“It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in the valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature that was now clawing its way up the mountainside.
Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales…”
Chronicle of Stone, Ismail Kadare
They call her the “City of Stones”. And from stone she is hewn.
The smooth and intricately arranged cobbles of her alleyways. The robust foundations of her abodes that bare resemblance to small castles rather than urban dwellings. Her elaborately chiselled fountains and monuments. The rectangular stone chimneys, jutting out from between the massive slates of her dark rooftops, like watchtowers on a rocky slope. And of course, the intimidating ramparts of her sinister citadel. The whole town seems to sprout from the bedrock itself as if it is a natural extension of the ground it sojourns on.
Clinging to the rugged mountainside, the settlement appears indomitable, perennial in its existence as though it has always grazed these verdant slopes and will do so until time immemorial.
It is a city that breathes her past; her age-old traditions and artisanship kept alive in the colourful shops of the bazar, the beating heart of this labyrinthian jumble, and the magnificent interiors of her extraordinary domiciles.
Gjirokastër is more than just a city. It is an ode carved in stone. An ode to the brilliant ingenuity of its residents. And a hymn of praise to the versatility of one of Earth’s most endurant materials.
Below are the best things to experience in the “City of Stone”, as well as a recommendation on where to stay during your visit to my favourite Albanian town.
VISIT GJIROKASTËR CASTLE
Only dwarfed by the imposing mountain front on the opposite side of the valley, Gjirokastër Castle is by far the most iconic structure of the “Stone City”.
Most likely built during Byzantine times, it wasn’t until the early 19th century when Ali Pasha seized the town that major renovations and expansions to the citadel were made. Following Albanian independence in 1912, the castle was mainly used as a prison, first under the rule of self-declared king Zog I and later the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, before being redesignated as a tourist site.
Today, visitors may walk along its indomitable ramparts, wander through its arched hallways, and descend into the depths of its dungeons.
The main yard also features the stage of the National Folk Festival, a grand celebration of Albania’s rich customs and traditions held every five years within the castle walls.
Entrance Fee | 400 Lek
LEARN ABOUT THE CITY'S HISTORY
Those seeking a deeper understanding of Gjirokastër’s history will find their answers inside the fortress’ grand halls. Partitioned across two floors, visitors will swiftly embark on an intriguing journey through the town’s colourful past that will take them from Albania‘s dawn of civilization all the way to the terrible times of the communist dictatorship in the second half of the 20th century.
Divided into three parts, the Museum of Gjirokastër features the main exhibition, highlighting vital events that occurred and shaped the city throughout the centuries, an armoury, boasting Albanian arms used during the country’s tireless struggle for independence (first against the Ottomans in 1912, then the Italian and German occupiers during World War II), as well as the eerie hallways and cells of the former castle prison.
Be aware however, that although the museum is located inside the castle, visitors will have to buy an extra ticket, should they wish to enter.
Entrance Fee | 200 Lek
WHERE DOES THE NAME COME FROM?
According to local folklore, the town's name is closely tied to the legend of princess Argjiro. When Ottoman forces captured the fortress in 1417, Argjiro, sister of ruler Gjin Zenebishi, refused to surrender to the invaders. In an act of radical defiance, she took her child and threw herself off the ramparts. Miraculously, the baby survived the suicidal leap, and where Argjiro fell milk started to flow from the ground, feeding the new-born thereafter.
However, it is more likely that the city's name stems from the Argjirët, an ancient tribe settling in the valley, or argyros the Greek word for silver, a possible reference to the stone's argent shimmer after the rainfall.
WITNESS ARCHITECTURAL BRILLIANCE
While Berat’s citizens became rich of trade, Gjirokastër’s wealth stemmed from agriculture. To distinguish themselves from the peasantry, as well as other established families, local landowners erected massive mansions on the rocky slopes, overlooking the fertile plains of the Drino valley.
All but modest in their approach, the interiors were lavishly decorated with intricate wood carvings (the ceilings are marvellous!), beautiful wall paintings, and colourful carpets, while the outside walls boasted intriguing murals of flora and fauna, shielded by the iconic black slated roofs. Unfortunately, most of the external art has vanished due to changes in preference: under the Ottomans pure white became the prominent style and most murals were simply painted over.
Resembling small fortresses rather than residential buildings, the architectural finesse of these rustic palaces is astonishing. Designed to withstand earthquakes and heavy rain, the walls alternate a metre of stone with layers of chestnut wood to absorb the movement of the ground. Several stories high, the dwellings also feature separate living spaces for men and women, a chambre for newlywed couples, various sleeping quarters (for winter and summer), numerous hammams (bathrooms), a spacious kitchen, a cistern, a bunker, and even its own water filtration system.
Two of the best-preserved buildings, Skenduli House and Zekate House, have now been converted into private museums. Constructed in the early 19th century (1812 and 1823, respectively), a tour will allow visitors a closer look at day-to-day life, gender roles, and traditions during Ottoman times, as well as the structural intricacies of this wonderful dwellings.
Entrance Fee | 200 Lek
WALK ACROSS A FORMER AQUEDUCT
When Ali Pasha of Tepelene captured Gjirokastër in 1811, he found the town without a proper water supply. Known for his infrastructure projects, the Turkish governor immediately ordered the construction of a 10-kilometre-long aqueduct, and soon after fresh mountain water started to fill the cisterns of the citadel.
Although most of the structure was destroyed in 1932, a small part survived.
Now nicknamed “Ali Pasha Bridge”, the remains of this once vital infrastructure are located just a short walk from the picturesque streets of the city centre.
Curious travellers may also hike up the dry riverbed or follow one of the many goat trails for further exploration of the canyon and the surrounding mountains.
SEE THE OBELISK
Although just a minute away from the Old Bazaar, the Gjirokastër Obelisk is a neat, somewhat hidden spot in the centre of the city.
Located on a small platform, looming above the robust roofs of the Old Town, the Obelisk was erected right next to the first Albanian school of Gjirokastër.
To reach the viewpoint head over to the Gallery Irish Pub. To its left you will find a doorway with a steep staircase behind it. Follow the stairs all the way to the top to find Gjirokastër sprawled out before you!
WATCH THE SUNSET AT FLAG HILL
For an even better view of Gjirokastër and the surrounding valley, walk up to flag hill (not the official name but there is a large Albanian flag on top).
From the Old Bazaar head over to Rruga Bashkim Kokona and follow it all the way to Resort Kerculla. Once you reach the hotel, cross the parking lot, and pass the main building before turning left.
The spot is especially great for some relaxed sunset views, so grab yourself a cold beverage and indulge in the majestic mountain panorama while you’re at it!
EXPLORE LENGARICA CANYON
Beyond the sulphuric scent of its therapeutic, thermal springs, Lengarica Canyon reveals its outstanding beauty to those willing to (literally) venture off the path. Those who follow the river upstream will find an adventurer’s playground par excellence.
As the scarps loom ever higher and the walls draw closer, the light vanishes and excursionists will have to wade through waist-deep water, wander across sandy banks, and balance on slippery rocks on their journey towards the gorge’s exit.
We didn’t have enough time to explore the entire canyon, however, I was told that it would take around three hours to reach the other side (including some passages that must be swum).
Located near the village of Permët in the south of the country, Lengarica Canyon was one of the highlights during my time in Albania!
MARVEL AT THE BLUE EYE
Located near the village of Muzinë, Albania’s southern Blue Eye (the northern Blue Eye can be found near the village of Theth) lends itself perfectly for a daytrip from the “City of Stones”.
The Eye is a freshwater spring and the source of the Bistricë river that flows all the way to the Ionian Sea near Sarandë. Although divers have descended up to 50 metres, the exact depth remains unknown.
Surrounded by lush sycamore and oak trees, it is a place as idyllic as they get. However, the government is currently building a brand-new concrete road and it is not hard to imagine tranquillity disturbed by the masses of tourists that might soon storm this natural phenomenon.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE
Although the Ethnographic Museum of Gjirokastër was erected on the grounds of Enver Hoxha’s birthplace, nothing relates to Albania’s former dictator anymore.
Reconstructed between 1964-66, after a fire destroyed Hoxha’s childhood home, the new building served as the Anti-Fascist Museum under the communists, before being converted into its present form after the fall of the regime.
Today, it houses a variety of cultural artifacts, household items, and traditional costumes, reflecting the rich and storied history of the “City of Stones”.
Birthplace of Ismail Kadare
Gjirokastër is not only the birthplace of the country’s infamous dictator but also its most renowned wordsmith. Born in 1936, Ismail Kadare is widely regarded as one of the most influential European writers, as well as Albania’s most prolific author, and his books have been translated into more than 45 languages.
Since 2018, his childhood home, constructed in the typical Ottoman style, has been opened to the public.
During Albania’s communist era, the Drino Valley became an important manufacturing site and many residents of Gjirokastër were employed in these state-owned factories, producing a wide variety of commodities, from cutlery to cigarettes and wooden furniture, as well as bunkers for the country’s defence program.
However, when the regime collapsed in the early 1990s these industrial complexes were abandoned and soon fell into disrepair.
Although some properties were bought and have been reinvigorated with industry over the last few decades, many factories still stand derelict, waiting to be explored.
In the wee hours of 16. June 2014, more than 900 policemen descended upon a small village in the Albanian mountains. Soon, the officers were greeted with machinegun fire, and the cracking sound of RPG and grenade explosions echoed from the surrounding slopes.
The assault was commanded to crack down on the illegal cannabis production, taking place in Lazarat. The production was estimated to succeed more than 1000 tons of marihuana annually, corresponding to a street value of roughly 4,5 billion euros (nearly 50% of the Albanian GDP at that time!). Despite the fierce resistance, law and order (at least to an extent) returned to Lazarat and the mass production of cannabis ended.
Apparently, there is not much to see today, since most of the lavish mansions hide behind large concrete walls, however, due to its close proximity with Gjirokastër, a visit to this rather unique village might still be worthwhile.
WHERE TO STAY
For backpackers there is really just one place you need to know about: Stone City Hostel.
Run by the lovely Walter and Brenna, a Dutch American couple who opened the hostel back in 2016, it is not only the best hostel in Albania but one of the best hostels I have ever stayed at! The price might be a tad bit higher than in the rest of Albania, however, the comfortability, cosy atmosphere, and hospitality of Brenna and Walter render it well worth it.
While Walter is a trove of knowledge and provides free walking tours to guests of the hostel, Brenna’s joyous persona will make you feel extremely welcomed and right at home.
Oh, and she is an incredible baker. Seriously, those cookies were heavenly.