Fortress Gjirokaster

The thought of traveling to an exotic place hit me and I thought of no better place to go than Republic of Albania, a hidden gem of the Balkan Peninsula in south-eastern Europe. In recent years the country has begun to open the doors to foreign tourists, and I did not want to miss any chance to avail a visa free entry to this mystic and mesmerising Land of Eagles.

Albania’s ancient history that dates back 3,000-5,000 years, is that of a small Mediterranean country, enjoying an extensive coastline and rich wildlife, as well as UNESCO world heritage sites and hills. From beautiful nature to the more modern urban attractions, there’s so much to discover.

My first visit was to the dynamic colourful capital city, Tirana. The buzz of the city is Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero, the Et'hem Bey Mosque, one of the nation's most treasured buildings, the nation's major museums, including The National Historic Museum, the clock tower and one of the most popular pedestrian city street with trees, cafes, restaurants, lovely people and tourists from all over the world.

It is rightly said when Tirana is hailed as the city that never sleeps. I also tried out the traditional dishes of Albania such as Imam Bajalldi, Bakllava, Local Pizza, Stuffed Byrek, Pispili, Rice Balls, Rice Pudding and lots of cheese and salads.

My journey to the most spectacular and unexplored city of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was eventful. A picturesque Ottoman-era city carved from stone, the old town is famous for being a well-protected city, with the original infrastructure and fortress continuing to guard the entire city. The old houses lean against the slopes of the hills with their beautiful facades in aged wood.

A visit to Skenduli house is a must. It is among Gjirokastra's most ancient, authentic edifices, and the best conserved and safe-guarded house. More than 300 years old (built in 1823), the tour of the structure is conducted by a member of the family that owns the property.

Gjirokastra’s castle is one of the biggest in the Balkans. It is situated on the hilltop overlooking the city, a monumental structure that has witnessed the history of the region unfold across centuries.

According to archaeologists, the place had been inhabited since the 4th or 5th century. The amazing views over Gjirokastra and the valley of the Drino River and surrounding mountains offers among the most astonishing views in Albania. The weekends become lively with a rich nightlife comprising delicious regional cuisine, traditional music and coffee. It was love at first sight for this enchanting and dazzling heritage city.

The last leg of my odyssey covered Saranda on the Albanian Riviera, a popular coastal town. A peaceful pedestrian seaside walkway known as The Hasan Tahsini Boulevard lies on the little bay of Saranda which has its own charm. It is inhabited by a majority of ethnic Albanians, and also has a minority Greek community.

Albania is still an unknown destination in Europe and many travellers are not aware of the hidden gems in the country. It has a varied platter to offer from history to food, architecture, nightlife, glamorous coasts, rugged landscape, castles, and shopping by just spending few euros. One of the reasons why every globetrotter should come to Albania is for its affordability. It is one of the cheapest destinations in Europe. My recommendation will be to go for taxis as a mode of transport for moving around different cities of Albania for a comfortable trip, though bus transports are available too.

My end of this journey is the beginning of the next. It truly is a time to catch up on a lot of sleep after the fun filled but long exhausting trip. With sweet, cherished memories, it’s time to say farewell to Albania, one of the friendliest countries I have ever visited.

- Special to GN Focus