. Eventually, I decided to try the expensive-looking Old Bazaar 1970 Hotel, and just as I had expected, it was too expensive for me… 30 euros for the cheapest room, which is about 200 % over my budget.
I was about to give up, when I met two guys on the street. They asked me what I was looking for, and when I said that I was looking for a hotel, but that it had to be cheap, one of the guys said that he was a hotel owner (what a coincidence!), and would give me the room for the price that I wanted. So I got a hotel room, which is worth 3000 lek (24 USD) for just 1000 lek (8 USD) – what a bargain! Thank you to Gjirokastra Hotel for saving me that night!
I woke up early the next morning, ready for a full day of sightseeing. My plan was to spend a few hours in Gjirokastra, before heading on to Saranda and then doing more sightseeing in that area!
As soon as I stepped outside the door, I was amazed by the sight that met my eyes. Gjirokastra is so beautiful! I couldn’t believe that Albania was this beautiful, and I can only imagine how tourists will flock to the country as soon as they realize this. The country is one of the most beautiful in Europe, if you ask me!
Gjirokastra is divided into two parts, the old town and the new town. My hotel was located in the old town, which, together with the old town in Berat, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site desribed as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate”.
The city was founded in the 3rd century AD, but most of the existing stone buildings in the old town are from the 17th and 18th century AD, and some of these houses have become more or less famous, and are said to be some of the grandest examples of Ottoman styled architecture in Gjirokastra.
The old town is built on a slope surrounding the old fortress, which is situated on a plateau at the height of 336 metres. Gjirokastra Castle is the main tourist attraction in the city, as its said to be the second largest castle in the Balkans. It’s unknown when the castle was built, but it was first mentioned in the 12th century AD.
I spent most of my two hours in Gjirokastra that morning exploring the castle, which houses corridoors full of weapons, the remains of a two-seater jet from 1957, and the Armaments Museum, telling the story of Ali Pasha’s 19th century reign, when he used the fortifications as a communist prison.
The entrance fee for the castle was a mere 200 lei (1,5 USD).
Unexpectedly, Gjirokastra became the first destination on my Albanian trip. I had the city on my list of places to visit, but I actually didn’t think that I was going to make it there, but I’m very thankful that I did considering how beautiful and interesting it is! It was a great introduction to the beauty of Albania, which I couldn’t wait to see more of.
After just two hours of exploring Gjirokastra, it was time to head on to the next destination, the city of Saranda on the Albanian Riviera – stay tuned!