Hotel Review: Hotel Gjirokastra, Gjirokastër: Beautifully Traditional
For a first-time trip to Albania, we wanted to stay somewhere… safe?
No no no, forget your prejudices against Albania. I had my work cut out to convince my more cautious travelling partner to travel to Albania by ourselves. He may have almost turned around in Sarande when the third ATM would not give him money. I tried my VISA, the ATM gave me tons of money, and most pressing doubts dispersed, we jumped on a minibus to Tirana, crossed mountains on a ropey road and drove into a wide beautiful valley to stop in Gjirokastër.
What? How you pronounce this weird name, anyway?
The “ë” is actually the most common letter of the Albanian alphabet and pronounces like an ə which is basically an unstressed vowel. And the historic old town centre of Gjirokastër is, along with the town centre of Berat, one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites of Albania.
Did you know, by the way, that you can visit all of Albania’s current UNESCO sites on a short trip from Corfu? Berat is a bit far, but the others could even be done in one day. Not that I recommend it, though, as Gjirokastër definitely warrants an overnight stay and an early morning stroll up the hills of the Old Town.
I reserved a hotel some weeks ahead as I had no clue about Albania. Our plans changed slightly, so I was quite happy about the flexible booking policy of Booking.com . After we disembarked the minibus in Gjirokastër’s New Town, we took a cab. Walking leads you up a steep and busy road and I do not recommend it. The hotel is high up in the Old Town, at the edge of the commercial district called Old Bazaar. It is a central but extremely quiet location. If you walk a little further up, you will reach the 12th Century Fortress with a hodgepodge of museum, dungeons and civil war debris. If you walk the other direction of the fortress, you reach a beautiful residential district with prime examples of fortified Ottoman tower houses (kullë). I would say over 90% are still inhabited, some are hotels, and you can officially visit two of them.
Although roads are tiny, windy and bumpy, a taxi will normally deliver you right to the hotel door. It is approximately 5km to the centre of the New Town and the Bus Stop from here.
As soon as the taxi pulled up, a younger male member of the owners family jumped out of the ground floor cafe /sitting room to greet us by name. The hotel has just four rooms, so perhaps we were the only arrivals that day? Although nobody spoke much English, communication was not a problem. This is a family business, the owners family do everything: bar, breakfast, cleaning, billing, and they all speak almost no English. Didn’t matter! The building appears to be new, but everything is decorated in a traditional Albanian style, with a lot of carved wood and white cotton lace. Someone in the family there has an exceptional good hand in decorating here! The calm natural-neutral decor is acccenturated by colourful Albanian wool rugs here and there.
We had the room above the entrance, with a great view of the valley- but all four rooms have large balconies.
Entrance and courtyard cafe. It was out of season, so it was always very quiet. You can see how all rooms on the first floor have balconies. In the background is the fortress – a five-minute steep walk up.
View of the local area and some privately owned and inhabited kullë .
We were given the room facing the Old and New Town. It was medium size, with a super clean wood/laminate floor and a large balcony. Also, we got this day bed – I just love they way how they have some very traditional accents in an otherwise neutral modern room.
The bed (a double, instead of the two singles pushed together as is customary in this region and also in Corfu) was super comfortable. Notice that this is the common way you sue your duvet – with a large sheet. It is pretty customary in Greece, Italy and Albania but in this case, I did the duvet smell test and it was fine.
All fittings worked, WiFi was good, and the bathroom (not shown) is functional and has a shower cubicle with proper splashguards.
For the very small price of 30EURO we got a personal welcome by the owners family, some very cute (and well looked after) cats. Also entertainment provided by local life in the downstairs which doubles as a cafe/restaurant/local meeting place, a lovely balcony, and probably anything you ask the friendly owner family. The WiFi was good and reliable for surfing and emailing and uploading a few short videos.
Downstairs is a large informal cafe/bar where people from the surrounding area appear to pop in for coffee, and as they always seemed to be baking for breakfast, you may even get some food there if you ask.
So, for breakfast the next day, we were served by the lady of the house herself. She had made these pieces of fried dough called petulla which will go with anything.
Everything was freshly cooked! And I had somehow not been able to transmit that I am a vegetarian. I gave the sausage to my boyfriend and ate the egg… and then, some more. Those eggs were delicious, probably from free range happy chickens. But if you are on a strict vegan diet, you can try this: “Jam vegan. Unë nuk ha asnjë lloj mishi, shpende, peshku, fruta deti, apo produkte me prejardhje nga kafshët duke përfshirë këtu të gjitha produktet e qumështit, vezët dhe mjaltin.”
With such a small hotel that isn’t a super luxury private villa, you have to look for entertainment elsewhere. Unless you love cats. The hotel has a few, and they are very friendly! I am pleased to report they are also well looked after, fed, and they sleep in the owners house. I just thought I would mention that as I pay attention to how animals are treated and it would be reason enough not to return somewhere if I knew animals weren’t treated well.
People generally respect animals in Albania. I don’t know if there are formal animal protection laws. But the impression I got from Gjirokastër and Saranda which are both quite small is that people commit to pets. Although I saw some cats eating from the bins, it was nothing like hat I have seen in Greece or Italy. If you walked through town, you would normally see a fluffy kitty (and often, a dog, too) guard the property, and many cafes and restaurants have well-fed fluffy patrol staff. it’s not that you’re greeted by hoardes of hungry animals, but rather a kitty or dog or two will wander over to check you out.
For your own entertainment, you can visit one of the small museums or tower houses. We walked up to Zekate House and spend nearly two hours there. For most of that, we lounged in its Grand Reception Room. It is a self-guided tour – in summer, there may be someone around, this time, we roused the guardian in the house next door from his slumber. It is a steep but enjoyable walk up to the house, with some nice views.
And walking downhill from the hotel, you come to the Old Bazaar in five minutes. In the day, this is a rather touristy shopping arcade, with mainly natural products like nuts and honey, textiles, carpets, and some traditional wood- and stone carvers.
Address: Partizani District (Old Town), Gjirokastra, Albania
Telephone: 08426 59 82
Mobile: 068 40 99 669
I booked this hotel through Booking.com and paid 30 EURO for a double including breakfast in October 2018. Making reservations is easy on their app, their booking conditions are flexible if your schedule change, and prices are really competitive. Feel free to use this link and get 10% off your booking.
Nearest Train Station: too far, don’t bother
Nearest Bus Stop: Gjirokaster. The long-distance buses and minivans will let you out in the centre by a gas station and a nice boulevard with a small taxi rank. Unless you stay in the lacklustre New Town (not really recomended), it’s best to take a taxi to the Old Town – the walk there is strenuous and boring and along a busy road. A taxi should not cost more than 400 Albanian Lek.
Nearest Airport: Corfu International Airport “Ioannis Kapodistrias” (CFU)
Features: Non-smoking rooms, quiet rooms, free WiFi, private bathroom, TV (large and flatscreen)
Doesn’t have: Lift, bathtubs
What if the hotel is full?
They only have four rooms at present, this can happen easily in high season! Therefore, reserve ahead. On Booking.com you can alter and even cancel your reservation for free up to 24 hours ahead. But if they are full, and you would like some traditional Albanian character, I’d like to recommend the following properties – please note that I haven’t stayed there and these are base don recommendations by others!
Hotel Kalemi is similar in character and in price. it is probably a bit higher up and a little further out from the centre, but the wood carving and abundance of white cotton lace is pretty similar.
Old Bazaar 1790 is in an actual kullë fortified tower house and is genuinely ancient and antique! It is situated next to the Gjirokastra Hotel, has a variety of rooms, among them a very impressive-looking suite, and rooms are approximately double the price of Hotel Gjirokastra.
Go really rustic at the Konaku Guesthouse which is an old stone building with exposed walls, a garden, and a beautiful location in a residential area just a few metres up from Hotel Gjirokastra.
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded, and I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links in this article. For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.