During my time here in Albania, Gjirokaster has captivated my imagination. In my quest to get to know as much as possible about Albania before arriving, I read Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone which tells the history of Gjirokaster during the Italian and Greek occupation in WWI and WWII. From the beginning, I was hooked and promised to visit The City of Stone as soon as possible.
Gjirokaster is divided into two parts, new and old. The New City looks like any other Albanian city, dotted with high rise apartment buildings and modern brightly painted houses. The Old City on the other hand feels like you are traveling back in history.
Once you turn into the Old City, you are swept up the hillside where you encounter narrow cobblestoned roads that are so steep it feels as if your car might slide right back down. The heat radiates off of every surface, from the cobblestoned roads to the stone buildings and time seems to slow down. It is simply breathtaking.
The highlight of the city is of course the Gjirokaster Castle that towers above. The climb up there is a workout within itself but it is well worth it. The Castle has been used for various purposes throughout its history. With each invading force, the castle was repurposed and expanded. Today it is open as a museum and is the site of the Gjirokaster Folk Festival every five years.
Since Gjirokaster became a UNESCO protected site, there have been massive efforts to restore and protect the old city, where many houses have fallen into disrepair. The work has been complicated by Albania’s transition to democracy and the lack of state funding available for restoration projects. I highly suggest a visit to the Skenduli House to learn more about the history of Gjirokaster’s architecture as well as the struggle to protect that history. The owner’s family has lived in the house for 8 generations and his pride as he shows the house is clear. He speaks Albanian and French but his energy makes the language barrier a non-issue. The house is located on the same street as Enver Hoxha’s house (which should be noted is not the original house Hoxha grew up in but a rebuilt and re-imagined version).
Another way to enjoy Gjirokaster’s history is to stay at one of the various B&Bs doting the Old City. We stayed at Kotoni B&B and were impressed with the hospitality and knowledge of the owners. They welcomed us with coffee/tea and biscuits and explained the history of the house and the city. The place is run by an older married couple who clearly take great pride in continuing the Albanian tradition of hospitality towards guests.
Gjirokaster is a three-four hour drive from Tirana depending on traffic and construction on the new highway. I suggest combining a trip to Gjirokaster with a trip to Sarande as they are relatively close together. If you are traveling by car, take the road out of Tirana towards Durres and continue South to Fier. After Fier you will see an entrance to the new freeway that leads you directly to Gjirokaster. If you prefer public transportation, there are daily bus connections that leave from the Southern Bus station in Tirana costing 1000 leke.
I’m sure that after just one trip to Gjirokaster, you will be hooked. It isn’t difficult to see why tourism is expanding in the area and during our last visit we already saw tour buses making the trip up the hill to visit Gjirokaster. If you want a taste of traditional Albanian life, I can’t imagine a better place to visit!