Atop Gjirokaster's Fortress - the main stage - Gjirokaster Albania - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps -

Albania: Letters from Gjirokaster

Mon Chéri, A Second Letter to You,

It wouldn’t be fair if I’d left the story like that. You deserve reminders of what happened after we left Berat. Together, we shook away persistent taxi drivers and men who ‘know someone who knows someone’ who would take us where we wanted to go. You prolonged your plans to visit Ohrid even more, and together we found Gjirokaster. You walked alongside me up the steepest stone streets either of us had ever been on and finally found our resting place. We joked that the night before you had to sleep in a sleeping bag to keep warm inside a one-room guest house you’d found with the help of locals who “know someone who knows someone.”

In our new city, we found the hilltop room was well worth the climb, situated at the base of a castle and looking out onto the entire city of Gjirokaster. We were welcomed with lattes and sat out on the patio soaking in the most intense sun rays. Afterward, we walked through old town and were drawn into a sculptor’s studio. You were a pro at interpreting the old man’s stories, deciphering his photos and combination Greek/Albanian phrases. We learned that he had moved to Greece some years ago and had only recently returned to Gjirokaster to continue working with the sculptures in his own tiny studio.

Viroit Park in Gjirokaster Albania - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps -
Viroit Park in Gjirokaster Albania – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps –

We thanked him for sharing what he could and after several attempts at goodbye, managed to escape to the fortress’s entrance. It was secured with lock and chain. Knowing the fortress would still be standing the following morning, we turned and began to walk away. A few steps from the entrance, we stopped and turned back. A man stood on the other side of the gate and carefully unlocked it. He pointed at a sign showing its opening hours, and then motioned for us to enter. We payed the entrance fee, knowing it was going to find its way into his own pocket rather than to its proper position in the till. Still, we were appreciative of his offer to let us wander at our leisure, and got the whole place to ourselves! The man showed us around for several minutes, asking that we don’t go near the edge, and we rightfully assumed that was not for safety reasons but rather so others below would not see us and realize we were there after hours. We ignored his rule only once, so that we could take photos of the American plane forced down in 1957 and now proudly displayed at the city’s highest point. For a country that loves Americans, it is a unique display that momentarily made me think maybe we should highlight your background rather than my own.

Afterward, we found the fanciest restaurant either of us had eaten at in ages and were treated to dessert by the owner and his daughter. Baked chicken, salad, fresh bread, and cinnamon apples. We reluctantly reached into our pockets and rummaged together enough change to pay the hefty bill: 900 Albanian Lek. Less than 7 euro. No wonder we quickly learned to love this country!

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The next day, you were patient as I worked in the morning, and after breakfast you led us to a lake you’d noticed earlier on the outskirts of town. We sipped the tiniest espresso from an island cafe operating without electricity, and wandered into a farmer’s yard to watch a troubled turkey shake its tail feathers in the most peculiar of ways. Finding our way back to the city, we passed rows of deserted bunkers – some of the 700,000 built by former Communist leader Enver Hoxha- and found a tunnel cutting through the hill. Without hesitation, you pulled me inside. Curiosity is something we clearly have in common. It got the best of us and we stayed lost for hours, passing through the tunnel to the other side, and visiting areas of the city many locals have probably never even seen. Instead of turning away from an unknown place, you turn toward it. Just as I do, but I will have to say it’s more exciting with someone by my side.

City of Darnkess - Gjirokaster Albania - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps -
City of Darnkess – Gjirokaster Albania – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps –

Refueling that evening, we found a table for two on a small street in old town. The sun had already set so we ate by the light of street lamps. You told me how one of the joys of traveling in foreign lands is interpreting others’ interactions. You pointed toward three teenage boys standing nearby, barely catching breaths through their adolescent laughter. I watched a woman and her young son walk hand in hand in the opposite direction, stopping occasionally to pose for photos on the picturesque street.

Without warning, everyone disappeared. Even you, just two feet away, vanished from site. Even the food left on our plates as we sat at our tiny table outside the restaurant. Everything was gone. The entire area had an unexpected black out, and streets were illuminated only by the glow of a few cell phone screens. After what seemed like several minutes of staring into the tranquil darkness, the restaurant’s owner arrived with a flickering candle and set it between us two. As if on cue, the lights turned back on as soon as he walked away, and our impromptu candlelit dinner was complete.

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Having seen Gjirokaster at its best, the next day we waited for the rain to clear and after a few hours finally hit the road to our next destination: a resort town on the border of Greece. On our way out of town, you spoke French with some young locals, who turned out to be part of an up and coming tour guide company in Albania. They wanted so badly to show us ‘their Albania’ and we agreed to see their favorite spot. Weren’t we so lucky? The same water from the lake we’d visited the day before flows underground for 30 kilometers and comes bubbling up from depths unknown. In a mixture of Albanian, French and English, the guys told us how no one had ever been able to reach the bottom to find out its true depths because of the water’s upward force. The dark blue hole was so simple, so peaceful and calm, yet at the same time, so powerful.

With them, we went all the way to Sarande, a city so many had told us to visit. We found it to be not as exciting as the others. Perhaps in the summer, or perhaps if we would be ones to enjoy the beach bum lifestyles, we would’ve been more entranced. On a February day, it’s still a lovely city, but nothing as exciting as Shkoder, Tirana, Berat or Gjirokaster. And nothing like Blue Eye.

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I know you must agree on three amazements the city did offer: sweets, savories and pool hall distractions.

On our second evening in Sarande, a walk through town led us to the greatest source of entertainment we could ask for: a pool hall filled with men battling against each other. When traveling alone, I’ll usually take note of such places and continue on my way, not wanting to call to much attention to myself as a solo female. But with you, I was able to stand there for nearly half an hour, laughing and becoming ‘silent friends’ with other onlookers. Maybe this city wasn’t cut out for the adventurers in us – but the pool hall certainly was a huge bonus.

After nearly two weeks, we had just one more must-see city to visit in Albania. Amazingly, you still wanted to go even though it meant further delaying your Macedonian plans. Had you ventured on alone, you might’ve missed out on finding Albania’s only chain restaurant and the most amazing local food you’ve ever laid eyes on. Luckily, you kept with me and we kept going. Soon enough, to Macedonia – I promise!


Shepherd with His Sheep - Gjirokaster Albania - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps -
Shepherd with His Sheep – Gjirokaster Albania – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps –

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