We reached Gjirokaster after a picturesque hour-long bus ride on the winding mountain pass from Saranda.
Despite temperatures being in the high 30’s, when we arrived, we decided to walk up to the castle. Yes, it was very hot and very sunny, but the amazing alleyways, charming old buildings and stone-cobbled streets were worth the effort.
It’s also a nice change to be in a place that still gets a kick out of visitors. All the kids we passed on the way up shouted hello at us before giggling and running away.
Gjirokaster Castle & Bazaar
Gjirokaster castle sits high up on the hillside, looking down upon the old town and surrounding valleys.
Once we finally made it up the hill, we wandered around the amazing remains of the castle, which rather bizarrely also includes an old US Airforce jet.
There were also great views back down across the old town from up high in the castle.
We were also lucky to find a concert of traditional Albanian folk music taking place in the main hall of the castle, as we entered the walkway lined with canons. Talk about atmospheric! Some of the singers were in traditional costume, the crowds mostly older but very dapper looking men and it all took place under the arches of the old castle.
We saw some great performers but the stand out were the groups who sang in the traditional Albanian folk style called iso-polyphony. We watched spellbound. It’s such strong and powerful music using just the voice. Unesco have claimed it a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. We’ve included a video of the group practicing outside before their performance below.
Sadly no one spoke enough English for us to understand what the celebration was, or the name of the group, but we felt very lucky to experience the traditional Albanian music in such amazing surrounds.
Heading down from the castle we had a wander around the bazaar, which consisted of a couple of streets with shops selling either bureks or souvenirs.
And then it rained. Really rained.
After another great Albanian lunch (which included local wine, cheese, mussels and roasted lamb, all for less than $20 for two), we set off back down the hill towards the bus stop, passing more amazing buildings, and even more interesting and colourful doors.
The valley in the distance was getting darker and darker and we watched the rain clouds coming towards us. When we reached the main road, we watched the rains, thunder and lighting batter the mountains just across the valley.
Thankfully just before the skies opened above us, a car pulled up offering to take us onwards to Saranda for the same price of the bus, but in half the time, win! We determined this from the older man in the passenger seat who said ‘Saranda?’ and ‘bus’ while pointing to him and us. If you think getting in a car with strangers seems crazy and perhaps dangerous, we had read this was a common way to get around in Albania. Plus the driver looked nice and the other two passengers were pensioners, and so didn’t seem threatening. So we squeezed in and set off, just as the heaviest rain we had experienced so far on the trip crashed down from the sky.
The drive home was pretty crazy, due to the heavy rain and winding mountain road, but our driver took it slowly. Luckily the bulky Mercedes-Benz (that all Albanians seem to own) was an easy match for the natural elements. We used the time to ‘chat’ with the older Albanian lady in the back as best we could without a shared language.
We arrived back in Sarande to blue skies and blistering heat – Albania is one crazy country. And so far we love it!!
(If anyone from Albania ever reads this post, we’d love to know who this group are and if we can get their music anywhere?)