Few foreign visitors have heard of the southern Albanian town of Përmet, nicknamed the ‘City of Roses.’ But as small and remote as it may be, Përmet is home to some unique attractions that you can’t find anywhere else. For starters, the town center is home to a peculiar massive rock that towers over its surroundings.
And about 13 km outside the city are the Bënjë Thermal Baths. Situated amidst gorgeous natural surroundings, locals flock to the baths to cure a variety of ailments. Even if you’re in good health, the baths are a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
If you’re looking for a unique experience in Albania, look no further than Përmet. You can learn more about getting there and where to stay at the end of the article.
The Big Rock of Përmet
Përmet, situated just about an hour’s drive from Gjirokastër, is a small town of only about 10,000 people. Its compact center is now filled with hotels, largely targeted toward domestic tourists who come to soak in the nearby healing waters.
No matter where you’re staying, it should be an easy walk to the town center’s main highlight: the Big Rock, known locally as Guri i Qytetit.
Situated beside the Vjosë River, the rock looms over central Përmet at 42 meters high. While a modern mosque stands right next to it today, the rock has been an important place for centuries.
Archaeological evidence suggests that construction was taking place atop it since at least the 4th century AD. And visitors today can climb up to see remnants of the old fortress walls dating to the Ottoman period.
Approaching the rock and looking for the way up, I was surprised to find an opening at the bottom. Stepping inside the large cave, I noticed yet another opening on the opposite side – seemingly added fairly recently.
While the cave is now empty, it’s easy to picture the region’s earliest prehistoric settlers taking refuge inside.
Ascending the modern staircase, visitors are greeted with excellent views of the river and town center. The views then get even better after completing the climb to the top.
As one might expect, there are plenty of local legends associated with the Big Rock of Përmet. The rock remained a fortress throughout the Middle Ages, and one of the local heroes from this time was a man named Premt.
According to one story, he threw himself off the rock rather than submit to invaders, and the town was eventually named after him. But neighboring Gjirokastër has nearly an identical legend, as do many other towns around the world!
I climbed to the top of the rock just as a big thunderstorm was starting to hit the town. As I could already see flashes of lightning in the distance, I didn’t linger for too long at the top. But if the weather is nice, it wouldn’t be a bad place to hang out with a book.
Aside from the Big Rock, there’s little else to see in the town center, other than a war monument on the other side of the river. Nevertheless, Përmet is a pleasant little town that’s noticeably clean and tidy – especially by Albanian standards.
Just be forewarned, though: the town completely shuts down for a few hours every afternoon. The restaurants are closed and you won’t even be able to shop at the main supermarket!
The locals start going about their day very early – around 6 am or so – and then stay out until late at night following their afternoon siesta.
The Bënjë Thermal Baths
The main reason most people come to Përmet is to take a dip in the mineral-rich waters of the Bënjë Thermal Baths (pronounced like ‘ban-ya’).
As mentioned above, they’re about 13 km out of town, and before my visit I spent a lot of time researching how to get there. It seemed like taking a taxi or even hiking were the only options
But to my pleasant surprise, upon checking into my hotel, the owner informed me that there is indeed a public bus service running to and from the baths! It’s a brand new service that just started running in 2021.
Learn more about the bus timetable and general tips on visiting the Bënjë Thermal Baths at the end of the article.
Arriving at the site, the first thing visitors encounter is a well-preserved Ottoman stone bridge. Walking across it, you can get clear views of the Langarica Canyon and some of its caves.
But first, you may want to soak in the pool closest to the site entrance, accessible by walking across the bridge.
As mentioned, the geothermal waters are believed to have healing properties, and locals claim that certain pools help with particular ailments. With no signage on-site, it’s difficult for foreign visitors to know which is which.
But according to some locals I talked to, the first large pool is said to help with skin ailments. Getting closer, you’ll likely notice the scent of sulfur in the air.
Unlike other thermal baths around the world, the temperature here is only lukewarm, staying somewhere within the 20s Celsius throughout the year.
As it was a hot summer day, I didn’t mind. But those visiting in winter might be disappointed.
There were only a few people in the pool at the time I arrived, and I relaxed in the water for around 30 minutes or so. While I wasn’t looking to cure any particular problem, the warm, somewhat slimy water was pleasant to soak in as I gazed out at the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
But as more and more people started to show up, I decided to search for some of the other pools – wherever they were. While signage was lacking, from atop the bridge I spotted people heading deeper into the Langarica Canyon until they were out of view, and I decided to follow them.
Even though the Langarica River was mostly dry, traversing the riverbed was rather tricky. You’ll have to wade through the water multiple times in order to reach the end. And while the water is shallow, it’s incredibly slippery and muddy, so you’ll need to take care with every step – especially if you’re carrying a camera!
I passed by a couple of smaller pools on the way, but they were empty. And so I decided to keep heading forward to see where others were heading.
After crossing back and forth the river a few more times to make it deeper into the canyon, I finally found the other pool. It had a bright blue hue to it, and there were already several people inside.
Shortly after I entered, it quickly filled up with more visitors. Clearly, this is one of Bënjë’s main attractions.
This pool was for rheumatism, a local explained to me. And it’s recommended to spend no more than 20 minutes inside. The time seemed to fly by as I relaxed in the tranquil waters.
I then made the long, slippery trek back to the bridge and finally back to the bus. While the return bus was indeed there waiting, the driver was nowhere to be found.
I was hoping to take the 13:00 bus back, but the driver didn’t appear until 13:45! For whatever reason, he had to be dropped off by another bus that was on its way to Gjirokastër.
I wondered how he managed to make it so far away from the thermal baths and why, but I couldn’t understand a word of his Albanian explanation to the other passengers.
Then throughout the ride back, he proceeded to chain smoke while answering his phone which rang every couple of minutes. But for only 100 lek roundtrip, I couldn’t really complain about the service.
Even with the late arrival back in central Përmet, I still had time for one more adventure that day.
Hiking to the Church of Saint Mary in Leusë
Another activity to do in Përmet is a short hike up to the village of Leusë, home to the Church of Saint Mary. Situated to the south of Përmet, the walk there takes about 45 minutes. You can easily find it via most GPS apps.
While not incredibly challenging, you might need to stop for breath if you’re climbing on a hot summer afternoon. But turn around and you’ll be rewarded with clear views of central Përmet.
On the way up, there’s even a miniature model of a church which seems to function as some sort of local shrine.
Before long, the beautiful 19th-century church will come into view, peaking out of the trees in the distance. Saint Mary’s Church is a domed basilica that’s entirely covered in vivid frescoes. But making it inside can be tricky.
I arrived at the porch to admire the beautiful frescoes of the exterior. Even with much of them having been vandalized with graffiti, they remain colorful and impressive.
Hoping to see more on the inside, I tried opening the door, but it was securely locked. Having anticipated this, I’d stopped at Përmet’s Tourist Information office on the way over.
The man there told me to ask a local to open it for me, as someone who lives nearby is said to possess the key.
But first, I took a walk around the church, which was entirely surrounded by a local graveyard. Walking past a closet in the back, I was startled to encounter a human skull just laying there amongst the rubble!
Setting out to find someone with the key, I walked around the village of Leusë, which felt like a trip back in time. The houses were all surrounded by towering stone walls. But it was late afternoon, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.
I waited for awhile and walked around some more, but I never ended up finding anyone. I wasn’t up for knocking on a random stranger’s door just to see a church, so I began my descent back to central Përmet.
As of summer 2021, the bus timetable to and from the Bënjë Thermal Baths is as follows:
From Përmet to Bënjë:
8:00, 9:00, 13:00, 14:00
From Bënjë to Përmet:
12:00, 13:00, 17:30
A roundtrip ticket costs 100 lek.
I left on the 9:00 bus and returned on the 13:00 bus, which seemed like the perfect amount of time. But if you really want to beat the crowds, try the 8:00 bus instead.
The buses do not depart from the main Përmet ‘bus terminal’ (or rather, the part of the road where all the long-distance buses line up). Instead, they’ll be waiting next to a school along the road by the river not far from the Big Rock. The location is marked in the Google map above.
A sign for the thermal baths should be posted on the bus window. But there may be more than one such bus, so if the first bus you encounter is empty, keep walking along to double check.
Also expect for the buses to be late. As mentioned above, my return bus departed 45 minutes late. But on the way there, the driver also showed up 15 minutes late, after which we made an extended stop in town.
At the time of writing, this is a new and experimental bus line, but hopefully they can keep this going for years to come. Otherwise, you’ll need to take a taxi, drive yourself, hitchhike, or trek through the mountains to get there.
Before your visit, it’s important to note that at the time of writing, there are no changing rooms or even bathrooms at the site at all.
I heard that they did indeed build one at some point, but the water stopped working, so things are back to square one.
With that in mind, you’ll either need to come dressed in your swimwear or bring a large towel under which to change.
It’s also best to come wearing sandals, as you’ll need to wade through lots of muddy water to make it to some of the more distant pools.
Despite the lack of infrastructure, you’ll find various stands selling snacks and souvenirs.
Përmet is a rather isolated town, but you’ll still find some direct bus connections with other cities throughout the country.
Most visitors make their way from Gjirokastër, a ride which only lasts about an hour. I took a bus at 10:00 am. There may or may not be others, but with no reliable online source for bus timetables in Albania, it’s best to ask at your hotel.
In Gjirokastër, the buses for Përmet leave from the main road in the ‘new town.’ After seeing the Kastrati and Elda gas stations, continue northwest along the main road for a couple of minutes, and you should see a bus waiting amidst a dilapidated old lot on your right.
While there are various connections between Përmet and more distant cities, there’s unlikely to be more than one bus departing per day. The same can be said for onward journeys.
I ended up heading onward to Korçë. The only bus departs at 7:00 in the morning and the journey lasts over four hours. On the plus side, it’s one of the most scenic rides you can take in all of Albania.
While in Përmet, I also saw that there’s even a direct bus to Vlorë, but I have no idea what time it departs.
Përmet has a lot of accommodation options. But as is typical with smaller towns in the Balkans, the cheapest options will cost around double what they do in the larger cities.
I spent two nights at Nako Guest House where I had a good experience. It cost me a little under $20 USD per night with breakfast included. The breakfast was delicious and the hosts couldn’t have been friendlier.
The only downside was that, as mentioned above, people are out and about quite early in Përmet. I could easily hear the voices of locals shopping at the markets as early as 6 am. But I suppose this would be a common issue at many hotels in town.