Gjirokastër is undoubtedly one of Albania’s most endearing historical towns. But not many visitors realize that there were once large cities on the valley floor that thrived throughout the Hellenistic and Roman eras. While little of Antigonea or Hadrianopolis remain, those who put forth the effort will be rewarded with both stunning scenery and a true off-the-beaten-path experience.

Learn more about reaching both Antigonea and Hadrianopolis at the end of the article.

Antigonea

Antigonea was founded around 295 BC by King Pyrrhus (319-272 BC), king of the Molossians. The Molossians were one of the three tribes of Epirus, the ancient region comprising modern-day Albania and northern Greece. 

Pyrrhus was an ambitious king who even crossed the Adriatic to do battle with the rising Roman Republic. While he bested them, he would later be killed by the Greeks a few years after his return home.

Interestingly, the city was named after his wife Antigone, the stepdaughter of King Ptolemy of Egypt, a former general of Alexander the Great.

Antigonea Ruins

Antigonea was situated atop the hill of Jerma in the center of the Drinos Valley. It was also located along the highly important Via Egnatia road which stretched all across the Balkans into Thrace. 

Antigonea, therefore, was directly connected to cities such as Dyrrachium (Durrës), Heraclea Lyncestis (Bitola, North Macedonia) and Thessaloniki. 

Sadly, hardly anything remains of Antigonea today. That’s because the city aligned with the Kingdom of Macedonia in their struggles against the Romans. And following Roman victory over King Philip V in 168 BC, the city was entirely burnt to the ground by Roman general Aemilius Paullus.

Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins

Arriving at site, I paid the 300 lek entrance fee and received a well-made brochure and map of the entire archaeological zone. The first thing visitors encounter is the Acropolis, at the base of which is a sign pointing up toward the Church of Saint Michael.

And that’s where I decided to begin my explorations. But once at the top of the hill, I encountered no additional signage. What I did find were some large stone blocks that looked like part of the fortification walls. 

According to the brochure, the church (6th-9th century AD) was indeed built with bricks usurped from the walls, though I’m still not sure whether I’d really found it.

Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins

With limited time at Antigonea, I decided to head back down and follow the more straightforward path. I could tell right away that the site was much, much bigger than I’d anticipated.

The next major landmark, located near the base of the Acropolis, was the Nymphaeum. These sacred springs, common throughout the Greco-Roman world, were built in consecration to the cult of nymphs, or female nature deities.

Moving along, I passed by more segments of the fortification walls and the foundations of the Leatherworkers House. Other signs labeled ‘Houses’ pointed to the middle of a grassy field, but walking in that direction, I found nothing.

Antigonea Ruins
The Leatherworkers' House

Continuing south, things began to get a bit more interesting. One ruined structure with some columns in the center is what’s left of an elaborate dwelling that dates back to the 3rd century BC. 

In 1968, archaeologists uncovered things like bronze dishes, bronze tablets and a miniature statue of Poseidon here. Also found here was a bronze statue of a harpy, a winged personification of storm winds.

Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins
The modern animal pen
Antigonea Ruins
Another peristyle house
An ancient fountainhead

Interestingly, one of the better-preserved structures is actually an animal pen built in the late 1960s!

Another ruined structure in the distance, meanwhile, was part of yet another peristyle house from the 3rd century BC. And from above, I also spotted the remnants of an ancient fountain head.

Antigonea Ruins

As you can probably guess by now, exploring Antigonea isn’t so much about seeing its ruined structures. The real star of the show is its stunning scenery. And given the site’s obscurity, you’re likely to find yourself completely alone.

Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins

I soon reached the area that was the heart of ancient Antigonea. It consisted of the agora, the stoa surrounding it, and the Pyrtaneum, or seat of local government. Again, much imagination is required. But over 2,000 years ago, this area would’ve been bustling with activity.

Interestingly, Antigonea was built on a grid system which evidence suggests was planned from the start.

Also around here are the foundations of some early churches. Following its initial destruction, Antigonea later became a center of early Christianity, but it would never live up to its former splendor.

With so little surviving from Antigonea, the architectural highlight of the archaeological site is what remains of a particularly large peristyle house. 

The columns, which have been re-erected by archaeologists, are the largest found here and have thus become Antigonea’s most-photographed landmark.

Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins

Archaeologists also dug up numerous artifacts from daily use here, including ceramic dishes, artisan work tools, bronze coins, agricultural tools, and more.

Given the area’s proximity to the city center, this block of houses surely would’ve been reserved for the Antigonean elite.

Looking at the time, I realized I was quite some distance from the entrance where my taxi driver was waiting. And while I wanted to explore more of the expansive site, I had to start making my way back.

Antigonea Ruins
Antigonea Ruins

While I hadn’t been expecting much from the ruins, Antigonea surprised me with both its beauty and its size. Before my visit, I couldn’t have guessed that the archaeological site would be so big and its landmarks spread so far apart.

Unfortunately, I ended up missing one of Antigonea’s main highlights: a Christian basilica from the 5th century AD with its mosaics intact. Situated at the far southwestern end of the site, it likely would’ve taken at least a half an hour to walk there and back from the agora area.

Check the end of the article to read more on how I would’ve done things differently.

Hadrianopolis

My next stop was the Roman-era site of Hadrianopolis, located about 13 km southeast of Gjirokastër.

While a settlement had existed here since the Hellenistic era, a new city was founded at this spot by Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD) who named it after himself. It’s just one of several cities throughout the former Roman Empire to bear the same name.

Hadrianopolis Albania
Hadrianopolis Albania

Hadrianopolis quickly grew into a prosperous city and became the new hub of the Drinos Valley a few centuries after Antigonea’s demise.

Today, however, only the theater and its surroundings have been uncovered. Arriving at the site, visitors first walk by the ruins of ancient Roman baths. Added in the 3rd century AD, they were later converted to dwelling places in Byzantine times. 

Interestingly, some limestone sarcophagi can be seen lying about here as well.

The main – and really only – highlight of Hadrianopolis is its theater. Coming straight from Antigonea, it’s noticeably far bigger and better preserved than any of the surviving structures there.

Hadrianopolis Albania

While the theater was by no means the most impressive I’ve seen, there was certainly something special about having it all to myself, especially amidst such beautiful surroundings.

Hadrianopolis was later refurbished and expanded during the Byzantine era under the reign of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). As such, it was renamed Justiniapolis. Residents of this time even went as far as building a church within the theater! 

For whatever reason, though, the city was largely abandoned by the 7th century AD. And it would be several centuries before Gjirokastër Castle and its surrounding suburbs that would develop during the Middle Ages.

Like Antigonea, Hadrianopolis was also once an expansive city built on a grid plan. But the area around the theater is little more than a vast, empty field. Surely, a lot more of ancient Hadrianopolis will be uncovered in time.

Additional Info

No public transport goes to either Antigonea or Hadrianopolis. I ended up hiring a taxi for the day, but it certainly wasn’t cheap by Albanian standards.

I paid 4,500 lek for the two sites combined. While I arranged this through my hotel, I’d previously asked about it at a tour agency in town (the one with the keys to the Cold War Tunnel) who quoted me a slightly higher price.

One mistake I made was in regards to time. At the tour office, they said I’d need 90 minutes at Antigonea. But judging from the few photos I could find online, I didn’t see how this could possibly be, as there was so little to see.

And so when planning the itinerary at my hotel, we agreed on an hour at Antigonea. As mentioned, however, I quickly realized my error upon arrival at the site. While I managed to see most of it, I still ended up missing some important landmarks.

Judging by all the landmarks listed on the map, seeing every single thing could possibly take between 2-3 hours.

If you go, learn from my mistake and arrange for at least 90 minutes at Antigonea. Better yet, visit with your own transport if possible. Visiting Antigonea is just as much – if not more – about enjoying the scenery than it is about the ruins.

At another tourism office I visited in town – close to the lower entrance to the bazaar – they were offering a guided hike through Antigonea. I didn’t end up doing this because I wanted to visit Hadrianopolis as well. But looking back, this sounds like a great experience.

The excursion is an all-day trek from Gjirokastër which includes lunch in a local village, and the price was around €40. While I enjoyed my visit to Hadrianopolis, a long hike through Antigonea would’ve probably been a more memorable experience overall than visiting the two places by taxi.

Bus is the only public transport option to reach Gjirokastër, and most people do so from Sarandë. From Sarandë’s main ‘bus terminal’ around Friendship Park, find a Tirana-bound bus and tell the driver you want to go to Gjirokastër.

As of 2021, these buses depart hourly at half past the hour. The ride lasts just a little over an hour.

You can also get to Gjirokastër directly from Tirana, as well as Berat and Përmet. Try asking locally about schedules, as there’s no single reliable source of information online.

Like many Albanian cities, Gjirokastër lacks a proper bus station. Instead, various buses line up in the general area of the Eida gas station at the base of the hill in Gjirokastër’s ‘new town.’

To get to the old town, it’s a long, steep walk up the hill. Taking a taxi is a good idea, especially if you have a rolling suitcase. While my accommodation was just a 15-minute walk uphill, the bumpy brick road was very harsh on the wheels of my suitcase, with one popping off a few days later!

As one of Albania’s most touristy towns, Gjirokastër has plenty of hotels and guest houses to choose from. Just understand that all of the landmarks in the Gjirokastër guide above are located in the old town, while the new town is situated at the bottom of the hill.

I stayed at a place simply called ‘Tourists Guest House‘ that I’d highly recommend. It was located about halfway in between the new town and old town. While the area certainly looked and felt like old Gjirokastër, it was outside the busy touristy zone. The bazaar area was an easy ten-minute walk away, however.

I had my own private room and bathroom, and the owner was incredibly kind and hospitable. The price was less than $10 a night, making it the best value I found in all of Albania.



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