Today's bus out of town, and on to stop number three, leaves from a spot "uphill of the ruins". Happily the Butrint bus passed it by, saving me the trouble of trying to find it for myself. The woman in the tourist information office was even able to give me departure times when I dropped in yesterday afternoon.
I'm heading to Gjirokastër, which means taking the Tiranë bound bus. When I approach the driver, ten minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave, his only response is the word "ticket!", accompanied by thumbing over his shoulder in an indeterminate direction before walking off. Excellent.
I walk up the hill in the general direction I hope he was pointing and after a few minutes stumble upon a small ticket office. As I wait behind the couple who arrived shortly before me, a woman decides to form her own queue, in front of me and to the right of the couple currently being served.
Nice try, but I'm not having it today. As the couple complete their transaction I reach my arm out and place it on the counter in front of the woman, quickly angling my body in behind it as they step away. She looks at me in slight surprise. Tough. I am not missing this bus when the next one isn't for almost 4 hours.
It's a proper bus, with air conditioning, making the ride surprisingly comfortable. Gjirokastër's only 90 minutes away, so I'm soon standing by the side of the highway that skirts the edge of the town. At which point I should have just got in a taxi and paid the 400 lekë for a ride up the steep hill from the new town to the old town, where I'm staying for the next 2 nights.
But why would I do that when I can just walk it? The incline of the hill through the new town isn't so bad, and it doesn't seem to take me long to reach the turning. However, as I turn off to start walking up through the old town I realise my mistake; not only is it much, much steeper, but it's cobbled and slippy despite being bone dry, the stones worn smooth by the passing of thousands of feet.
The road seems to extend forever, and my shirt is getting steadily damper as I labour my way up hill. Just as the end seems in sight my map fails me. Either my map reading abilities suddenly took a shocking nosedive or the winding streets at the top of the hill do not remotely tally up to how they've been labelled on the map I have. I'm blaming the map; all the waypoints matched on the way up.
Luckily for me a very helpful woman, with English that puts me to shame, points out which building on the hill behind me (because I was of course walking in the opposite direction at this point) is my B&B and tells me how I can get there. Upon finally reaching it, 50 minutes after I got off the bus, I pause outside to catch my breath and compose myself. As I'm standing there a boy passes me by on a donkey, heading further up the hill.
Once I've cooled down, stopped cursing hills and my own stubbornness, I find reasons to smile. Starting with the beautiful 200 year old building I'm staying in, and finishing with the spectacular views out of my window.
The castle at the very top of the hill is just to my right, the old town extends before me with its attractive slate roofed buildings, sweeping downhill where it meets the new town in the valley below. On the horizon opposite me the mountains rise up, running north beside the Tiranë highway.
I really can't believe this place hasn't made it onto the mainstream tourist trail yet. Much as I cursed my way up the hill, I am so happy to be back amongst the mountains and back in the Balkans.