Looking out over the Old Town from the castle, Gjirokaster is a mountainous marvel
Looking out over the Old Town from the castle, Gjirokaster is a mountainous marvel

Why Gjirokaster is Albania’s best-kept secret

Who wants a Unesco-listed old town, authentic cuisine and gorgeous hotels at bargain prices? You’re better off staying at home, says Holly Baxter

Holly Baxter
Saturday 13 July 2019 12:25
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Don’t go to Gjirokaster. You’ve never heard of it anyway, and who would want to give up a couple of weeks of their precious annual leave on a mountainous city in Albania? It’s impossible to get to, anyway – the only nonstop UK flights go from London to Tirana, and Tirana to Gjirokaster is a four-hour drive at best and a 12-hour drive at worst, using an unreliable public transport system and often impassable roads.

Of course, if you looked at where Gjirokaster was situated, just behind the seaside town of Sarande on Albania’s southern coast, then you might realise it’s so close to Corfu that you can see the Greek island from Sarande’s shore. And then you might find out that there’s actually a cheap ferry you can take from Corfu to Sarande, which departs three times a day each way, and only takes 30 minutes – but that sounds like too much of a fuss for a holiday.

Definitely don’t go to Gjirokaster. No one speaks English, for a start. You’ll probably have to spend a few hours sitting on the beach with a meal 10 times cheaper than the one you had in Corfu that morning, or paddling in the same, crystal-clear Ionian Sea before you can even work out how to get to your next destination.

And then you’ll have to schlep along the road until you find a minibus where the driver agrees a price and a destination with you ad hoc. Rather than the Megabus or the National Express, which turns up reliably on time with a destination emblazoned on a digital screen, there are no E-tickets or M-tickets or indeed paper tickets available here. You’ll just have to work out a price with a human being before squashing in beside a local family while the minibus pulls out of Sarande and into some of the most incredible landscapes you’ve ever seen. And who wants that?

Gjirokaster is a nightmare. You drive through the mountains and valleys, spotting every few miles one of the 173,000 bunkers Enver Hoxha built throughout the country in case of war throughout the 1970s and 1980s (there are 5.7 for every square kilometre). Then you get chucked out at the bottom of the big hill that leads up to the mountainous city.

Sarande offers a beach paradise on the Albanian Riviera (Getty)

OK, you’ll be greeted by the Old Town, which is technically a Unesco World Heritage Site, with cobbled streets and perfectly preserved Ottoman architecture, but it’s a killer on the thighs. As you pick fresh fruit off fig trees overhanging from lush gardens and enjoy a €5 dinner on garden chairs set out on ledges along the winding roads, no doubt you’ll be thinking: why is everything a hike around here?

Sure, the hotels are cheap and beautiful, and come with a multiple-course breakfast someone’s grandmother makes you from scratch at somewhere like the Hotel Gjirokastra, where the most luxurious room is £30 a night. But there’s no label to explain what the sweet dumplings are that appear, or the various homemade jams and condiments that come with them. A breakfast buffet at a solid, reliable Hilton would be easier, and they’d have bread rolls with cheddar.

All right, there’s a well preserved castle; at the very top, once you’ve walked through endless stone tunnels, you’ll come across a plane shot down in the Second World War, and no one cares if you get right inside. Gleaming silver in the sunlight and settled on a patch of grass, the plane’s tail with its familiar black star pokes out of some shrubbery, and its nose faces the view below of Gjirokaster’s Old Town, the high-rises at the bottom of the main hill, the sparse valley behind and the mountains beyond. But it gets very hot on a summer’s day out there exposed at the top of a hill – and poking around in a US warplane is a health and safety nightmare waiting to happen. Plus there’s no one around – what if you wanted an ice lolly?

The picturesque Old Town is an Unesco World Heritage site (Getty)

There’s barely any nightlife in Gjirokaster. The place most people end up is the veranda attached to Hotel Kodra, which juts out across the Old Town and provides a perfect view of the sunset across the mountains. It might take your breath away – but they don’t even have a professional mixologist on hand. I mean, please...

Gjirokaster has an old Second World War plane to explore (Getty)

As you walk back to your hotel through the greenery and the stone streets, losing your way every now and then because one building’s roof suddenly becomes the pathway as you turn a corner, no doubt you’ll be grateful you’re leaving the next day. Imagine your surprise when one of the members of staff at your hotel offers to drive you an hour and a half to your next destination – just because you’re a guest, and it’s basically on his way to the supermarket, give or take 45 minutes. He makes sure to stop off at the Blue Eye on the way, a natural spring hidden in a forest of oak and sycamore trees, where the waters are so bright blue they don’t look real. You’ll have never seen anything like this strange and beautiful natural phenomenon.

Gjirokaster is green and hilly (Getty/iStock)

But it’s freezing cold and no one knows quite where the pure spring comes from or how far down the waters go. Who wants to deal with that kind of uncertainty? You’d be better off staying at home.

Travel essentials

Getting there

It’s easiest to fly to Corfu and get the boat from there. Alternatively, Wizz Air flies from London Luton to Tirana from £48 return.

Staying there

Hotel Gjirokastra offers doubles for £30 a night, B&B.

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