The view out our window
Wednesday, April 28
We arrived in Gjirokastra, another Albanian "Museum City'' after a four-hour ride from Berati on a public mini-bus. The mountain scenery was spectacular, but we were glad we brought along Dramamine. It was two-lane roads all the way, with the bus winding through pine forests and up and down mountain passes. About three-quarters into the trip, the driver stopped at a nice mountain cafe where everyone sat down at tables and ordered drinks or food. This is civilized travel! And of course, this being Albania, the price was right- $7 each for the bus tickets.
Gjirokastra has a historic upper town and a modern lower town built during the communist era. Because of its "Museum City'' designation, most of its old buildings were spared. The exceptions were the mosques. Six were destroyed. One was left standing. It was turned into museum, then when communism fell, became a mosque once again.
The upper town, known for its Ottoman-era tower houses built along the steep sides of the valley, is where we settled into the Kotoni House, a six-room B and B run by Haxhi and Vita Kotoni in Haxhi's 300-year-old family home.
Vita and Haxhi Kotoni
The Kotini House
There are fancier places in town to stay, but likely no nicer hosts than the Kotoni family.They opened their inn in 1993, the first private hotel after communism. Later they received UNESCO funding to renovate inside and out, with a new facade and ceilings of carved wood. Rooms are $32 night including a breakfast of fried eggs, cheese, bread and homemade marmalade. The house sits just below a 13th century castle. Many of the homes surrounding Koton's are historic, but in need of repair. The owners have either abandoned them (one neighbor moved to the U.S.), or lack funding for restoration.
View of old Gjirokastra from the castle
Albania's communist dictator Enver Hoxha was born here, but the only evidence left is his house, now an ethnographic museum with a collection of furniture and household items that were used in Ottoman times. Most of the usual businesses, stores etc. are in the new town, but there's a handful of good restaurants in the upper town, many cafes serving excellent cappuccino and lots of restoration going on, manly funded by donations from private foundations and foreign governments.
The Hotel Kalemi
Drago Kalem bought the 200-year-old home, above, and restored it as a 12-room inn. We found him in the garden when we dropped by, and he showed us around. Rooms are spacious and cost about $47 a night with breakfast. Book early if you want to stay here. April is usually a slow month, but he was booked.
Albanian food is mostly Turkish-influenced, and we love it. An English-speaking tour guide in the museum turned us on to qifqi, a "rice ball'' made from rice, egg and mint, a Gjirokastra speciality, made in a utensil similar to a pan for making poached eggs.
Gjirokastra's 17th century bazaar
We found it on the menu at the Kujtimi restaurant in the old bazaar area in the upper town. Our guides were two Peace Corp volunteers, Courtney Jallo and Chris Hassler, whom we met through CouchSurfing.com. We had a wonderful evening talking and eating with them and other American volunteers stationed in Albania. Courtney works in public health. Chris works on city development projects. Their first choice for a Peace Corp posting was the "horn" of Africa, but when that didn't pan out, they opted for Albania, and seem to be enjoying their work and travels. CouchSurfing is a great way to connect with people when traveling, whether or not you need an actual couch for the night.
Chris and Courtney
We certainly appreciated their suggestion that we meet at the Kujtimi. We sat on the outdoor terrace, and feasted in a parade of salads, stuffed peppers, grilled eggplant, potatoes and other vegetarian dishes. When the bill came, we each threw in 500 lek - $5 each!
Next stop: Saranda, the coast and Greek ruins of Butrint.