The Road to Gjirokastra, Albania

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when it’s 39°C, a man in possession of a chemical toilet that hasn’t been emptied for a week is in need of a black water disposal point.

A scenic drive along the Drina river to Tepelenë and Gjirokastra

To make matters worse, toilet chemicals are not readily available in Albania, and we had run out weeks before. Around the capital, Tirana, we found some fuel stations with motorhome service and waste-disposal points, but on our route south we had no such luck. As a result, our onboard garderobe exuded an aroma so unique and overwhelming that, even though it cost €15, (more than our meal with free parking the night before), we spent our first night in Gjirokastra at a campsite, where we made full use of all the facilities.

Although we carry 600 litres of water, we limit our usage because we’re never sure when or where we can next fill up. Plus, our boiler supplies only seven litres of hot water. So, to enjoy a serene and soothing toilette, and avoid the horror of an ‘ice bucket challenge’ finale to our ablutions, we always take ‘ship showers’. This means a quick drench, switch off the water to soap up, then the briefest rinse before a pat down with a flannel, which saves having our living space strewn with wet towels.

My long and luxurious hot shower in a flimsy portacabin on a gravel car park felt as sumptuous and opulent as Cleopatra’s bath of ass’s milk.  

We had been sad to leave the lovely lakeside restaurant in Fier, which had been home for two weeks while our pup, Kai, recovered from a dog attack and potentially fatal veterinary treatment. Food wise, we were still working our way through the cheese football and two cheese plaits gifted to us by a Romanian shepherd in Matera, Italy. As if we didn’t have enough cheese, we discovered that we’d made some of our own. Because of the dog attack, we were in such a state of disarray when we left Vlorë that we had left a bag of shopping in the cab for a fortnight in the heat. Afloat in a carrier bag filled with liquefied and mouldering soft fruit coulis, distended plastic milk bottles harboured an evil-looking combo of curds and whey.

The milk we’d bought in a mini market in Fier wasn’t too fresh either. Mark had a tendency to mistake liquid yoghurt for unfermented cow juice, since both were sold in the same bottles. For once, he had succeeded in buying actual milk, although he would have been wise to exercise caution when the shop freely admitted their freezers had packed in. The curdled evidence on our cereal and in our cups of tea suggested their fridges were also operating somewhat below peak performance.

Although I was aware of our depleted and deteriorating rations, it still came as a shock when Mark screeched the truck a halt on a main highway, then reversed back up it. All because he couldn’t stop quickly enough to swerve into a roadside fruit stall to re-supply.

Mark reversed back up this highway to buy fruit

On our way to Gjirokastra, we stopped overnight at Bar Restorant Zoi and Teri in Tepelenë, because it had excellent reviews. It was not listed on Park4Night and their car park was not enormous, but they welcomed us and The Beast’s vast bulk like long lost family. The son of the house, Teri, spoke excellent English. He introduced us to his mum and dad, Lola and Ilya, and his sister, Zoi.

Restaurant Zoi and Teri

I wasn’t thrilled with my initial wildlife encounter. When I stepped down from the cab, I found a squashed scorpion. When I asked about it, Teri was adamant,

“There are no scorpions in Albania.”

“There are,” I said. “There’s one in your car park!”

I showed Teri, who peered at it in disbelief, then reassured us,

“Ah, well they are very rare. And the black ones are fine. It’s the orange ones you have to worry about.”

There are no scorpions in Albania. Apart from this one…

Suddenly, I felt like I was back in Australia, where everything, from the spiders to the plants, is out to kill you. Where nonchalant locals calmly differentiate the ‘take a limb off’ species of crocs and sharks from the ‘bite you in half’ editions by referring to them as ‘gummies’ and ‘toothies’. Gummies and toothies! They sound almost friendly – like characters in a children’s book. ‘Slaughteries’ and ‘Stingies’. I felt similar logic had just been applied to a venomous predatory arachnid.

Our welcome beer in the garden at Restaurant Zoi and Teri, Tepelene. Kai is still wearing his sarong to stop him licking the wounds he sustained in a dog attack

Lola brought us a welcome beer to enjoy in their shady garden, then showed me around her small holding. First, I met her six sleek, dainty white cats.

“They work for me!” she told me. “They keep away rats, mice, and snakes.”

“What about scorpions?”

She looked at me curiously. “There are no scorpions in Albania,” she assured me, and we repeated the conversation I’d had with her son.

Then, she introduced her chickens.  

“They work for me!” She laughed.

After that, we met the dogs.

“They work for me too! They guard the chickens.”

There was no menu. Dinner was what the family was eating. Lola pointed at a photograph in a folder and said,  

“This is what I am cooking tonight. Lamb, baked in the oven with eggs and yoghurt.”

Known as Tavë Kosi, it is one of Albania’s national dishes.

Lola’s Tavë Kosi

It was fine with us. The restaurant set up reminded me of the wonderful Italian degustazione ‘tasting’ menus, where the chef simply crafts mouth-watering dishes from whatever is fresh and in season that day. We love dining that way. There’s no need to decide what to eat, or worry about whether you’ve chosen the right thing. You just sit back and relax in the certainty that whatever comes out of the kitchen will be mouth-wateringly delicious.

We knew the eggs were fresh and local – we saw Lola cross the road to collect them from her workforce of chickens. She told us,

“All the other ingredients are from my garden or the village.”

We ate in the pretty shaded garden with the family. Our meal came with a portion of byrek, a typical Albanian pie enclosed in crisp, flaky filo pastry. Fillings can be sweet or savoury, but this one was plump with soft tasty spinach and tangy feta cheese. We also got the most enormous fresh Greek salad. Lola’s home-grown tomatoes were sweet, and almost melted in our mouths.

Lola’s Greek salad with home grown tomatoes

While we were dining, we saw goats trot home down the main street of the village. Two shepherd dogs with them saw or smelled The Fab Four. We saw their heads rise like sinister periscopes above the garden wall next to the gate, before they started to slink towards us. Mark shot to his feet and shooed them away, but it drove home a point.

“Albania’s not like the other European countries we’ve visited,” he said. “Even in Romania, the flocks are high in the hills with the lonely goatherds. You never see shepherd dogs unless you’re walking in the mountains. Here, there is livestock all around the villages.”

We needed to be much more wary about dogs in Albania, where encounters with large and highly protective dogs was much more likely.

The following morning, we set off to walk to the peacock-blue Drina river with The Fab Four, but even at 10 a.m., it was just too hot. In a typical show of warm Albanian hospitality, Lola’s husband, Ilya, offered to drive us all there, but we bailed out and decided to truck on. Our destination, Gjirokastra, is another beautiful old Ottoman town, similar to Berat, dominated by a colossal hilltop fortress.

Besides being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Gjirokastra is the birthplace of Nobel-laureate writer, Ismail Kadare, and Albania’s notorious dictator, Enver Hoxha. Kadare threaded glimpses of his home town through the pages of his book, Chronicle in Stone.

After seeing to ‘necessities’ on the campsite, we moved on and found a shady park up in a free car park, which was just a short uphill walk from Gjirokastra’s famous bazaar and castle.

Our park up in Gjirokastra

We strolled into town to explore. The street through the bazaar was paved with dove grey cobbles, inlaid with pale limestone in an overlapping geometric diamond pattern, which led our eyes up the hill. A stepped terrace of whitewashed shops lined the street, each fronted with double doors made from chestnut-coloured wood. Identical glossy black wrought iron window boxes underscored uniform rows of tall rectangular windows, which pierced the glowing whiteness of the upper floors.

The Bazaar, Gjirokastra

We browsed the colourful handicrafts on display, and treated ourselves to a carved wooden plaque ‘made by our hands’, which depicted the double-headed eagle from the Albanian flag. It hangs proudly in the truck as a homage to this country, which had so quickly captured our hearts.     

As we wandered around in shorts and sandals, the weather changed. The heavens furrowed its brows, then split its darkening countenance with thunder and forked lightning. The temperature plummeted to 25°C.

After sweltering away for weeks in the mid-thirties, the rain was such a joy that Mark and I sat outside in the castle courtyard as heavy drops exploded around us. Only when we started to shiver did we drip our way into the humid warmth of a café for a lunchtime byrek.

Ominous clouds loom over Gjirokastra castle’s clock tower

Enveloped by bonhomie and steamy windows, we chatted to a lady on the next table. She had travelled solo from Twickenham in West London, and agreed with us that she felt safer in Albania than in parts of London.

The friendly café owner presented our lunch and told us,

“I have relatives in Ireland – in Kerry. I’m going to visit them for a few months.”

“It rains a lot in Ireland!” we told her.

With a huge smile, she replied,

“I LOVE rain!”

As Brits, we spend our life seeking sunshine and complaining about the weather that persistently dampens our little isle, but our experience in Girokastra’s castle courtyard gave us a whole new perspective on the pleasures of liquid sunshine!

Join us next time for a tour of Gjirokastra castle and Gjirokastra by night!

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Published by Jacqueline Lambert @WorldWideWalkies

AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before". Since 2021, we've been at large in a 24.5-tonne self-converted ex-army truck called The Beast. BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

10 thoughts on “The Road to Gjirokastra, Albania

  1. Haha 😄, maybe that was the last scorpion in Albania! Wow, the Greek (Albanian?) salad looks so delicious and fresh … it’s nice when you can eat like that from the garden! Beautiful picture of the castle with the threatening clouds … and yes, we love rain too (but not too much)!

    Liked by 1 person

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