Gjirokaster undoubtedly one of my favourite towns in the world is a little town nestled in the mountains in Albania, slightly south from the town of Tepelene where water is unbelievably tasty (this town was visited by Lord Byron who was so impressed he wrote a poem called Mother Albania about the area)
Which ever way you get to the city, you are sure to pass through beautiful scenery, green valleys, streams, waterfalls and small mountains await. Gjirokaster is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate." on top of the mountain lies a large and powerful castle that guards the city below.
The city dates back to a settlement as early as the 1st century but it wasn't until around the 12th century when it progressed in to a larger place under the Byzantine Empire. It remained under Byzantine rule and later Ottoman rule until the 19th century at which point it became a stronghold of resistance against the Turks.
In the early 20th century, it came under Greek rule, as the area has had quite a lot of Greek inhabitants for some time and still does. The area fought for it's independence 3 times and the area was finally granted to Albania in the 1913, Treaty of London. The determined Greeks took it back though at the start of WW1 and kept it until the end, when it was given back to Albania. The city lived in relative peace for the next 20 or so years until it was annexed by Italy in 1939 at the start of WW2. Germany took over control in 1943 but it was returned to Albanian rule one year later.
During communism the city flourished as not only industry was boosted but the town was known as a "museum town" due to Enver Hoxha (Leader of Albania between November 1944 - April 1985) being born there.
The end of communism saw Albania in a mess and in particular in 1997 when the country's economy collapsed following the governments pyramid scheme going wrong, Gjirokaster became deeply involved in anti-government rebellions which were violent and forced the presidents resignation.
The modern part at the foot of the mountain is not interesting at all but simply houses people, the old town though is magnificent, a bit run down but that's the way I like it. The citadel, bazaa and all the buildings perched to the side of the mountain are incredibly intriguing. I found the locals unbelievably helpful and keen to talk (mostly about Manchester United), the owner of the supermarket had letters between himself and numerous Manchester United players (most probably their secretaries) since the early 90s.
I didn't see much in the way of restaurants but there were numerous hotels, I stayed in a rather grandiose place that I'd decided to have a nosy in and was shocked that the price was a mere 6 euros a night. The room was top quality, the hotel had stunning rugs, chandaliers and was very nicely decorated. Bargain.
There is a bus route between Gjirokaster and the western-styled resort Saranda, during my visit their were warnings that the bus was regularly held up and robbed but I certainly didn't have any problems and it was a magnificent journey, the same applies to hitchhiking back. Minibuses run between Tepelene which in turn may be linked to other cities like Tirana or Fier. You can wave down just about any car in Albania and they will take you for a small fee, it's common practice and the ubiqutious Mercedes can normally take more people than you think! There is a border to the south of Gjirokaster with Greece but I've never crossed it, so can't comment but the road going there is one of the better roads in the country. The most scenic road for me would be the road heading to Korce, take a turn to Tepelene and follow the road along the River Vlosa before heading back up to Erseke. An amazingly scenic route, hard to do by public transport though. Fine for those with their own car or willing to a hitch a ride with others.
I didnt meet any other tourists in Gjirokaster when I was there but Albania is slightly more visited these days and it's only a matter of time surely before this hidden gem is unearthed to more.