Days: 511 & 513 (18 November 2015 & 20 November 2015)
Total distance travelled: 131,145.1 kilometres (81,456.59 miles)
Having left Tirana before sunrise, we were trundling our way south through rural Albania, where aside from the action along the highway, out in the fields, things seemed to be happening at a much slower pace.
Still, the sun was again shining and with a few hours ahead of us, it was a great opportunity to take in more of the country as it passed us by.
It wasn’t long before we were seeing our first examples of what is probably the key thing I was keen to explore a little more of, those infamous concrete bunkers.
Given Albania’s place on the tourist radar (it doesn’t have much of a presence) it is entirely possible you have no idea what I’m talking about, so perhaps I should give you a little background.
It is said, somewhere in the vicinity of seven hundred and fifty thousand of these bunkers were constructed across the country, apparently to protect the then insular country from countless imaginary foes, whilst at the same time putting an awful strain on the countries already threadbare economy.
The locations seemed almost as random as the original notion.
True, some appear on defensible hillsides, others can be seen in the middle of towns or on the fringes of cemeteries!
Eventually our ride dropped us on the side of the highway, the lowest point in town, and continued on its way.
Welcome to Gjirokastër!
We’d booked beds for a couple of nights in advance, the only catch being they were on the opposite, upper side of town.
As usual it was our feet we used to cover this distance, and as the modern bitumen gave way to the increasing slope of the hillside and the old stone cobbles, it was a walk that became more difficult.
Pausing on occasion to gather our breath or grab our footing (the stones were well worn, almost polished with age), we eventually completed our journey, now high above much of the city and standing before a cluster of old white buildings.
The only problem, we had no idea which building was our accommodation.
After eventually figuring it out, and staving off the advances of the adjacent hotel owner (he tried a handful of times to lure us into his business), we sucked it up and made a call using the contact number we had.
Turns out we were early, and our hosts were roughly an hour away completing some grocery shopping!
With nothing else to do, we munched on some chocolate chip cookies, savoured the views, and waited.
To our surprise, we were eventually approached by a small Asian girl, who we eventually gathered was accompanied by her parents… a pair of Caucasian, French speaking Canadians!
We chatted for a while, shared travel tales before bidding farewell as they disappeared to find some lunch.
Eventually, our hosts also showed, although perhaps hosts isn’t the most apt word.
Sure, we were staying in this lovely old building, which I think doubled as an historical society of sorts, but after allowing us entry through a large and incredibly solid old door (the kind that is clad in iron and unlocked with the aid of a large, roughly hewn key), we would soon be left to our own devices.
We’d actually booked ourselves in for two nights, however after considering some revisions to our route, managed an arrangement with the lovely young girl who’d checked us in, that rather than back to back nights, we’d stay one, head to the coast (where we’d stay the night), then return for our second night the day after.
With our next movements sorted, it was time to sort out our stomachs, a feat we achieved by making our way all the way back down the hill…
With fresh energy, it was perhaps little surprise that our next move, after a quick stop at the grocery store for some dinner and beer supplies, was a hike back up that same hill!
It might sound like we had no idea what the fuck we were doing, but be patient, as after dropping off our groceries we were straight back out to explore the very nearby streets of old Gjirokastër.
We were finally getting into the good bits, the areas that grant this city one half of a UNESCO World Heritage tag (the listing is shared with the city of Berat) and we’d found ourselves yet another amazing day on which to do so.
Crumbling stone walls, slate shingled rooftops and narrow cobbled streets, it was a lovely place to wander, if slightly cool in the shade.
Unfortunately, situated as we were on the eastern side of the mountains, the sun wasn’t going to be back anytime soon, so despite the rays still splashing over the fortress as we stood below, by the time we’d made (or even begun) much of the ascent ourselves, we’d missed the chance to bask in its afternoon glow.
Still, we were warm enough from the climb itself, although it’s a climb I’d imagine as much more treacherous in the wet, as the cobbled road was polished smooth from years of use.
We had no idea which castle in the Balkans was larger, but apparently this was the second largest (I’m not even sure where I read this fact), and after paying our entrance fee to the bored looking guarding, we wandered in to a gallery of sorts, tucked into each niche a Second World War era artillery piece, standing silent like soldiers to attention.
This was of more interest to myself than Sarah, but we wandered through, emerging onto a terrace where sat a most odd/interesting display piece.
Beneath a tangle of weeds sat an aeroplane, and not just any sort of aircraft.
This piece of wreckage bore a flecked version of that iconic white star on navy blue background.
Here sat the wreckage of a US ‘Spy Plane’!
Okay, so depending whose story you read or listen to (I did a bit of Googling), it ranges from an American spy plane being shot down in 1957, to another tale of a training flight that experienced technical issues, and performed an emergency landing in Tirana (after first receiving permission from the Albanian government).
Whatever the story, they do all seem to agree that it happened back in 1957!
The vantage point offered great views of the city below (as did a myriad of points atop these ruins) as well as the hills on the opposite side of the valley, by now one of the few areas still bathed in sunshine.
An attached museum was closed, but whether it was the time of year or time of day (or perhaps it is closed more permanently) we were unsure, but it meant we had to be content with simply exploring this old fortress, come prison which during the Cold War apparently also housed a bunker beneath for the Communist leaders and their cronies.
With the cool climes and time of year, I have a feeling we spent that whole night with the heaters on by our beds, whilst the morning was met with a little drama which saw us travel on without showering.
We’ve no idea whether the water would have been hot or not, as by the time we’d have gone to shower, the faucet would have been dry.
This was a problem we’d discovered during the night, as after one of us visited the bathroom, the toilet wouldn’t flush… nor would the basins tap run.
Turns out (we discovered this in the morning) that a staff member was supposed to pop by and turn on the water pump!
Sure, we had another brief stop here in a couple of nights time, but really, our time in Gjirokastër was done.
* A bus from Tirana to Gjirokastër cost us 1000.00 Lek apiece. Ours was a 6am departure, with a breakfast stop around 9am (Roughly 4 hour journey).
* Entrance into Kalaja Gjirokastër cost us 200.00 Lek each. There is an additional 200.00 Lek fee for the museum within, however it was closed when we visited.