Traveling along the southern coast of Albania literally made my jaw drop. I had not expected at all what I was going to see. Paradise, completely unspoiled beaches, clearest sea possible, superb food and accommodation at ridiculously low prices, friendliest locals I'd ever met... I thought nothing else was able to surprise me. Then, we reached Gjirokaster - a little Ottoman town which turned out to be breathtakingly unique not only in Albania but in the whole Europe. It could easily compete with the French or Italian equivalents - in Gjirokaster you'll see the most beautifully decorated houses covered with original stone roof tiles, authentic, perfectly well maintained old town with cobblestone, winding little streets and... literally zero tourists!
How to reach Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster is only 1 hour drive (55 km/35 miles) from the port of Sarande (which is in my opinion the easiest way to enter Albania - much better than from the chaotic roads in the north). After relaxing on white sand beaches of Ksamil (best visited in June or September due to crowds in the season), admiring the indescribable, crystal clear fresh water spring and lake Blue Eye and the ancient ruins of Butrint - it's easy to get to charming Gjirokaster by bus/mini bus from Sarande - there are around 8 daily.
The buses can be unreliable so you have to ask for information at the port - Sarande is small so it's not difficult. If you don't want to bother to travel by bus you can contact a local couple that opened their own tourist office - they can take you everywhere for a very good price. I traveled with them across Albania and was able to see so many amazing hidden and local places. If you want more info, contact me here.
It's unbelievable how many first class natural/cultural attractions one can see in such a little piece of land in southern Albania - and what's even more strange - very few people actually do! They prefer to stay on overcrowded beaches of Corfu - only (30 km/18 miles) from Albanian shore.
While Albania resembles South America a lot (but is of course way safer), especially in the north and center - where you can find some depressing, post-communist towns, the south of the country is completely different. That's why when I hear that some people visit only Tirana - the capital (I've described it here), it gets me so frustrated.
Albanian riviera from Sarande to Vlora as well as the town of Gjirokaster are the few of the most peaceful, beautiful, cozy and spectacular things I have seen.
Gjirocaster, although situated only around 20 km in a straight line away from the coast, is sandwiched between high mountains and has a different, idyllic vibe. Very few tourists actually reach Gjirokaster so you won't be bothered by huge group tours that have invaded the Adriatic coast in Dubrovnik or Mostar. Talking about Mostar - if you liked it, you most probably will love Gjirokaster too.
Lack of tourists left Albania truly authentic - it's one of the last places of such enormous beauty in Europe where you can feel as if you've entered a different continent! And, of course the prices remain low - for around 20 USD you can have a double room in a local beautiful guest house with an amazing view! The same applies to food - excellent quality pizza and a pint of beer in a good restaurant will cost 5 EUR!
Old town is perched on the hill and overlooks the entire valley and surrounding mountains. Little houses with beautiful decorations are strewn all over - the view is like from a fairy tale. It's easy to walk around the old town - the streets are quite steep so there will be some walking uphill but it is really worth it. The new town is located down in the valley so the new concrete blocks don't interfere at all with the beautiful Ottoman center.
You can visit an old bazaar, the only mosque in Gjirokaster as well as monumental Zekate House which now serves as ethnographic museum.
The castle is situated on the very top of the hill and is visible from every point of the old town. There are only ruins left, but it provides the best views over the town and the mountains. It's the second largest castle in the whole Balkan peninsula. You can clearly see the stone roofs, little streets and houses from here. Entry fee is 200 ALL (1.40 EUR/1.60 USD).
Within the fortress, there is a scene for Gjirokaster National Folk festival, some beautiful clock towers, US and European Union flags and... an US American plane shot down during the communist regime!
If you didn't arrive in Gjirokaster from the coast - now you know what to visit next! Miles of paradise, unspoiled beaches, spectacular Llogara pass, amazing sea food... What more to say? Have a look here at my posts about Albanian Riviera.
Blue Eye Spring
Blue Eye Spring is a Europe-wide unique natural phenomenon. The spring flows right from the underground and has a turquoise color. But the nearby lake is like from a fairy-tale. It's hard to believe your own eyes that fresh water body of water can be that clear! It looks as if it was an artificial aquarium. Don't miss it!
Berat is another beautiful town that simply must be visited - although it's not that close from Gjirokaster (120 km/75 miles) and the roads there may be in a horrible condition, it's a must-see. It's called "a town of a thousand windows" and has a similar vibe to Gjirokaster - perfectly well maintained, beautiful Ottoman houses, little streets and cozy old town. I'll write about it in one of the future posts.
Have a look at the Related Posts section to find more articles about Albani.
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