Where Eagles Soar

Take It Easy
Friday 15th July 2022


It was Friday and the call to prayer came before the crack of dawn. It was 4am and we were woken up by the muezzin's hypnotic melody. I even rushed out to our terrace to listen to the most distinctive sound of any muslim country.

Thankfully, once it was over, we managed to get back to sleep.

At 9am we headed down stairs for breakfast. The lift opened out into the lobby which had this typically Ottoman ornately carved wooden ceiling. We turned to the reception desk to ask where were they hiding breakfast and one of the ever so friendly staff escorted us through a reception room to a large function room in the back were the buffet was laid out. 

I went slightly pastry crazy with a cheese filled triangle, a vegetable kofta and a spinach fritatta, which I enjoyed so much I repeated my plateful. The carb fun continued with a waffle topped with nutella and banana, a slice of French toast and Petulla, the fried dough, drizzled with honey.

I was so full after breakfast, I needed to lie down.

Shortly after 10am we started our day, walking up to the crossroads, stopping for the now obligatory corner photograph. Although this morning the houses on the hillside ahead of us caught our attention. 

Turning left up the hill we stopped at a souvenir shop where I saw something I liked. It was a qifqi pan, the one with the hollows to cook those traditional rice fritters. We decided not to buy it there and then, as we didn't want to carry it around with us all day. Unfortunately I then forgot about it  and ended up not buying one at all .

At the end of Rruga Gjin Bue Shapta the road kept on going uphill. There were steps we could have used to have gone straight up but they looked very steep and arduous so we were quite content in taking the long way around, zigging, then zagging before zigging again.

At the end of the road we reached the castle of Gjirokaster and paid 600 lek fee to enter. Inside was a military museum focusing mostly on the turbulent 20th century.

There wasn't much reference to the actual castle's history. A fortified citadel has existed here since the 13th century but was expanded significantly in the 18th century during the rule of Ali Pasha.  

The first room we entered had high vaulted ceilings and filled with a dozen canons, not the medieval types that fired canonballs but heavy artillery from the second world war. 

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire the newly independent Albania had relied heavily on Italy for assistance. The wonderfully named King Zog of Albania's freshly installed monarchy under estimated Mussolini's intentions and in 1939 the country was occupied and declared an Italian Protectorate. There was some resistance but the invasion was swift.   

The fight came later in the form of guerilla attacks from various groups on opposite sides of the Albanian political spectrum, such as the communist partisans and fascist nationalist.

At times they fought each other and sometimes they joined forces.  

By the time the war was coming to an end the communists had become the stronger force, and to the victor go the spoils. At the end of this long corridor was a tall heroic statue in honour of the communist partisans. 

I found it all quite fascinating.

We passed a small rusty tank on the way out to a large terrace where a few medieval canons were placed ready to fire out over the city.

The view of the city from here was superb.

 I spotted the red roof of the building opposite our hotel and thought I could even make out the stone roof of our attic room tucked to the side. We then located the spire of the Memi Bey mosque. It made us realise we had only explored a fraction of Gjirokaster.

On the far side of the terrace there was the shell of an aeroplane, a captured US Air Force jet. The story goes that the pilot may or may not have been on a spying mission when he was forced to make an emergency landing and/or escorted to an airbase near Tirana.

It was 1957 and the cold war was in full swing. Tensions were high but the pilot Howard J. Curran was later safely returned, although the plane stayed in Albania.

The Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star  was moved here to Gjirokaster in the seventies and has stayed here slowly rusting, its paint work fading, stuck behind a white picket fence ever since.

There was something quite eerie about a wreck of an aeroplane.

At the back of the terrace was a series of alcoves in the wall as if it were a forum and they were stores. The castle was originally a walled city, a self-contained settlement. It would have had streets, houses, shops.

We moved on, walking through a large archway towards a clocktower.

In the distance was an ornate iron dome. We walked across the large dried grass courtyard towards it and noticed it stood over a stage. What a great performance space!

The National Folk Festival is hosted here every five years or so and is a huge event. The next one is to be held in May 2024. I'm sure you would see a few felt hats then. We have another reason to return to this part of the world.

I stood on the stage to take a closer look at the dome's delicate ironwork. I suppose not only did it look pretty but it was also practical as it acted as a gantry from which lighting system could be attached.

Our attenention then moved to the clocktower, added in 1811 by Ali Pasha. It stood at the edge of the castle walls so it could be visible from the city below. You would have to be eagle-eyed to tell the time from down in the streets but Albanians are known as the sons of eagles.

Perhaps it was better you couldn't see the dials because the time was wrong. It showed a time of around a quarter to five when it was actually eleven o'clock.

A path lead below the clocktower which we followed all the way down to a locked gate. It was such an odd place to have an entrance as there was no way of reaching it safely. Perhaps it was the backdoor where they chucked out the rubbish.

Anyway, having reached the furthest point from the main entrance we turned around and made our way back. Every now and again to walk up to the edge and soak in more of that view over the city.

There was a superb view from the terrace in front of the clocktower, looking South over a leafy suburb of the city and then beyond into the Drino valley.

I could see the river meandering its way. I had assumed the Drino river flowed South but it flowed Northwest coming from the Epirus mountains of Greece. It then joins the Vjosė river at Tepelenė and continues to the Adriatic near Vlorė. 

Leaning on the castle wall Julie pointed out a sign reminding us to "only exit through the castle gate" and not accidentaly over the wall. It was a great use of humour to get the point across. 

It was a long way down for sure. The hill stands at over a 1000 ft.

There are tales of a 15th centry princess called Argjiro who threw herself and her infant child over the castle walls to their death to avoid being captured by the invading Ottomans.

Her name, Argjiro, of course, is similar to the Gjiro in Gjirokastėr, but it's generally believed that the city's name is simply derived from the Greek for Silver Castle which sounds perfectly plausible to me.

Back at the entrance we realised there was another half to the castle, one we hadn't explored. Much of it was either in ruin or being restored. None of it was cordoned off so we were free to wander.

King Zog installed a prison within its walls and this was continued during the communist era, but we didn't come across any cells. 

We left the castle and stopped to buy some Cherry marmalade from this lady who had set up shop at the side of the road. She spoke good English which was unusual for someone of her generation. "My son lives in England" she said with considerable pride.

Instead of taking the zig-zagging road we decided to take the steps directly down as it was a shorter distance and gravity would make light work of it.

Whilst the effort was less it wasn't any quicker. I kept on stopping to photograph some exceptional Ottoman buildings across the valley.

At the top Rruga we decided take an alternative route back towards the old bazaar stumbling across a bronze statue of Hasan Xhiku, an Albanian who in 1912 raised the national flag over Gjirokastėr. A show of defiance and allegiance during the period where Albania were striving for independence from the Ottoman Empire.

The red and black flag has gone through several variations but the blood red field and the double-headed black eagle has remained constant.

The architecture was a constant source of wonder as we wandered around the cobbled streets. Its UNESCO World Heritage listing describe it as a "rare example of a well preserved Ottoman town" and it certainly lived up to its billing.  

Below the Memi Bey mosque was a small precinct with a few shops and a cafe. Parched we sat down and ordered two glasses of their homemade pink lemonade. It was a quirky little place, set inside several small vaulted rooms. The kitchen was in one of them, then there were three other rooms with tables and chairs.

I suppose the only thing that made it quirky were these brightly coloured Khalo-esque portraits by a local artist. The paintings certainly brought the rooms to life. The owner herself was also quite quirky and colourful.

On the way back to the hotel we came across a poster advertising an event of some kind that involved traditional clothing. It was obviously all in Albanian but we quickly worked out that 15-17 Korrik were dates. A translation confirmed Korrik meant July and so it was this weekend. We also noticed that this evening's performance was to be held at Taverna Kukė (or Kuka)

"We should go" I suggested. Julie looked at me with a resigned look on her face. At least we knew of the excellent quality of their food and the wine.

We made our way back to the hotel, up the cobbled streets, stopping yet again (of course) for another photograph of the corner.

We made it to our room with plenty of time for a shower and a costume change before we were due to meet our taxi booked for 13:30. It picked us up as near to the hotel as possible, near to the Greek Consulate and the construction site.

He drove down the hill, back to the main road, turning left, North, past a supermarket and a very large church. It wasn't long before we turned off the main road. This time heading East across the Drino valley towards mountain range with the peak of Mount Lunxhėri.

A short distance after the village of Topullaraj and before Valarė itself the taxi driver, whse name was  Albert, pulled over outside what I could only describe as a bungalow. He comfirmed we had arrived at our lunch reservation.


It was called Te Fuēite but also known as The Barrels like some trendy wine bar in Wilmslow. Only this was much better. It had its own vineyard.

We were a little early for our 2pm reservation so we had to wait in the wings taking photographs of the perfectly straight lines of vines and the abundant bunches of grapes.

Tables were set outside in between the ends of the rows of vines. A trellis had been set up to create an arch of vines over the tables. Some imaginative topiary made the arch look like it was heart-shaped, a very clever idea.

 It didn't take long for a table to come free and we were soon sat down taking vineyard tunnel of love selfies.

Marcel, the co-owner, managaer, waiter and bottle washer introduced himself. He admited he wasn't the cook as it was his parents who were busy in the kitchen.

We ordered some of their home produced wine, a half carafe of their red and white. They were a little rough and ready, the type of wine that taste better the more you drink!

He explained that he did not have a menu to give us as he would serve everything he had to offer, but then verbally ran through essentially "the menu" in case there was something we really didn't like. 

Thankfully all the appetisers were without meat, so I had something to eat. It began with a delicious village salad, with chunks of sweet ripe tomatoes, well seasoned, with dried oregan, black olives, green peppers, cucumber, onion and feta cheese.

It was served on this stunning olive wood platter, made locally by a friend of Marcel.

"He has a store in Gjirokaster, near the mosque" he added.

Next came some stuffed courgette flowers which were a little greasy and the filling a little lacking in flavour. I ate them all but should have skipped left them. The plate going back empty was giving it a five star rating that wasn't deserved.

Next came a sharing mezze platter with six different small dishes. It comprised of small  bite-size pieces of imam bayildy (stuffed aubergine), stuffed peppers, a borek (spinach pastry), veg koftas, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves)  and in the centre a few savoury cheesy potato fritters.

Julie allowed me to eat most of the it. With a choice of chicken stew or lamb this was effectively my main course.

Julie chose the lamb.  It turned out to be a plate full of bits, not as bad as the gnarly sinewy bits she had before, there was plenty of meat, but also there was enough bones to make it a challenge to eat gracefully.

Eventually she went local and picked them up with her hands scraping and sucking whatever she could from the ribs and the strange blade of a bone.

Despite the inconvenience she really enjoyed the meal.

Dessert came fresh from the fruit picked above our heads. Entwined with the vine and grapes there was a pear tree forming part of the trellis. Marcel picked three of the most ripened pears and went inside into the kitchen.

He came out a while later with those pears simply washed, trimed, halved and cored. Not a lot of effort but it didn't matter. They were the sweetest tasting pears we had ever eaten and perfectly ripe. You just don't get pears like that at home.

Once lunch was over we had the company of an adorable Labrador puppy by the name Rambo. Named after the Sylvester Stalone character in the film of the same name. We told Marcel about our first dog we called Rocky, also named after the Sylvester Stalone character in the film of the same name!

And of course Sylvester, our dog is named after the actor because he's the same mix breed as Rocky. 

Rambo was ever so playful, just the sweetest pup. "How old is he?" Julie asked

"61 days" was the very precise answer.

Marcel wrote out the bill which came to 4290 lek. It was good value at about £32 and  that included a take-home litre bottle of their white wine.  It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

He phoned for Albert to come and pick us up but he was half way to Tepelenė, so he got his friend to collect us instead.

Back at the hotel we spent the rest of the afternoon on our terrace. The sun was hot as temperatures soared to 36C. Regular dips in the pool were needed to cool down.

It was no infinity pool but despite its child friendly inflatable nature it was really pleasant sitting there drinking Te Fuēite's finest white wine out of its repurposed plastic bottle looking at the fort on the hill. "Ah, this is the life" 

Julie sat in the shade preferring to stay dry but equally feeling the vibe.

After a couple of hours we decided to have a little snooze so we could wake up refreshed and ready for an evening of traditional entertainment.

We headed out for the evening, stopping at our friendly local bar for a beer, this time avoiding the rancid wine. 

We arrived in time for the performance. The place was very busy but thankfully our table we reserved was waiting for us on the terrace, where we ate yesterday.

The waiter came to take our order and Julie went off-piste when she asked him for his recommendation. He suggested goat and she went with it!

Whilst we waited for our food to arrive we were entertained by Rei Bezhani an artist that first made his name in the TV show "The Voice of Albania". He played the piano and his dulcit tones created a warm cosy atmosphere.

All my dishes arrived at once because they were all appetisers. I went for the qifqi again, also some vegetable koftas and a trio of dips. I have to admit the qifqi wasn't as amazing as yesterday's. They even looked different, a different shape, a different colour.  

Then the entertainment to an unexpected twist when two men stood up and began to read Albanian poetry. I did recognise the name Pablo Neruda who they mentioned in between pieces. As far as I knew, he did not have any connection with Albania. He was a Chilean poet who lived in Italy whilst exclied from his country. Perhaps he visited Albania. He was certainly an admirer of communism, if I remember correctly.

No matter how odd it seemed, and inspite of our lack of understanding, it was still interesting to watch the audience reaction, as they laughed, nodded approval and applauded at various parts of the reading. 

It reminded us of when we stumbled into a comedy club in Paris where we still found the comedian hilarious despite not understanding a word of French beyond "Bonjour", "Si vouz plait" and "Voule vouz couche avec moi".

Julie's goat arrived, slowly grilled over charcoal for hours and then hacked to pieces and chucked on the plate over a piece of lettuce.  She struggled a little with the strong flavour of the meat. I don't think she'll order goat again in a hurry. 

The entertainment continued with ten year Nikol Ēabeli accompanied on the piano by her mother Mimoza. She had a fabulous voice and belted out the Four Non Blondes song "What's Up?" with great confidence. She was another artist this evening who had appeared singing (that very song) on a TV talent show.   

With all her talent I still found it a little disconcerting watching a young girl dressed and performing in such an adult way but that's showbiz I guess. 

The performances continued as each artist took their turn, they even passed the microphone around for the "audience" to read poetry. We had however had enough culture for one night and left in between acts.

We walked back towards our hotel, stopping possibly for the last time to photograph the corner of wonder looking especially wondrous brightly lit against the night sky.

It was such a shame tonight was our last night in Gjirokaster. We could easily have stayed here longer but our journey was continuing tomorrow, onwards to the capital.

After escaping the evening's entertainment early we realised we missed out on dessert. As luck would have it beneath our room, next to the hotel was a lovely looking bakery. So we popped inside. What caught our eye was this "Peanut Cake". It looked more ike a cheesecake topped with salted caramel and a sprinkle of a few peanuts.

We carried our cakes up to our room where we sat outside, in front of our window, enjoying the warm evening air. 

With spoons from our tea making facilities we tucked into the peanut cake.

The cheesecake element had a very white processed feel but it was so tasty and the layer of caramel over the top was absolutely superb. So delcious. We both purred with delight.

We stayed up later than we intended, not wanting our time in Gjirokaster to end.

 But all good things must.

  Next Day >>>  

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