Gjirokaster is a fascinating ancient city set in a dramatic location. A large, imposing fortress dominates the UNESCO listed old town, perched high atop a hill giving panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Quaint Ottoman style houses fill a maze of narrow cobble stoned streets beneath the castle. Best of all there are often no tourists to share the sights with, making this place very different to many other medieval European cities.
Come here if you want to enjoy a stunning part of Europe few people see, and feels almost like a different continent.
HISTORY OF GJIROKASTER
The first settlement may have been built here as early as the 3rd century AD, though there is no mention of the city before the 14th century. By this point it was a large, fortified stronghold situated in a strategic location between two mountain ranges. In 1417 the city became part of the expanding Ottoman empire. Gjirokaster changed hands several times in the early 20th century, with Greece taking the city twice and giving it back to Albania each time. In the second world war Gjirokaster changed hands several times again. It seems everyone wanted to claim this city.
The city is also famous for being the birthplace of Hoxha, the former communist dictator who exercised an iron grip on Albania for 40 years.
THINGS TO DO
This large imposing castle is without doubt the highlight of the city. It’s built on top of the hill at the centre of the old town, so it can be seen from miles away. The castle was originally built in the 12th century by the despots of Epirus, with many later additions and modifications over the centuries. Inside the fortress there is a weapons museum, prison and a long gallery filled with artillery.
When I visited the castle I was the only tourist there, which is quite a rare experience. I was able to explore all the dark passageways and chambers alone, rather than sharing it with large tour groups. The highlight of the castle was walking along the battlements and roof top. The views from the top were stunning, with two mountain ranges enclosing the valley, and the old Ottoman houses spread around the base of the hill. On top of the castle there is a US fighter plane that crashed here during the cold war — not something I was expecting to see in a castle.
This elegant building is the only surviving Mosque in the city (the rest were destroyed by the communists), and is worth a look. It was built in 1757 in the same Ottoman style as the other buildings in the old town.
Entry is free.
Explore the old town
One of the best things to do in Gyroaster is to simply meander around the narrow, cobblestoned streets of the old town. The houses here are fascinating, with bright white walls and intricate windows. One of the largest old houses is the Skenduli house, which you can take guided tours off. There are now several other large, old houses that you can sometimes visit.
The old town has a very peaceful and relaxed atmosphere too, so you can explore at your leisure and get a taste of the local culture.
Visit the old bazaar
The old town has a traditional bazaar that has craft shops with artisan products. Meandering around here is like stepping back in time, as they still use some of the traditional craftsmanship methods from centuries ago.
Hike in the mountains
Gjirocaster often has great weather and is surrounded by impressive scenery, so what better way to explore it than by going for a hike. The city lies between two mountain ranges, the Gjere and the Drino, so there are plenty of walks to choose from.
I went on a hike up the nearest mountain from behind the castle, and was soon climbing up steep rocks on the mountainside under a clear blue sky. There weren’t any proper footpaths on the mountain, but it was relatively easy to find a way up. The views from the top were immense, and well worth the effort. I didn’t see a single person during my entire hike either, apart from one shepherd. If you decide to go for a hike watch out for snakes, I saw several slither away as I climbed up the rocks.
Gjirocaster was one of the unexpected highlights of my time in Albania, and is a must see for anyone travelling in the country. The combination of the beauty of the city, it’s surroundings and the lack of any tourists made it a memorable place to visit. It’s also one of the cheapest cities I’ve been to in Europe. Visit this largely overlooked city before it becomes more popular and some of the charm is lost.
Accommodation: As you can imagine Gjirocaster doesn’t have a huge selection of accommodation, but it’s more than adequate and prices are quite low.
Hotel Sopoti: Large hotel that seems to be straight out of the communist era. This place is a bargain, and easily the best place to stay for solo backpackers on a budget. Rooms are quite basic but the building is fascinating and the owner friendly. Situated in the heart of the old town.
Karafil Guesthouse: Good value guesthouse in the old town that has large rooms with several beds, perfect for two or three people travelling together.
Getting there and Away: The only public transport to and from the city is by bus or shared minibus. The buses and minibuses all leave from the main road at the entrance to the city, about a 15 minute walk from the old town.
There are quite frequent buses to and from Sarande, which take around an hour. A number of buses and minibuses leave for Sarande each day. The journey takes around 6 hours.
There is one morning bus to Korce that leaves after 7am. This bus takes a tiny, very narrow road through the mountains. The views are breathtaking, though at times the bus goes at walking pace up the steep road.