My ‘fast & furious’ Western Balkans Trip – 3 Countries in 6 Days (Part 4)
Day Four: Albania (Gjirokastra – Permet – Korcha – Voskopoja)
Early next morning, I was raring to finally climb to Gjirokastra’s famed hilltop castle – one of the largest on the Balkans, but as it did not open until 10 AM, we used the time to wander around the steep cobblestone streets of the UNESCO-protected Old Town.
Gjirokastra’s name is derived from the Greek ‘Argyrokastron’ meaning ‘Silver Castle’. It was part of the Byzantine Empire and later of the Despotate of Epirus (one of Byzantium’s successor states) before becoming a thriving center of commerce under the Ottomans and has always had a large ethnic Greek community. The historic Old Town is known for its ‘tower houses’ with slate roofs which were mostly erected in the 17th – 19th century.
The lower floors of these Ottoman-style family homes were built of stone blocks and with only a few narrow windows so they could be easily defended from invaders (both foreign and from local feuding clans). These lower levels were used to house storage rooms and workshops while the ones above them were where the family lived and welcomed their guests and these sported whitewashed facades, large windows and balconies, and richly-decorated interiors with intricately wood-carved ceilings, fireplaces, ottomans along the walls, and carpeted floors.
We walked down the hill and to the Ethnographic Museum, which features several floors with rooms decorated with period furniture as well as everyday items and traditional costumes. Best to visit this museum with a guide as there were no descriptions of the displays or any other information.
Climbing up the steep cobblestone lane to the top of the hill once again, we were finally able to enter the Gjirokastra citadel and wander around its grounds which offer splendid views over the town and the surrounding mountains.
The castle was rebuilt and enlarged many times throughout the centuries, most notably by the Byzantines and by the Ottoman governor Ali Pasha Tepelena who added the photogenic clock tower on the eastern side. In the last century, the fortress was used to jail political prisoners until the 1970s (some of the cells are still preserved and open to visitors).
Nowadays, the fortress also houses a military museum with a small display of weapons and armor as well as Communist memorabilia and Socialist realism art commemorating the local resistance fighters against the Nazi occupation. The castle grounds host a popular annual Albanian folklore festival.
Leaving Gjirokastra, we continued north-east and stopped for lunch in Permet at a cute little sidewalk restaurant called Antigonea. Everything we had was freshly prepared and super tasty and for desert, the owner let us sample several of her homemade jams.
Just across the street from the Antigonea and on the river bank, one could see Permet’s main sight – a giant rock, which to me looked like a meteorite which had hit the earth ages ago… Our host explained that it is possible to climb to the top of it, but we simply did not have the time, or maybe our tummies were just too full…
Continuing with our drive further north-east and through the mountains, we made a brief stop in Korca to see the building of the first Albanian school (now a museum) and the Resurrection Cathedral – an Orthodox church which was completely rebuilt in 1992 after the previous one had been destroyed during the Communist period.
We also took the elevator to the top of the new observation tower in one of the city’s central squares to enjoy the 360-degree views from there at dusk.
It was after dark that we arrived at the village of Voskopoja and our home for the night – the Pashuta guesthouse, where sumptuous dinner of regional specialties cooked by our hosts and comfortable rooms awaited us.