“Have you visited Permet yet? You really should!” is something I have heard many times over the last five years, admittedly mainly from those who come from the city, but it was enough to stoke my interest. So, when I saw that a music, food, and culture festival, Vjosa n’Fest was set to take place there at the end of June, I jumped at the chance to visit.
Permet, a town of some 10,000 people, is located in the south of Albania in Gjirokaster County. It straddles the Vjosa River and nestles in the Kelcyre Gorge between the Trebeshine and Dhembel mountains. Citizens of the town are known for their humour and the town itself, sometimes called The City of Roses, is full of beautiful blooms. Other famous features of Permet include gliko (fruit or nuts preserved in syrup), jams made from roses and fruit, and of course, raki.
It is also known for being the birthplace of the murderous communist regime that ruled the country for nearly 50 years, but the less said about that, the better.
A four-hour drive from Tirana, Permet is quite a trek, but the road that takes you there is spectacular. Once you pass through the dusty farmland of Lushnje and Fier, punctuated by people selling watermelons and red poppies lining the road, the Vjosa river greets you and guides you the rest of the way.
Europe’s last free-flowing wild river, the Vjosa, is currently subject to an international campaign to designate it as a National Park so it will be protected from the march of hydropower plants, luxury resorts, and oil exploration. So far, the Albanian government has resisted, but activists hope their prolonged pressure will prevail.
It is not hard to understand why people are so passionate about it. The river’s water is the most spectacular luminous blue, even on a grey day. It winds and weaves like water ribbons through pastures, around rock formations, and under the boughs of ancient weather-worn trees. Wherever it twists and turns, fertility in the shape of luscious green foliage sprouts from its banks and rises up the surrounding hills.
We continued to Tepelene, the birthplace of Ali Pasha, a spot visited by my great uncle Edward Lear and also home to a crumbling gulag where hundreds of Albanian children perished during communism. Today, it is a small town featuring a handful of butinas and the Vjosa study centre. After passing through the town, we turned off, crossed a bridge and headed into the Kelcyre Gorge.
I am accustomed with the jaw-dropping beauty of the Tepelene road, so much so that I may have even become desensitised, but the road to Kelcyre and Permet is even more beautiful. Every metre of the way, I stared with awe out of the window as I watched fields of produce, lush forests, and imposing mountain ranges whiz past. Throughout it all, the Vjosa accompanied us, rushing and twisting, tinged with white foam as it flowed quickly over the rocks.
After around 30 minutes of winding roads and breathtaking views, not to mention a snake slithering across our paths, we turned off into Permet.
To the right sits a large rock, otherwise known as the City Stone. Sort of circular in shape, it reaches more than 40 metres and has a surface area of 650 square metres. A narrow and very steep staircase takes you up the side where you can explore what was once apparently a signalling point for a military garrison and a fortress. According to legend, Premt was a local man who ruled the fortress at the top of the City Stone until the day the enemy invaded, and he threw himself from the top rather than be killed by the enemy. Some say that is even where the name Permet originates from.
As you pass the stone and head towards the town, a manicured garden full of rose bushes of every colour flanks the right, while the rushing waters of the Vjosa take the left. Permet is famed for its roses, and it does not disappoint. They are everywhere in hues of pink, white, cream, red, lilac, yellow, peach, and every shade in between. When the wind catches you the right way, you can almost taste their sweet scent wherever you are in the town.
Our destination for the night is The House of Roses, a guesthouse a stone’s throw from the centre. Family run, Luljeta greets us at the door. The house is a loving reconstruction of an older stone house, with thick grey stone walls, wooden shutters, and a gorgeous walled garden. With rose bushes marking the entrance, we passed into the garden where we were served plates of fresh bread with homemade salted butter, cucumber, tomato, and cheese, gritty Turkish coffee, and gliko made with oranges.
Tired from our long journey, I could not have wished for a better welcome and happily devoured the lot, even the extremely sweet candied, syrupy orange gliko that contains more sugar than I usually consume in a year! My daughter happily played in the garden, chasing cats and ‘helping’ Luljeta serve us, and I got the feeling she would have continued bringing us delicious treats all evening if we had stayed put.
We moved to our rooms to freshen up- large, white-walled, and wooden-floored, the shutters opened up over the church next door. Hearing the sound of music in the distance, we changed and headed to the festival.
The streets of Permet are undergoing rehabilitation, funded by the World Bank. This means that most of them were dug up, partially paved, and with gaping holes, but you could see that when it is finished, it will look great. Many of the old houses are being preserved and being restored into bistros and accommodation, which makes a change from Tirana, where they are demolished and replaced with luxury apartments.
That night on the main square and boulevard, we enjoyed Elbar beer and qofte and danced to a mixture of Albanian songs and covers of indie and rock classics. Of course, each band that played had their own version of ‘Bella Ciao’ to play, which raised the eyebrows of a few ageing communists sitting in the vicinity.
A hot air balloon sat in the middle of the square, periodically emitting flames and delighting the children. Around the outside of the square, an artisan market was set up, displaying wares from local and national artisans such as jewellery, traditional costumes, fabrics, and of course, raki, honey, and sweet treats.
We danced, drank, ate, sang, and Dea made lots of new friends who she enjoyed careering around the square with at high speed. While the party continued until 4 am and the beats changed to techno, we found ourselves falling asleep in our comfy guesthouse by midnight.
The next day, we woke early and decided to explore the church nearby. The Church of St Paraskevi sits slightly wonky and almost sinking into the ground. A cultural monument and one of the few religious sites that escaped the torch of the communists, it is punctuated by an ornately carved wooden door. Sadly it was locked, so we busied ourselves with the lone donkey tied to a tree and a selection of wildflowers in the garden.
We returned to the butina to be served what was perhaps one of the best breakfasts of my life. Bowls of steaming trahana, herby qofte, warm petulla, fresh cucumber, tomato and goats cheese, sweet watermelon, fresh milk with globules of fat on top, icy water, and that gritty Turkish coffee disappeared within moments.
Over the course of the day, we explored the town, visiting two second-hand shops, admiring the roses, playing in the park, and then taking a well-deserved nap. In the evening, we wanted to visit Trifilia, but they told us they did not have any food left at 6 pm.
Feeling defeated, we happened across another restaurant called Antigonea, where we enjoyed byrek made with nettles, fergese, and the most divine cheese that they said was made in muslin and then suspended until its ready. The best part was oven-cooked wild boar in a thick, sweet onion and tomato sauce, all washed down with chilled local wine.
On our last day, we decided to head to the famous hot springs at Benje. The thermal waters come from some six sources and have a constant temperature of around 32 degrees centigrade. They have been contained in several human-built pools dating from Ottoman times and, more recently, the dictatorship. Each pool is said to cure different ailments, including rheumatism, skin conditions, and even kidney problems. The thick mud that sits at the bottom of the pools is also said to be great for smearing all over you.
Amid these stunning pools, the Kadiu Bridge provides access to one side of the river from the other. Marking the start of the Lengarica Canyon, the bridge was built during the Ottoman occupation around 1760.
It was a hot day, and my daughter was tired, so we declined the chance of a swim, instead admiring the view and picking up fossils in the mostly dry river bed.
As we drove back towards Permet, the clouds rolled in, and huge droplets pummelled us as we snaked back through the gorge. Thunder rolled overhead, my daughter slept, and we cautiously began the journey home.
My impression of Permet is a wholly positive one. It is free from traffic and too many cars, and you can walk everywhere you need to go on foot. The people are curious, warm and welcoming and, like most Albanians, are overjoyed to hear you love visiting their city. Food from the region is fresh and delicious, and if you have a sweet tooth, you will adore trying all the different variations of gliko and jam. For those that love an adventure, this is also a great place to visit. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak and raft, horse ride, paraglide, cycle, climb, and much, much more, all within a short distance of the town.
But for those that prefer to take it easy and laze in the thermal baths, drink raki and nice wine, and who prefer a more simple way of holidaying, Permet ticks all those boxes as well.