A Breathtaking Drive (In More Ways Than One)

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Gjirokastra Hotel
What I did
Gjirokaster Castle
Zekate House

Flag of Albania  ,
Monday, August 29, 2011

We were up before the sun on Monday, surprised by how chilly it had gotten overnight in Korca. It took us no time to get our things together and we were at the bus stop by 5:20am, a full forty minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave. We were feeling quite proud of ourselves until we realized that the bus was already nearly full. More and more people showed up, and eventually they had to track down a bigger bus in order to squeeze everyone on board.
This particular bus ride had been one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Albania.  The scenery during the trip was meant to be spellbinding, so it was a real shame to discover that the double-paned windows had moisture trapped between the layers, which severely obscured the view. Nonetheless, it was still a fantastic drive, and we were able to often stand up and get a better look through some of the less foggy windows.
We left Korca in the rear-view mirror and quickly found ourselves transported to a pristine pine forest as we began the journey up, up, up into the Grammoz Mountains. That part of the country is very sparsely populated, meaning we were treated to long stretches of nothing but nature. Due to the combination of the steep mountains and the low population, the roads were narrow and winding, making the drive a bit frightening in places (maybe that's why the conductor was handing out the vomit bags). Fortunately, we hadn't landed ourselves with a crazy driver; the young guy at the wheel knew the roads well and took the turns slow enough that I didn't feel the need to grind my teeth and close my eyes in fear. That said, I could still understand why they had wanted to bring the smaller furgon: in our full-sized bus, we were basically hanging over the edge on a number of the tighter turns. It was only down to the experience and patience of the driver that we were saved from tumbling down the mountainside.
We continued to climb through the pine forest until we had gone above the tree line and were gaping at the giant stone mountains that surrounded us on all sides. Even then, the bus just kept driving up until we finally hit the Barmash Pass (1759m), which would be the highest point of our trip through Albania. Once we'd crested the pass, we then began the journey down, passing a series of ravines and gulches that also induced visions of our crumpled bus lying at the bottom. After driving through that stunning landscape for about four or five hours, we hit the valleys and the flats, and the bus picked up speed, bringing us to our destination around 1:00pm. 
As we got off the bus, we were adopted by three other backpackers who were trying to find a cab to ferry us up the hills into the old town. We struck a deal with one of the many Mercedes drivers for a mere 100LEK (about 90 cents) each, and were whisked up to the old town. It was a good job the others had co-opted us, because it turned out that the old town was actually very high in the hills. 

At the top, our group broke up a bit, with each segment going off in different directions. Konrad and I walked a little further up the hill and took a look at three different hotels: the first was too expensive for what it was (the owners had a case of what we call "Lonely Planet Syndrome"), the second was full, and the third was a phenomenal mom and pop operation just down the road. It must have been built recently because everything was still very sparkly and clean and it was scads more spacious and tastefully decorated than the first place we'd looked at. For just 3,000LEK (about $30) for the night, we felt like it was a steal -- especially considering how much nicer it was than our previous night's accommodation.
Our hotel room balcony had wonderful views of the old town, which was picture perfect. The steep cobblestone streets are lined with beautiful 19th century houses, most of which are topped with identical slate roofs. Many of the historic houses are remnants from the town's most prosperous years, when it was ruled by the Ottomans and was a major trading center. Fortunately, many of those houses have been well maintained because the city's most notorious son, former dictator Enver Hoxha, declared it a "museum city", and spent a lot of money restoring those beautiful abodes he remembered from his childhood. It's probably for this reason that the town is a current UNESCO World Heritage site; an award that is well deserved, in my opinion.
While the architecture of the town is definitely one of the reasons it's such a splendid little spot, its location and the natural geography of the area ensures that it will always be a gorgeous place to hole up, whatever the condition of the houses may be. Gjirokastra clings to the steep side of the Drino Valley, so that one gazes down across the valley and over to the majestic mountains beyond it. Once we'd settled in and had a chance to get a good look around us, we were both very, very glad we'd called the audible to include Albania on our trip.
We didn't want to waste any time in Gjirokastra, so skipped lunch and made a beeline for the enormous castle looming over the city. The initial fort here was built in the 6th century, and it has been expanded upon and remodeled a number of times since then by a variety of different groups, including, of course, the Ottomans. In the 1930s, King Zog (real name, not a comic book villain) enlarged it an turned it into a prison. In the 1940s, the Nazis took over, and were shortly followed by the Communists, who continued using it to house inmates until the 1970s, when it officially became a museum. The posh pamphlet they handed out at the entrance also claimed that the castle was the biggest in the Balkans. The structure itself was in excellent condition, and the views afforded from its many levels were sweeping and spectacular. We even had the opportunity to check out what was left of a 1957 US military jet that the Communist Party used to "prove" that the outside world was spying on the country. In reality, it was on a training run from an Italian NATO base and had to make an emergency landing after encountering mechanical trouble.
After enjoying the views from the castle, we continued up the hills of Gjirokastra and admired the architecture, both old and new. It was on this walk up that I was stung by a bee on my bicep; I didn't realize it was there, and had bent my arm, effectively crushing it and getting stung in the process. Konrad was quick on the draw and pulled the stinger out almost immediately, but the damage was done and would grow and persist for at least a week. I applied some ice to it, which didn't seem to have any effect, so I held out great hope for the local remedy insisted upon by a shopkeeper we were talking to. She got two green grapes, cut them in half, and then had me rub them on the sting. She said it was a surefire bee sting reliever, but I failed to feel any effects: my arm continued to swell and throb and get uglier by the minute. 

I tried to ignore the sting and suggested we continue exploring. Some of the historic houses in town have been opened up to tourists, and our guide book suggested we visit one, so the next stop on our tour was further up into the hills to the Zekate House. We'd run into one of the guys we'd shared a cab with earlier, and he'd told us roughly where we needed to go. He said we had to go to someone else's house and get them to unlock the Zekate House for us. It sounded anything but straightforward, which it proved to be when we walked right by it. There wasn't a sign, so it took us a bit to locate the right gate to enter, then a little bit longer to track down the people with the key. Eventually we were let into Zekate House and had a good look around, before convening on the top floor and gazing in awe at the view. I could certainly see the appeal a house like this would have had to 19th century dwellers -- hell, I'd like to live in it in the 21st century (with a few slight modifications of course, like running water). 
The bee sting was still making its presence known, and since the ice and the grapes had produced no favorable results, there was nothing left to do but try a time-tested method: icy beers consumed on the balcony of one's hotel room while watching the sun set over the mountains. The combination of sundowners and a lovely non-pizza or pasta meal (!!) of veggie kofte and carafes of delicious wine with Ricci, the Italian we'd met earlier on the bus, provided the perfect ending to a very magical and memorable day in Albania.

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