I love to visit UNESCO sites. In case you're not familiar with it, UNESCO is the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Countries nominate special places for designation in the official UNESCO list. I've visited many UNESCO sites all over the world, including The Great Wall of China, The Pyramids of Giza (Egypt), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), Yosemite National Park (California), Venice (Italy), Angkor Archaeological Park (Cambodia), Victoria Falls (Zambia), Acropolis (Greece), Vatican City, Iguazu National Park (Brazil and Argentina, Hoi An Ancient Town (Vietnam), and may others.
I've enjoyed every site that I've visited. In fact, the UNESCO list has essentially become a shopping list of places for me to see.
The UNESCO site in Albania that most interested me is Gjirokaster. Some of the buildings in this town date back to the Ottoman era in 17th century. The entire town has been designated as an historic site. Although there are a few other places in Albania that I might like to see, Gjirokaster is number one.
I knew from my advanced research that Albania has no international trains and few domestic trains. There are no buses from Macedonia to Gjirokaster. What few buses go from Macedonia to Albania all go to the capital, which is Tirana. I know I could get to Tirana but how would I get from there to Gjirokaster? There's no train station in Tirana. There's no central bus station in Tirana. Every bus company has it's own places to drop off and pickup passengers. There's no building or internet site listing bus schedules. Every bus company maintains their own schedules, written in Albanian.
Rather than taking a long slow bus ride from Macedonia to Tirana, then risking that I'd be able to find a bus to Gjirokaster, I decided to temporarily abandon my “on the cheap travel” and hire a car and driver to take me directly to Gjirokaster. I'd have to make up for this splurge later.
The roads in Albania are slightly worse than those in Macedonia, that is to say, they are really, really bad. Most of the country is mountainous, meaning that most of the roads are windy mountain roads. I sat back and enjoyed the view.
I had determined that Gjirokaster Hotel seemed to be an excellent opportunity. According to the maps, it's located right in the heart of the historic town perched on the hill, surrounded by ancient buildings, and within easy walking distance of Gjirokastra Castle. Best of all, it comes highly recommended.
To help me get back on budget, the price per night is only $25, including breakfast. To get a property that interesting at a price that low, you have to give up certain niceties, like a front desk, someone who speaks English, an elevator, and many of the other things most travelers expect. In exchange, you get experiences that few others will ever know!
We arrived at the hotel just before sunset. Although my driver knew how to get to Gjirokastra, he did not know how to get to this hotel. Several time, we stopped and asked locals. Fortunately, in addition to knowing Macedonian and English, my driver could also speak a little Albanian and a little Greek, which enabled him to speak with the locals. Each time we got directions, we'd drive up a ridiculously steep cobblestone road. Each time, we climbed higher and higher up into the town. Finally, when we were almost up to the castle at the top of the hill, we found a sign for Gjirokastra Hotel.
After stowing my gear in my room, I wandered around the area; but, specifically avoided walking downhill, since I might not be able to walk back up before sunset.
Near my hotel is a building called Skendulli House. A sign on the side of the building (in English!) said it was built in 1700 by the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Albania at that time. I found an attendant who was just locking up for the day. He re-opened the building just for me. After determining that I don't speak Albanian and he doesn't speak English, we started negotiating languages. We soon determined that each of us spoke a little French; so, he gave me a tour of the building in French. The building was huge! The lower floors were dedicated for defense with several loopholes (slit openings in the walls for rifles). There were several different staircases leading to several different floors levels. Several of the staircases were hidden, presumably to facilitate escape. Many of the rooms had an attached toilet. No, they didn't have true indoor plumbing back in 1700. But, they did have plenty of water. I'll leave the details to your imagination.
The middle floors contained a kitchen, a large meeting room, and other utilitarian rooms. The uppermost floors were reserved for family. He explained that one room was only used to weddings and funerals, similar to what 18th century American referred to as a “parlor”. One suite of rooms were reserved for newlyweds.
I paid him the posted price of 200 leve (about $2). Since that seemed way too small to me, I also give him a large tip, which surprised but pleased him.
After this interesting, private tour, I returned to my hotel. Even though the room was quite nice, I was coughing all night. I think it was the feather pillows and the down comforter.