It was amazing how easy it was to leave Tirana, after having a long, painful crawl into town yesterday. We blindly followed the routing that our satellite navigation chose for us, which might have been misguided, as it took us down some terribly rural roads in need of some TLC.
The mountains here were more like hills, and the towns felt far more rural and agricultural. Actually, it felt quite peasant-like, with farming practises that seemed like something I’d expect to see from a period film, with giant bundles of hay, women carrying large sacks, and donkeys tilling fields.
We got a little closer to Berat, and we started seeing what we thought were oil pumps in the fields, but thought it was too weird. We later learnt that they were indeed oil derricks, and this region was famous for oil production!
It came as a huge surprise to us, but an American friend of ours from Japan is now living in Albania, not far from Berat. We hadn’t seen him since 2010, when Jay and I were both on the JET Programme together in Hokkaido. He saw that we were travelling through Europe, and got in contact and we made plans to meet up when he realised that we might actually come down into Albania. In case you’re wondering, he’s over here volunteering on Peace Corps, working on a sanitation project for the local school!
However, we’re not accustomed to making plans without our smartphones having a 24/7 connection – Albania isn’t in the EU/EEA, so our free EU roaming doesn’t apply, and data is charged at £3/MB!! We’d made the outline of some plans to meet our friend, and went for a pizza lunch to use their wifi.
Not knowing that our friend doesn’t have a smartphone here, and is therefore offline when he leaves home, we were about to give up, since we couldn’t get in contact with him.
While we were sitting in the restaurant trying to get in contact with him, he was waiting by the bridge, as he had planned with us yesterday. Incredibly, as we left the restaurant, and were headed up to see the castle, he spotted us and came running over. It came as a complete surprise, and we were overjoyed!
Together, we climbed the long marbled street to the top of the hill. It was as warm as it looks in the photos, and by the time we reached the top, we needed more than the gentle breeze to hold back perspiration.
It was really interesting at the top, with an old town built within the defensive walls. It was a twisting warren of stone lanes with houses built out of identically uniform stone. It varied between feeling lost in time in unmanicured laneways, to being jolted back to reality with the arts and craft sellers hanging their wares for tourists, reminding you that we are in a tourist attraction. Their handmade lace was well made, but I’m not really interested in buying lace.
The non-residential sections of the castle had fallen into ruin, with the exterior fortifications and associated buildings being little more than fragments of wall and crumbling rock. The views from the top of the terracotta rooves on the white walled buildings down below were fantastic, and we just sat and lapped it up for a while.
There was a small collection of religious icons in an equally small museum up here in the castle. It was a former church, and many of these religious icons contained inside were hidden during the communist era, at great risk to those doing the hiding. There were some beautiful wooden carvings, and a fantastically detailed altar, with gold and detailed painting – however, photos were strictly forbidden! It did start to get a little repetitive, with one painting of Jesus starting to blur into the next.
We slowly made our way back into town, and joined some of his other Peace Corps friends for an afternoon drink and eventually dinner. As volunteers, they are living off a salary similar to what their co-workers would be making, which is to say, they’re making very little. We went to our friend’s favourite burrito place, which in my mind was more like a kebab than a burrito. Semantics aside, it was delicious, and was great to sit and chat with them about their life here, and the cultural observances they’d made.
At this point, I’d realised that I’d forgotten to take any photos of the old town – The Town of 1000 Windows – below the castle. It was still pretty in the evening, but the darkness hid so much of what was there. Part of me wanted to return in the morning to see it again in the light of day, but it seemed like a lot of effort for a few photos.
Our friend had a spare room in the neighbouring town of Kuçovë, so we drove back to spend the night with him in his place, once again remembering how little fun it is to drive on the rural roads in Albania at night.
Our friend’s working schedule was fortunately flexible, so he was able to spend a little time with us again in the morning. We went out for a walk around his town, Kuçovë, taking in the sights, and getting a little of the history.
It was once a centre of oil in Albania, and dotted throughout the town, in people’s yards and between shops, were brightly coloured oilrigs. They were currently stationary, however, we were told that they can spring into action. This brought a lot of wealth to the town, and they had such luxuries as the first picture theatre in the country. The town had an economically depressed feel to it, with most things having lost the lustre of better times.
Dominating the centre of town was the disused cooling tower, which isn’t the kind of things we’re used to seeing surrounded by an inhabited town.
We even did a little shopping in the markets in town, stocking up on fresh local produce. Just as they had been in Shkoder, the vendors were very curious about us, with our friend translating and telling them where we were from, to great surprise to all that heard.
We’d skipped breakfast, and eventually made it to one of our friend’s favourite places to buy Albanian speciality, byrek. It was a tiny little café, and the pastries that they were bringing out were fantastic. They had three varieties – tomato, spinach, and cheese. I sampled all three, and then sampled the spinach and the cheese byrek one more time, just to be sure. They were crispy, buttery, and truly fantastic – and fantastically cheap.
Our friend had some work to get done, and we had further travels ahead of us today, so we made our goodbyes, unsure when (or where) we’d meet again next.
We hopped back into Gunter, and continued on our drive south. Most of the driving was unremarkable, but occasionally we’d get incredible vistas like this. Like much of the Balkans, I was really unaware of how mountainous and wild the scenery of Albania was.
The area became hillier the further south we drove. It was late in the afternoon by the time we arrived in Gjirokaster, and the shadows from the hills above the town were already starting to blanket the town in darkness.
We took a chance, and drove all the way into town, right up to the lower section of the castle. It paid off, and we found a park with minimal walking to visit the main tourist sights in town. One of these sights is the old-style buildings that still exist here. They’re quite different to any others we’ve seen in Albania, or anywhere else in Europe, with a slightly Turkish feel, while also looking quite Balkan, with the uniform grey rock and slate rooves. These buildings looked much nicer from afar, as closer inspection showed quite severe damage and the need for extensive renovation and repairs. I truly wonder how much longer many of these historic buildings will remain.
The town was similar in many ways to Berat, but the hilltop fortress was far more robust/complete, and there was much less inside than in Berat. Once again, we huffed our way up the cobbled street to the top of the hill to visit the castle. Stepping inside the enormous exterior walls, we were deep inside huge stone galleries, stretching some 10-15m above our heads. It was quite dark in places. We poked around for a while, even using the torches on our phone to find little hidden passages – which unsurprisingly went nowhere, and contained nothing, other than trash.
The main gallery was filled with remnants of past wars, including artillery from the past century proudly on display. This area was illuminated, but still incredibly dark, so making out any detail on the displays was impossible. Plus, we didn’t really care about old cannons or tanks.
Keeping with the historic military theme, when we stepped outside of the enormous brick walls into the bright sunshine in the gardens, there were the remains of a USAF jet that was shot down flying over Albanian airspace during the Cold War.
Climbing up onto the ramparts, we got a view of the entire site, as well as the surrounding valley. Much of the castle is falling into disrepair, and in parts is quite wild. At the far end of the castle, closest to the town, the famous clock tower was shrouded in scaffolding and mesh while it underwent restoration and repairs. It seemed that it was the most iconic building in this tower, but there wasn’t much for us to see while we were there.
Overall, there wasn’t all that much to see within the walls, and soon we were headed back into the town. From the ramparts we could see the narrow lanes of the old bazaar district in the shadow of the castle, so returned a slightly more scenic way. It was odd that it was all residential, with people genuinely living here and going about their day-to-day business. It looked like a nightmare, with large polished cobbled stones, up steep and narrow roads – I would get sweaty palms driving a small hatchback here. Risa tried to make friends with all the neighbourhood cats, but they were either shy, or snobs.
We had to eventually loop back towards the old town, which took us through streets lined with a surprising number of tourist focused shops. There were also a surprising number of coaches and other large tourist groups coming and going. I say surprising not because I think it’s an unworthy place, but rather because we hadn’t actually seen all that many tourists the past few days.
Dinner was at Kujtim Restaurant, which sounded like the pick of the bunch from our guide book. We were the first guests, making us feel a little nervous, but by the time we’d left, the restaurant was full. We enjoyed it, even if it wasn’t anything exceptional. We had all sorts of grilled food, from clay pots filled with grilled cheese and the sweetest of capscicums, assorted grilled vegetables, grilled rice balls, and some lamb grilled over the open fire. They had baklava, so naturally, the meal ended with a big treat of the sticky sweet dessert.
We camped for the night just outside of town, by a small dry lake, in the car park that would ordinarily be used for people visiting the lakeside bar/restaurant. After three late nights in a row, we were in bed by 9PM.
It was a dark and quiet evening, which helped us to feel moderately energetic again. We still had a few Euros worth of Leke, the Albanian currency, left to spend, so we went to the Aldi supermarket in town, only to find out that while it might be called Aldi, it had different signage, and products – pretty much nothing to do with the German chain. It was a fun game trying to spend the right amount of money, with the products generally failing to be appropriately priced/labelled.
These are some of the most iconic images of Albania, with tens of thousands of them said to have been built in preparation for an invasion that never arrived. They are all over the country, in sometimes seemingly random locations. We’d frequently spot them from a distance while driving, but had never had the opportunity to safely stop and visit.
Usually we’d see one or two, but this particular cluster had a dozen or more. They were also in a convenient location for tourists, just off the SH4 between Gjirokaster and the Greek border – and it even had somewhere to safely park. A Chinese tour group was just making their way down the hill when we arrived, so it seems it’s quite a popular stop.
We roamed through the fields, sticking our heads into these giant concrete and steel domes, peering through the small slits out at the valley below, and rambling through the narrow trenches that crisscrossed up the hill, linking all of the bunkers to one another.
They’re an eyesore, to be sure, but we found them such an odd relic that we couldn’t help being excited by them.
From here it was just a short hop into Greece, ending our short time in Albania.