For me, Gjirokastër was the unexpected highlight of our trip, mostly because of the uniqueness of our accommodation and the local foods and floral smells that came with it. It was quaint, but also busy. From the castle on the hill, a new soccer stadium in one direction and dirt road farmhouses in the other. Full of contrasts, but beautiful, nonetheless.
From my notes:
It’s 11:05 pm. I’m writing this from a twin bed in the basement guest house of an Albanian family in the rural, UNESCO town of Gjirokastër. The family is the sweetest, very friendly and personable, even in spite of the fact that we can barely communicate across the language barrier. We arrived here from the direction of Permet shortly after 6:30 pm, and immediately upon our arrival, our hosts brought us into their part of the house and gave us flowers from their garden, cherries, and homemade fruit pastries, rose nectar juice, and spinach byrek – all so delicious and freshly prepared by the “host mom.” She is of Greek descent, but born and raised in Albania in a nearby Greek village (her son later clarifies this for us in English). Also, THERE IS A KITTEN. He is so small. I can pick him up in one hand, and I love him. The family rescued him from the trash, and now he lives with them in their house.
Eventually, we escaped into town to eat dinner (after a brief scare with our rental car, which temporarily wouldn’t start, but all is well now!). The drive into town was insane – the roads were SO narrow and windy, and in some places, just dirt and stones. It was one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done, and I wasn’t even driving. When that part was over, we parked close to the castle in the town center and walked to our hosts’ store; Mario, the son, manages the AirBnb and the store, which we purchased mountain tea from for about $2. Mario recommended his friend’s restaurant down the street, Taverna Kuka; we took his advice and were so glad we did. The place was perfect. I only wish we were more hungry, because the food here is seriously so good and so low cost. We ate the local speciality of baked cheese and stuffed peppers as a starter, then moussaka and an unlisted apple walnut salad recommended by the server for dinner – all delicious and fresh. We were, sadly, too full for dessert.
Driving back home was another terrifying adventure. We kept finding ourselves lost of stuck in the sharp turns of the narrow streets, but we made it back, and now it’s time to sleep. There are dogs barking constantly outside. There are dogs everywhere in this country.
We woke up in Gjirokastër in our charming AirBnb – I admit, I didn’t have a great sleep. It was cold in the room, and the roosters made noise from 5:30 am, but our host family was just lovely. Even though our room was already only $30 a night, we were served a full traditional breakfast outside in their beautiful garden. Homemade milk, eggs, meat (not for me), tomato, bread, homemade butter and jam, more spinach byrek, coffee, fresh fruit, and cake. They gave us more flowers, and the mom gave me a little bracelet that she made herself. Staying with them and barely being able to communicate was definitely not the easiest, but it’s definitely what I think I’ll remember the most.
By 9:00 am, we were ready to leave. But first, a trip back into Gjirokastër town to explore in the daylight. We survived the windy roads again, climbed up the the top of the castle, and walked through the streets and through a few shops before beginning our drive to the coast. It was only a short visit, but at least the time was full.
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