I am sitting on a stony curbside in complete darkness. The narrow, crooked street shoots up the hill and then makes a wild turn. My head hurts. Dogs bark in the distance. The sweet darkness of Albanian night is hugging me gently as I am rubbing my temples trying not to throw up. That’s not how envisioned our first meeting, Gjirokaster.
Last summer, we traveled to Albania to explore the country and meet my mom for her 60th birthday celebration. For our see-the-entire-country in two weeks trip, I came up with the itinerary that included an overnight stop in the city with a tongue-twisting name: Gjirokaster. To better understand one of the oldest cities in Albania, before the trip, I read “Chronicle in Stone” by Ismail Kadare. The famous Albanian writer was born in Gjirokaster and described the city with particular love and tenderness in his book. From the first page, I fell in love with the city and wanted to get to know it. Now I was sitting on the curbside fighting to maintain my focus and not pass out. When you plan a perfect travel itinerary, you rarely account that on Day 10 you might have a heatstroke. Yet, that’s exactly what happened to me.
On that hot June day when we left Berat and drove to Gjirokaster, the thermometer was showing unbearable 106 degrees. The heat was so intense that the AC in our car barely provided needed relief, and when we exited the car all we could breathe was hot and dry air. The situation was also aggravated by the fact that we were in the “stone city” with stone houses lining up narrow and steep cobblestone streets effectively amplifying the heat.
As we entered the town, I slowly started to feel dizzy. Initially, I thought that this was because of the nearly vertical streets that I somehow needed to navigate in our SUV. However, as the day dragged in, I felt worse and worse with every hour. We strolled around the town in the afternoon, and I could barely concentrate on the stunning architecture I had read about in the novel. Trying not to upset my mom and aunt, I did not say anything to them and only whispered to Julia that I was not feeling well and might throw up or pass out. Julia, although terrified, acted cool and did not draw any attention to my situation but was constantly checking on me.
We stopped for dinner at a traditional Albanian restaurant near the old Ottoman bazaar, and I was rapidly approaching my lowest point. My head was spinning. The stone houses were blurring and dancing some traditional Albanian or Greek dance. In order not to pass out, I started to talk non-stop. Out of nowhere, I started asking my aunt about her collection of toy cows and her cat. I peppered my mom with questions about our close and distant relatives and asked Julia what she thought about the food. Their answers barely registered but the goal was to distract myself and stay lucid. I made it through dinner without passing out or throwing up. My mom and aunt did not notice anything strange and walked back to Airbnb, leaving Julia and me to explore the nightlife of Gjirokaster. I could barely walk, so we went to a nearby hotel with a beautiful terrace and a killer view of the city to watch the sunset from there.
“So, tell me about Gjirokaster,” said Julia clearly trying to distract me.
My head was not functioning properly to give her a coherent story or a chronology of historical events that took place here. Instead, I pulled a kindle out of the backpack and read the most beautiful passage that Ismail Kadare wrote about the city:
It was a steep city, perhaps the steepest in the world, which had broken all the laws of town planning. Because of its steepness, it would come about that at the roof-level of one house you would find the foundations of another; and certainly this was the only place in the world where if a passer-by fell, instead of sliding into a roadside ditch, he might end up on the roof of a tall house. This is something which drunkards knew better than anyone.
It really was a very surprising city. You could be going along the street and, if you wanted, you could stretch out your arm a bit and put your hat on top of a minaret. Many things here were unbelievable, and a lot was dream-like.
I could not describe it any better no matter whether I had heatstroke or not. We watched the sun beautifully setting over the grey stone roofs with streetlamps slowly overtaking the illumination of the town.
We then slowly walked back to our Airbnb. Julia went to bed, but I decided to stay outside for a little bit to breathe some fresh evening air. Sitting on a curb in complete darkness and listening to the barking of dogs, I smirked at the unexpected things that happen on the road no matter how well or poorly you prepare for your travels.
The next morning, I woke up and, to my relief, felt absolutely fine. My mom and aunt did not even know about my problems the day before, and I greeted them at breakfast chirping about our plans for the day.
We spent the morning in Gjirokaster visiting the best the city could offer. Although we had the wheels, we decided not to try our luck in this nearly vertical city, and instead hired a taxi for 3 hours to take us around. Gjirokaster is a real gem. The hilltop castle is one best preserved in the country and with a lot of stories. The Skenduli and Zekate houses provide a glimpse into the lives of wealthy Albanian families who could afford such enormous estates. Finally, we paid respect to Ismail Kadare, stopping by his childhood house that was just a stone (pun intended) throw away from the place where the house of Enver Hoxha, the infamous Communist leader of Albania, once stood.
Looking down at the beautiful stone houses and grey roofs of Gjirokaster from a viewpoint, we marveled at the beauty of this town. However, as the clock started to approach midday, and the sun was about to start again its funny business of melting people, we left for the beach at the Albanian Riviera. 106 degrees are best experienced by the Ionian Sea and not being trapped in the stone city. This wisdom I did not find in Kadare’s book, this was my brilliant idea.