The infamous road to Gjirokastër.
Third and last day in Sarandê area and also last day in Albania. It is a cloudy and gloomy Saturday and I’m happy I went to Butrint yesterday. Now it is Gjirokastër turn. Without hurry I go to the central bus station, a place that is now becoming almost familiar to me. Reaching Gjirokastër from here isn’t difficult. It is enough to jump in any bus directed to other big towns of Albania as Tirana, Vlorë, Durrës. They all go through Gjirokastër and of course in addition there are also bus or “furgon” going just to Gjirokastër. In short, at least in the morning, there are buses every half an hour. As a confirmation of this, as soon as I arrive at the station, there is a bus to Tirana ready to live. Since it is covering a long distance is a standard bus and not a mini van. This for me is not a significant benefit, because on the winding road we have to do, a mini van goes much faster. Now, it should be said that the forty kilometres of road connecting the coast to the national road located inland on the plain are really terrible. It is a collection of all the risky stuff you can find on a road: blind curves, ravines without adequate guard-rails, danger of landslide danger, steep slope.
The entire road is dashed of commemorative stones for people allegedly died on this road. Is not fair to do the accounting of this kind of things so I didn’t measured how many there are but I can guarantee are dozens. Of course in such a scenario, my thought goes to the efficiency of the bus and especially of its brakes and of course I’m also wishing it will not start to rain since it would make worse, if possible, the security level of this road. Just as a confirmation of the danger, at a certain moment I see a truck trailer on a side completely burned and still smoking. Where is ended up the engine part I don’t know. I hope no problems for the driver. However, if for just a moment you are able to focus only on what to see outside the window, still grabbing anything allowing you to stay stuck to your sit, you would have a fantastic view. It is also possible to see the Syri i kaltër, a famous source called the blue eye, but today seems to have the misted eye due to the clouds. I thought to visit it on the way back to Saranda since it would be a 2 km. walk from the main road but if the light remains as it is, I guess is not worth it. Once again I’m surprised we arrive safe and sound on the main road. Gjirokaster is now just 10 kilometres far away. What could stop us? Uhm… Never say never on an Albanian bus. As two people need to get out along the road, the door does not open. The driver and his assistant (there is always one even in mini vans and local buses) have to work for 3 or 4 minutes on the emergency handle to be able eventually to open it. But now they need to act on the same emergency mechanism every time, because the automatic one doesn’t work anymore. When we are only at 2 km. from Gjirokastër, the root cause of that malfunction reveals itself in a clear way. Main problem is probably on the battery and therefore, when the bus stops once more and the engine turns off it doesn’t start anymore. When I see the driver working under the bus I understand that for me is better to reach destination on foot leaving all the people headed to Tirana hoping for a quick fix.
An unusual path to Gjirokastër.
The different starting point leads me to recalculate the route and to go through the suburbs of the town. Well we know Albania is not a rich country so you can imagine what I’m now crossing is not exactly the most luxurious area you can imagine but as always in Albania, people is very kind wherever I ask for directions. There are lot of childrens. Even a couple of twins I ask to pose for me.
I’m going toward the castle and I start to see. I think that coming from this side and not from the celebrated centre of the town, it allows me to enjoy better view of it. Furthermore, the streets are becoming to be much nicer and I guess I’m having the chance to have a more real experience of the medieval Gjirokastër. Rain seems always about to start to fall, but luckily for the moment it saves me. Now the entrance to the castle is very close. I’m walking on the touristic beaten path and there are much more people even if mostly are locals.
Gjirokastër castle is standing dramatically on the top hill, in a strategic position overlooking the town which name directly refers to the fortifications and means Silver Castle from the greek Argyrokastron.
Wall around the citadel were built starting in seventh century even if the castle visited nowadays is much more recent. After the main entrance to the site there is an impressive hall with old cannons and a very good lighting. Once outside, the dark grey stone used for the walls and for all the old houses of the town, gives to the entire site a spooky atmosphere. Little crows are flying over our heads to make the feeling of being in a ghost story more dense. Luckily, to give a bit of colours, today there are lot of students coming from some other part of Albania, here for excursion together with teachers. The castle also host a big stage that it should be used for a folklore festival expected to be held every 3 or 4 (!) years. In the panel telling the story of the festival I read for the first time usage of term Diaspora also for Albanians. I will have to check what is the story about.
Town is just down the castle, grabbed to the same hill and still in higher position compared to the plain where the main road is. Together with the castle, town is included in UNESCO patrimony. The central part of Gjirokastër is made of a bunch of little cobbled streets going up and down. There isn’t any building particularly remarkable even if some house has been turned into museum. It is however very nice wandering around without a specific destination in this dark atmosphere. This town would be absolutely a perfect setting for gothic movies. While I’m going around I see someone selling old books, included some of the former dictator Enver Hoxha that was born in this town. A spot of colour in this general grey is the bar of the hotel Kodra. It is a good marketing strategy to have big red umbrella that make this place visible from the castle and from many other points in town. The effect of the red on tourists is likely same as the one on bulls in a corrida so they are all here. I sit for a quick lunch break. Walk around the town is over, so after the break I will need to find the way to get back to Saranda.
Last evening in Albania.
I take some time to find the place where to get the bus since I do not know where is the central bus stop due to the brilliant idea of my previous bus of stopping two kilometres before. However in the end I’m able to catch a mini van that in about one hour brings me in Saranda where I spend my last night in Albania eating fish again. I realise that I never tried to enjoy the sparkling nightlife of downtown Saranda, if there is any, but honestly I don’t care a bit. Tomorrow morning at 5:30 AM I have to wake up to take a bus to Ioannina in Greece so better go to sleep.
And while I sleep you can look at my gallery of pictures of Gjirokastër, Butrint, Saranda and more.