Like most travellers, I only intended on staying for a couple of days when I arrived in Gjirokaster. You know tick off the tourist checklist, the mighty castle peering down over the old town and the entire valley. The cold war tunnel, a relic of Communist Albania and of course the well crafted 19thCentury Ottoman style traditional stone built houses, which are sort of mini castles easily defended with big stone ground floors and no windows, with more elaborate upper floors, nestled tightly upon each other on cobbled stone streets – but as I am all about the people and the culture I found the charm of the place lure me in and take a hold and I knew I had to stay a little longer.
As I said travellers and tourists come and only stay for a day or two at most, and last time I was there I saw tour bus after tour bus bringing in package tours just for a few hours visit. Unfortunately, these guys would never be seduced by the charm of the Gjirokaster people and the ‘bazaar’ (Old Town).
When I stepped off the local bus that dropped me in the heart of the old town, the sun was shining and the cobble streets glimmered in the heat. Looking up, the impressive castle towered over the town ever watchful. It was early afternoon and the town was alive, old men chatting, quaint street-side bars filled with tourists and locals partaking in Raki (a local home-made spirit made with grapes or plumbs) or refreshing Albanian beers. Business owners sold their wares from outside the shop engaging pleasantly with passers by. If you think beauty and the beast style town, you’ve got it!
As usual I arrived without any accommodation and as I wandered up the main street with my backpack weighing heavily in the afternoon heat. A young woman called out, ‘Hey man, can I help you?’ She was working in the local pizza shop and I stopped to have a chat.. I know travellers are always weary of getting scammed or mugged or whatever and I have seen them dismiss people rudely out of hand, but I think you have to apply a bit of common sense, look at your setting, keep your distance but listen to what they have to say. If you’re not happy say thank you and move swiftly away or sometimes you just got to ‘roll with it’ Be open and cautious at the same time..
Anyway, it all seemed fine and within 5 minutes she had me fixed up in the Erindi Guest house. A family home over-looking the valley with amazing views of the new town below and the immense castle up on the hill. It was run by a lovely couple Miri & Blerta with a couple of letting rooms, a lovely big garden bearing all kinds of fruit and vegetables.
For Miri and Blerta nothing was too much trouble, advice on places to visits, where to get the best prices, local customs and stories about the former Head of State Enver Hoxha (who was from Gjirokaster) and the communist era. Through Miri I started to make friends in the ‘Bazaar’ and found out how wonderful, open and generous is the Albanian way. I loved chilling in Gjirokaster with it’s relaxed atmosphere, writing, taking photographs and learning about it’s fascinating history. I recommend ‘Bar Toli’ on the crossroads in the bazaar, friendly bar owner Toli will make you feel welcome. A great place to sit outside and people watch. Don’t forget to try his Raki!
The bazaar itself has no ‘nightlife’ as such, for that you will have to go down into the new town. The bazaar has lots of delightful bars and restaurants to sit in and enjoy the atmosphere of the old town. You can watch frendly games of dominos, a favourite pastime of the Albania men, try some traditional Albania food and you will find the people friendly and welcoming. Most places have wifi to keep you connected on the road.
Speaking of Enver Hoxha, you can see graffiti throughout Albania with his name boldly scrawled in favour of a return to his ways. There are mixed feelings in modern Albania whether or not they were better off under his harsh communist rule. Some obviously hated the state control and oppression. Others cite that everyone was employed and had trades but they all seem to agree there was less poverty. Anyway, you can go see the Hoxha family home just up from the Erindi Guesthouse and get a feel for yourself about Enver Hoxha.
Back to Gjirokaster, the castle is amazing, sure it’s a bit in need of some renovation works but you can pleasantly stroll around and soak in the history. It’s a place to relax, take a picnic, take a book and while away a few hours. The castle has a museum dedicated to the resistance groups that operated in and around the gjirokaster, paying homage to the martyrs who paid the ultimate price. There are also many examples of communist artwork and statues throughout the castle.
The cold war tunnel will give you an insight into the communist mind. It’s paranoia and control and can be viewed several times per day. The new town down in the valley is an example of Hoxha’s vision for the future a sprawling densely populated concrete town with a wide central avenue bustling with all its modern shops and restaurants, a worthwhile visit. Hotel the first is a good example of the grandeur of the communist vision and has a good cafe that do a great ‘Suflache’ (a kind of gyros style kebab in pitta bread)..
Several of the traditional Ottoman houses have been fully restored and are open to the public for a small fee like the Kadare house, home of famous award winning poet and novelist Ismail Kadare or The Zekate house, probably the finest example of the traditional houses in all of Girokaster. If you’re into property renovation, ask around and you can watch the skilled carpenters or stone roofers at work to see how the ancient buildings methods are still alive and thriving today.
Gjirokaster’s Bazaar is in need of a facelift but it doesn’t lack any charm. Maybe with some investment this could be well known throughout the world. Regardless, for me it is a place where the people allowed me in and I feel very privileged to have got to know the people and their individual stories. Take a stroll down the Bazaar and feel the history.