Arrival in Albania: Night bus from Greece to Gjirokaster

Arrival in Albania: Night bus from Greece to Gjirokaster

“Albania?! Why would you ever go there?”, people often inquired when they heard my plan for this summer, shuddering incredulously as they pictured a country full of dark human traffickers, a la the movie “Taken”. Simone and I didn’t really know what to think either, except that it was relatively easy to get to, cheap and supposedly one of the “up and coming travel destinations of 2014”. So we decided to go for it. The more we looked into it, the more mysterious the country became. Finding information about rental cars and transportation was nearly impossible so eventually we gave up, shrugging and saying, “I guess we’ll figure it out when we get there”. We decided to meet in Gjirokaster, both on buses from different Greek cities (I came from Thessaloniki and she came from Athens), booked a hostel in Saranda and wished each other smooth travels.

View of Gjirokaster from the castle

View of Gjirokaster from the castle

The adventure began before either of us boarded the bus. Penny bid me farewell, put me on the proper bus to the main bus station but I had almost a half an hour of wandering highways on the city outskirts before I could find the separate Crazy Holidays international terminal. When I finally arrived, I was the only American, the only solo traveler and the only person who appeared to be going to Albania for fun. Simone was in a similar situation but since she spoke Greek, she benefitted from fellow passengers giving her “advice”. One woman said, “don’t let them know you’re American”. She replied, “do Albanians hate Americans?” and the woman responded, “No! They love Americans! But you’re alone. And they’ll think you’re rich. Just tell them you’re Greek” (Simone has grown up in America but has two Greek parents so she looks Greek and can speak it pretty well).

“I finally felt myself lifted definitively away on the winds of adventure toward worlds I envisaged would be stranger than they were, into situations I imagined would be much more normal than they turned out to be.” ―Ernesto Guevera, The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes of a Latin American Journey 

My room in Hotel Sopati in Gjirokaster, Albania

My room in Hotel Sopati in Gjirokaster, Albania

Arrival in Albania

Back to my journey, I arrived at Gjirokaster at 2 AM, as the only one who got off the bus. Immediately, I was swarmed by grizzled wrinkled men… supposedly cab drivers but in unmarked taxis… One seemed to know where I needed to be and since there weren’t any legitimate looking cabs in sight, I figured my only option was to trust him. He whizzed around windy roads and dropped me at a small hotel at the corner of an ancient stone building. A scary-ish looking man answered my knock at the door, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and trudged up a cold, concrete staircase to deliver me to a room which looked like a great aunt’s attic. I plopped down to sleep for a few hours before I was supposed to meet Simone at 7 AM in the “lobby”.
I waited in a deserted lobby wondering who to pay until 7 AM rolled around, and I saw someone with dark sunglasses and a giant purse squinting through the window. “Simone!” I hopped up, ran to the door to let her in and give her a hug. She let out a sigh of relief, “I thought I was going to get human trafficked back there. I think we had the same driver. He said he picked up a blonde girl at two AM. They didn’t know what was going on with all these white girls arriving alone on buses in the middle of the night”. She continued animately, “They all speak Greek! I can’t believe it! We might be able to talk to people after all”. Glad that at least SHE could talk to people, I decided to wander around the halls one more time looking for the man who let me in last night. With him nowhere to be found, I decided to hand over my 8 euros to the random man who entered from outside, asked if I paid and bopped over to his cafe next door. “Gosh, I don’t even know what’s going on”. Fortunately, that random cafe man who took my hotel money gave Simone a basic overview of the lay of the land so we had a general plan (since there was no wifi in the hotel).

The clock tower at the Gjirokaster castle

The clock tower at the Gjirokaster castle, Albania

Sightseeing in Gjirokaster

Gjirokaster, “stone city” was dubbed as UNESCO as a living museum, known for its traditional architecture and castle on the hill. We started with the most obvious attraction, and made our our way up to the fortress, slipping on lumpy stone sidewalks. After paying less than a dollar to admission, we entered the castle, which they didn’t bother to illuminate. We walked down a dark hall lined with cannons, into a courtyard that overlooked the city and contained an American “spy plane” (quotations given by the museum) and an arena for their polyphonic singing performance (a tradition shared by Greece and Albania). After we finished the castle, we planned to continue to some of the other sites on our map- the zekate house (which landed us in someone’s garage and the man wanted us to pay to go inside the crumbling part beyond his living quarters), the ethnographic museum (one of those one-room museums that you enter, expecting to pay admission but realize you have seen the whole thing from the entrance and its no longer worth it) and the mosque (we didn’t go inside but it looked pretty basic).

The local who helped us navigate the streets of Gjirokaster

The local who helped Simone and I navigate the streets of Gjirokaster

When we tried to navigate back to the main bazaar, we must have looked lost because a local offered to help us find our way. Not only did he deliver us back to the cafe to pick up our luggage, but he joined us on a small bus to the main bus station and brought us to where we could catch a mini bus to Sarande (the supposedly more touristy beach town in the South which we planned to make our home base). All along the way, he gave us travel advice and replied truthfully when Simone asked, “Will Sarande be any more… normal? Because something about this place isn’t right”. He conclusively nodded no, without providing much of an explanation. “Ok… ok…”, Simone repeated almost mantra-like, as if she were trying to fortify herself for additional strangeness. He helped us board the mini-bus (furgon), expecting nothing in return except wanting us to find him on Facebook, and hung out in the gas station parking lot, smoking until he could wave us safely off on our way. “At least the locals are nice,” I commented, “we would have never found this bus on our own”.

Song of the Moment: The High Road– Broken Bells

If YOU want to come to Albania: There’s multiple ways to enter.  I took a night bus from Thessaloniki, Greece with Crazy Holidays (which was the only option I found from Thessaloniki- 29 euros one way) but you have more options for companies from Athens.  You can also take a ferry from Corfu, Greece (19 euros one way from ionian cruises).  Americans don’t need a visa for Albania.  Their currency is the lek (1 euro ~ 140 lek, 1 lek ~ .98 USD) but many places (at least in the south) accept the euro.  Hotels are expensive (they usually start around $60-80 USD per night) and there aren’t too many hostels to chose from (outside of Tirana) but food ($3 USD for a big, fast food type meal, $0.50 for a coffee or a pastry) and intercity transport are really cheap (less than $2 for the 90 km mini-bus from Gjirokaster to Saranda).  Navigating the mini-buses isn’t easy to figure out in advance (here’s a schedule but you’ll want to double check it) because they leave from strange places at weird times but most locals speak English/Greece and are more than happy to help.

Besides the slightly sketchy arrival in Albania, I felt very safe and the locals are some of the most welcoming that I’ve met in any country I’ve been to.  There’s not too much to see in Gjirokaster so I don’t know if I’d recommend going out of your way to see it but it is a neat city if you’re passing through.  It definitely has a different feel than the Albanian Rivera.

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