This is not an original article of invest-in-albania.org. The article has been written by Giulia Blocal and first published at her personal travel blog, Blocal Travel. To read the original article, click here.
If last time I showed you the places I liked the most of my road-trip around Albania, this time I will bring you to the town which most reminded me of my beloved Balkan atmosphere: Përmet and the surrounding mountainous area, that is the very South of Albania.
I will start by saying that our three days exploring Përmet and the surrounding area have been pretty rainy and so we didn’t have the chance to go around all the time but just in between a storm and the next one; therefore we had to skip many open-air places on my bucket list, such as the ancient village of Frashër within the Fir of Hotova National Park and the Këlcyrë gorge, while we played for time and stayed a bit longer into Përmet delicious restaurants tasting its well-known cuisine. In fact this is not only the area of large national parks and beautiful green valleys, but it’s renowned also for its local wines and traditional products (such as the many different types of jam and compote), some of which are even protected -and therefore promoted- by Slow Food Albania.
Flanked by the Vjose river, Përmet is a former Ottoman village from the 15th century which nowadays claims to be the cleanest and greenest town in Albania. What I surely know is that Përmet, with its 12000 inhabitants, is a relaxing quiet city surrounded by unspoiled nature which was considered the unofficial capital during the communist regime, hence the rational architecture and urban planning typical of that era.
Përmet doesn’t have the old Ottoman buildings protected by UNESCO of Berat and Gjirokaster, or the crystalline water of the Albanian Riviera, it doesn’t have the cultural charm of Korça and neither the highlights of a bustling and colourful capital town as Tirana, but in Përmet I found something I do value much more: an authentic Balkan charm.
If Albania doesn’t look so much “Balkan” after all, in Përmet I found a heap of what speaks Balkan to me: small houses with admirable vegetables gardens, elders chatting on a bench, locals gathering on the main street for the traditional xhiro, fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables not only in every restaurant but also on sale along the streets, unspoiled nature, evenings spent sipping a beer at the bar on the main square, home-made raki and an excellent local wine, rational communist architecture, groups of kids dominating the streets, several different religions coexisting, the call of the muezzin and the bell of the Orthodox community praying just on the sidewalk, old vintage cars, decadent buildings, fresh mountain air and in general the warm, beautiful feeling of being lost into the Balkans, which for some reason is the closer feeling of what “home” means to my nomadic soul.
And, in Përmet, I finally felt at home.
When the big storm stopped around 5pm we didn’t have so much time left to visit the surrounding area with the daylight and so we headed to the nearby village of Leusa, a tiny village made of few stone houses on the mountain behind Përmet. It is possible to reach Leusa only by walk, better say hike; what for Leusa inhabitants is a common daily activity for me felt as climbing the highest mountain on earth, but I must admit the view on the Vjiosa river and its valley from above was totally worth the slog: I marvelled at the colour of the ground and at the beauty of the surrounding wood, which hides the real gem of Leusa village: the orthodox church of St. Mary well-known for its outstanding iconography mural paintings from the Byzantine era.
Maybe because we didn’t manage to visit the church as the entrance gate was closed, maybe because the darkness was enlightened only by few candle lights floating on the graveyard in front of the main porch, anyway I found the Leusa monastery quite creepy (and I mean it in a deep, authentic way -that is not spoiled by tourism), reminding me Hayao Miyazaki’s movies locations which return to life at night, inhabited by harmless and peaceful ghosts.
Even if we spent four beautiful days on Albanian Riviera, we would never get enough of swimming and so -when in Përmet- we went to the popular thermal waters of Benjë, which are located in a very scenic surrounding: under the Katiu Ottoman bridge.
The bridge marks the end of the 5 km long Lengaricë Canyon, which you can enter from here on what I found a very slippery and tricky path –but I am sure you are braver than me! 😉
Walking towards (and within) the canyon will also allow you to discover more thermal pools, as the two popular ones under the bridge can get pretty crowded during the summer. Luckily we went there on a cloudy day of September and so we did enjoy the most scenic pools all for ourselves, relaxing within their warm, clear and smooth water -and then we visited the other pools just for exploration’s sake.
After a day at the thermal waters we kept driving on SH75 until the small and very picturesque village of Petran, which basically consists of a colourful school, few stone houses, a bridge and a wonderful tavern with a terrace overlooking the Vjosa river. It is definitely worth a stop if you are driving by!
National Park Bredhi i Hotovës
As I was writing above, this beautiful natural park of 1400 hectares well-known for its massive forest consisting mainly of Macedonian Firs is among the attractions out of my Përmet bucket list we had to skip under the bad weather. What I regret the most is that I didn’t visit the ancient village of Frashër but this only means I must come back another time! 🙂
Still on the bank of the river Vjose, Këlcyrë is the second biggest town of Përmet district with a bustling flea market (where I bought a beautiful crochet waistcoat!)
Unfortunately we didn’t make it until the Këlcyrë gorge (a 13 km long gorge along the Vjose river with small waterfalls sprouting from its walls) because we saw the rain approaching and we wanted to reach our destination, Përmet, before the big storm did, but still we enjoyed the lunar landscape of a small pond nearby.
Halfway between Përmet and Korça, at the foot of the Gramos mountains, we found Ersekë -a small alpine town which is one of the highest towns in Albania. Here we wandered around the town stopping to buy some fresh fruits and to taste the two products for which Ersekë is well known: apple and honey. We also witnessed a noisy Balkan wedding procession: so bad we didn’t arrive few minutes before or I could have crashed a Balkan wedding –accomplishing the wish at the very top of my bucket list!
This area is where an odd Albanian phenomenon is especially widespread: the habit to hang plushies. :-/
At first we saw them into the countryside so we thought they were a sort of scarecrows, but then we saw so many of them also in downtown Përmet and we got so intrigued that we still wonder which is their purpose… are they hung to protect from bad luck? Any guess? Let me know in the comments area below!
Përmet || Where to stay
Hotel Alvaro: we stayed in this big hotel overlooking the Vjose river, owned by a very welcoming couple made by a bubbly kind lady and a refined man who happens to be also the president of Slow Food Përmet. The aspect I liked the most of Alvaro hotel is the very yummy breakfast made with all Slow Food presidia of the area.
Another option is to sleep surrounded by the unspoiled nature of the National Park Bredhi I Hotovës: there is no lodging within the park, but it is possible to camp with tents or stay in the forestry station after obtaining approval from the appropriate authorities.
Përmet || Where to eat
In Albania there are two Slow Food convivia, one in the North and one in Përmet: it goes without saying that it is not so difficult to find fresh and tasty food in this area, which is also well-known for its wine production.
Antigonea Restaurant, Përmet: it has been our favourite restaurant of the area, we liked its cuisine so much that we even ate there twice! The soups were quite fatty, but everything else was delicious, especially the selection of fresh vegetables. At the end of the meal the owner offered us a cherry tomato dipped into honey: it was definitely an unusual and surprising taste for me, but I did love it!
Edjon Restaurant, Përmet: close to Antigona, there is another traditional restaurant serving typical local dishes; here we had a soup (less fatty than soups at Antigona’s) and fresh salad, accompanied with a local wine.
Amel Restaurant, Përmet: here we just had a glass of red wine accompanied by local cheeses and homemade pickles. We were especially curious to taste Përmet well-known cheeses, which are of goats and sheep, and they didn’t disappoint us at all!
Inn in Petran: this is the only inn in Petran, on SH75. Here we ate fresh trouts on a balcony overlooking the river, accompanied with a salad straight from the garden; a very local tavern you shouldn’t miss!