The Balkans – Gjirokastër, Albania


A big reason for my Sarandë stopover was because of Syri i Kalter or the Blue Eye, a bottomless (I’m sure) spring that’s the bluest blue you’ll see.The craziest bit isn’t that the waters are that blue but rather, how the brown, barren surroundings suddenly make way for a technicolor scene. It might be the flattering midday sun but the green and blue hues are surreal. 

The site is on a furgon route towards Gjirokastër and is reachable with a short trek. Everyone in town knows where it is. This is about the only time I kind of regretted not lugging my unicycle along but that thought quickly gave way to memories of both physical pain and the pain of having to squeeze into tight transport spaces with luggage. I’VE LEARNT.

Gjirokastër was a short few hours away and after wandering into town and eyeballing the mountain ahead, I decided to just stay at a classy looking (but affordable) hotel at the edge of town for the night. I would later have patted myself so hard on the back but I didn’t want to risk breaking anything that would make backpacking difficult in the coming days.

The old town would have been interesting if half the area isn’t closed for winter. Most accommodation options are closed which explains the flustered look the hotel receptionist (who wasn’t even at the desk but chatting at the pharmacy beside) gave me. She was so flustered when I asked, in English, when the bus to Berat leaves the next day, she kind of ran at me to pass me the information when I returned back that evening.

I had lunch midway up the top at a fancy-looking (but affordable!) restaurant – a raki, a kebab and random item I pointed on the menu that turned out to be some sort of doughy thing with spinach (I think) inside and a side of sour cream or yoghurt. Being Chinese (“we eat everything”), it’s all good.

The highlight of Gjirokastër is the castle which overlooks the mountains and houses an impressive collection of WWII tanks and artillery. The ticket office lady stared at me weird when I asked if they’ve a map because the place is MASSIVE before telling me nope. Back to wandering.

The castle grounds are, if I haven’t mentioned already, MASSIVE with lots of corridors that lead into other corridors. Most of it isn’t well-lit which makes for a very medieval feel (and also explains the lack of pictures) but according to a sign, the site is powered by solar for environmental reasons.

At the top of the castle is a random lone American plane, which according to the internet is shot down during WWII but according to a sign there, it’s on display as a “spy plane”. There’s little doubt that it’s been shot off the air though so I guess that much everyone can agree on.

In winter, the sun sets slightly before 6pm so as I made my way back down the empty alleys, I felt kind of happy again about my choice of hotel and not having to lug my backpack up-and down- the meandering alleyways.

I’ve finally come of age as a backpacker.