Posts Tagged ‘korca to gjirokastra’

October 5-6, 2011: Korca was a disappointment. True, I was mostly there to make the reportedly scenic drive to Gjirokastra, but I had had some hopes for Korca itself. I was taken aback by how quiet and poor it seemed, such a contrast to the Macedonian towns just across the border.

I’m used to visiting poor places in Asia, but there the poverty is tempered by vibrant street life. In Korca even the lively cafe culture I found elsewhere in the Balkans seemed to be in short supply. My visit started badly: after a hot drive across treeless countryside, my first choice hotel appeared deserted and then claimed to be full (rooms had been showing as available on the internet, perhaps it was empty and wanted to stay that way), and my second choice,  a former government hotel, was on the gloomy side. Then I had trouble finding somewhere to eat lunch, and later, when I finally located the Museum of Albanian Medieval Art in a maze of unpaved side streets, it was closed.

Korca's cathedral

On a more positive note, I did admire the aggressively new cathedral, with its traditional-style frescoes and elaborate wooden chandelier, and I had a nice chat with a retired Tasmanian school-teacher who was making the Balkan circuit in the other direction. He assured me that the scenery would be worthwhile. But I didn’t feel very welcome in Korca.

I was able to arrange a car and driver, although the fixer, who spoke no English, absolutely refused to bargain. After an exchange mediated by the phrases in my Bradt guidebook and pen and paper for the numbers, we shook hands on the route and price. Not entirely satisfied, he borrowed a young English-speaking woman from a nearby bank to make sure we were in agreement.

After breakfast the next morning (no coffee!), I learned that my fixer had sent someone else to drive me. When I walked out of the hotel a young man hurried over and took charge of my bag. But as we reached his car an older man intercepted us. Since he had the slip of paper I had given the fixer with my name and hotel, he was clearly my driver. I still don’t know whether the young man was waiting for someone else, or was poaching.

Gjirokastra is a fair distance from Korca, maybe 55 miles or so in a straight line, but the road doesn’t go anything like straight. First we headed south practically to the Greek border, winding up and down and across moorland, and over the more forested Grammoz mountains to the Barmash Pass. Then we turned northwest up the Vjosa River valley to the small town of Permet, where we ate lunch, before a final swing back south on a better road following the Drinos River. According to Lonely Planet the bus takes six or seven hours. It took us about five and a half, with a coffee stop at a lonely hotel an hour or so south of Korca as well as lunch. My driver spoke hardly a word of English, but he was a fine driver (Tel: 06 93 56 08 85, car license KO-417-A).

Aside from greater comfort and greater speed, I had been willing to pay for private transport so I got a better view, and it was absolutely worth it. I didn’t take many photos, because in my experience mountains don’t photograph well (at least when I’m taking the pictures), but I can assure you that the scenery was magnificent. And wild. We met a few trucks, and a bus, but barely a handful of cars. Instead, horses and donkeys were in use as beasts of burden.

Vjosa River near Permet

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