The city of Lezhe is located in the north west of Albania, just below the city of Shkoder. Many people bypass this small, but ancient city, after they visit Shkodra and the national parks of Theth and Valbona. Today, I’m going to give you 5 reasons to visit Lezhe and why this ancient city is one of the most important to the history of Albania and the Albanians themselves.
A bit of history
Before we get into the reasons for you to visit Lezhe, let’s cover a bit of the city’s history. The city of Lezhe is very ancient; it was founded in the eighth century BC by the Greek tyrant of Syracuse, Dyonisis, and was called Lissos by the founders. The tyrant’s reason for establishing the colony was a simple one. He wanted to control all trade in the Adriatic Sea and on the Illyrian peninsula.
Near a hundred years later, the surrounding Illyrian tribes took over the city. Philip of Macedon briefly held it, but the Illyrians retook it after his death. Some scholars believe that Alexander the Great’s real birthplace was the city of Lissos (Lezhe) and not Pella.
King Gentius of Illyria tried to defend the city of Lezha against the Romans but ultimately failed. The city was used by the Roman republic as a springboard to conquer Macedon and later Greece. Lezhe was also of great importance during the Roman civil war, as it was taken by Marc Anthony and remained loyal to Ceasar until his death.
In 1386, Lissus (Lezhe) was taken over by the Venetians and renamed Alessio. This is where the city starts to become very important to Albanian history.
A meeting of princes to save Albania
In 1444 the legendary Albanian hero and leader George Kastrioti a.k.a Skanderbeg organized a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He chose Lezhe as the meeting point for the princes of Albania.
He chose the city of Lezhe for three reasons. The first was that he wanted to show the Venetians that he held no aspirations to fight against them, only the Ottomans. Secondly, he knew that the other princes would not meet anywhere unless it was neutral territory. And finally, the city had once belonged to the oldest of the Albanian families, the Dukagjins. He wanted their support.
Now that you know a bit more about the history of this city. Let me tell you the 5 reasons to visit Lezhe.
The city of Lezhe is boarded to the west by the Adriatic Sea, as such its main point of attraction are the 38 Km of sandy beaches that it possesses. The municipality’s beaches start at the breathtaking and historic ruins known as the Cape of Rodon (Rodon was the Illyrian god of the sea) and stretch all the way to Velipoje. The beaches that I recommend you visit are:
It is the most famous beach in the city, and the most frequented. In the summertime, there can be as many as 90 thousand people heading towards Shengjin. So be sure to wake up early if you want a spot on Shengjin’s sandy beaches. The city of Lezhe has invested heavily in Shengjin these past years and has improved the quality of service and the beaches general hygiene by a significant margin.
This beach is in the administration of the Town Hall of Shenkoll (Saint Nicholas). In the past, it was barely frequented by the local and foreign population, as the road to get there was very bad. The municipality of Shenkoll fixed the road last year, and it is now a local favourite. It cannot offer as many services as Shengjin, but it has virgin vistas and shores that can please anyone with an adventurous spirit.
It isn’t a beach per se; it is a lagune. Wildlife is in abundance here, especially birds. It is a reservoir of flora and fauna, where many bird spotters gather. If you’re really into a beach shore filled with wildlife, then Patok is where you want to go.
The width of the beaches is nearly 3 Km. There is plenty of room to relax on the sandy shores. Also, the many hotels, restaurants and cafes along the coast give you an excellent opportunity to dine on the local cuisine and enjoy a refreshing drink on those hot summer days.
To the west of the city of Lezhe lies the mountains of the district of Mirdita. The highlands of Mirdita are probably the most famous to western Europeans. From these highlands emerged the first principality and state of the Albanians as a people.
The principality of Arbanon was founded in the eleventh century AD by Progon. Many scholars believe that this prince came from the noble house of the Blinishti family whose origins are from present-day Blinisht, a village in Mirdita. The people of Mirdita resisted the Ottoman rule for nearly 500 years and did not convert to Islam like most of the rest of Albania.
They were an autonomous principality ruled by a prince and had their own laws and culture. Their government was in the form of a tribal democracy. Each tribe or clan would send one representative to parliament which was headed by the Prince. They would all vote together on the province’s external affairs such as war, diplomacy etc.
Mirdita was the last principality in the Albanian lands and only fell when the communist regime killed its prince and subjugated its people. Many historians, foreign writers and scholars have written about this principality, many comparing the Highlanders there with the ancient Spartans, for their ferocity in war, strict codes of honour and stout disobedience to the invader.
Apart from its historical significance, the district has some beautiful mountain ranges and peaks to hike to (If you are a hiking enthusiast).
Some of the places that are worth hiking to are:
The historical center of the district and the seat of the prince. Orosh is also home to one of the oldest abbeys in the Balkans, The Church of St. Alexandre or Kisha e Shen Lezhdrit in Albanian. You will also find there the Sacred Mountain, a high mountain range which (if you have the stamina) is worth hiking as the view at the top is breathtaking.
The town of Rubik is an ancient one. It is believed to be even older than the city of Lezhe. Rubik is home to an ancient monastery that is almost 900 years old. The best part is that the monastery is built upon the ruins of an Illyrian goddesses’ temple, Rubiko, from which the town gets its name.
The Valmori mountain range is one of the most beautiful in northern Albania. In the summer, the many valleys at the top of the mountains are covered by thousands of different flowers and wild strawberries. Describing it is very difficult; you’ll have to visit in the summer to see its beauty.
Beware though; these mountains do not have many local guides and the best restaurants, which serve local village cuisine of pork, goat, sheep meat and yogurt, can only be found in the bigger towns like Rreshen, Rubik etc. Houses are sparse and far apart, so if you intend on hiking, either get a local guide from Lezhe or the surrounding area or an excellent map.
History and Archaeology
As we mentioned earlier, the city of Lezhe is of high importance to Albanian history. The city has more than 21 archeological and historic sites to explore, and some of them are:
The mausoleum of Skanderbeg is located inside of Lezhe. The legendary hero is “buried” in the old church of Saint Nicholas. Which in turn was built upon the ruins of an old pagan temple. We say “buried” as his remain are no longer there. When the Turks conquered Albania, so feared was Skanderbeg, that they looted his grave and took his bones to use as charms to gain his strength.
The Ancient Castle of Lezhe dates back since the city’s founding in the 8th century BC. It is set upon a hill from which you can see the entire city of Lezhe. For those that are fascinated by ancient castles and fortresses, it is a must see.
The municipality of Lezhe has probably the most Catholic churches in Albania. Most of these churches are found in the Mirdita district, which was never occupied by the Ottomans. Some of the most famous of these churches are those of the abbey of Orosh, the monastery of Rubik, but the most famous is the church of Saint Anthony. The church of Saint Anthony is set above the city on a high hill. There, it is said, that Saint Anthony took refuge when the Romans were pursuing him for his faith. The Church is a place of pilgrimage for all Catholics and even Muslims and orthodox. It is believed that it can cure ailments and heal even serious diseases. If you are a believer or a spiritual person, or just curious, the church of Saint Anthony is sure to leave you impressed.
Pubs, Hotels and Low Prices
There are roughly 80 hotels in the municipality of Lezhe. They are packed with restaurants, shops, bars and pubs and various forms of entertainment. Most of the entertainment and hotels are in Shengjin, but there are others spread through Lezhas coastline. Nowadays, prices can range from 30 to 80 euros per day depending on the quality of the hotel. However, I recommend you book a room in privately owned homes. There are around 600 homes that rent rooms or entire houses for the summer holidays. Their prices can range from 10 to 30 euros per day, depending on the quality of the room or house. The homes for rent are a bit hard to find online. Your best bet is to arrive in Lezhe and look for signs that say rooms for rent or in Albanian “Dhoma Me Qera”.
The Pubs and Discos are cheap to enter as they usually cost $5 to enter and drinks can range from $5 – $15. The music is generally allowed until 12 – 1 O’clock in the morning. There are also beach parties (foam parties) that can go on until 5 O’clock in the morning and are usually located right on the sand. Local and guest DJs are found performing all over these establishments.
Transportation is cheap with prices ranging from $1 from Lezhe to Shengjin and $4 from Tirana to Lezhe. There are also car rental establishments around the city, where you can get a cheap rental for as low as $15 a day and tour the area yourself.
The Valley of the Nymphs (Mrizi i Zanave) in Fishte village
The Valley of The Nymphs or Fairies is two things at once. First, it is a literary masterpiece by Father George Fishta also known as the Albanian Homer, and secondly, it’s the best damn restaurant and slow food dining in Albania in my opinion. This fantastic restaurant is in the Fishte village in Lezhe, and its head chef and owner is named Altin Prenga.
Altin has worked as a chef for 11 years in Italy but being the visionary that he is and an astute patriot, decided to leave a promising career as a head chef in a prestigious restaurant there and return to his birthplace to open his own restaurant.
A boost for the local economy
According to Altin, he wanted to break the pseudonym of the immigrant and do something unexpected for a change. He believes that fine dining should be in rural areas, the villages, mountains, rivers and lakes, where you can eat your dinner with the sound of birds singing and insects chirping in the summer breeze or by the warmth of a fireplace. The Valley of The Nymphs (Mrizi i Zanave) is a dream that has affected the entire village of Fishte.
Fresh and organic ingredients
Altin has employed only the inhabitants of the village, and the entire production for his cuisine comes from the village. The organic vegetables, the wild and fresh pomegranate, the locally raised goat meat, the fresh dairy products and even the wine is from the municipality of Lezha and the village of Fishte. Altin is a perfectionist, and his cooking has to be nothing but perfect.
He has gathered the traditional cuisine of the area and injected it with some new ideas of his own making it like a culinary bridge from the old to the new. Altin has won many awards as a chef and keeps on growing his business with innovative ideas.
He started with a small restaurant a few years ago. I am proud to say I was one of the first to visit it. He has now turned the restaurant into a gorgeous guest house for visitors to spend the night. Oh, and the visitors are aplenty. They flock from every corner of Albania. Furthermore, tourists from all over gather at this exquisite restaurant to be amazed at its heavenly cuisine.
Altin’s vision does not merely stop at an excellent restaurant, a guest house and the revitalization of his village and to make Lezhe a spot on the map for fine dining. No, Altin now has plans to transform the old communist prison of Fishte village into a laboratory. He can then further refine the quality of his products and his cuisine. I cannot describe in words the taste of Altin’s cooking. I am no Hemingway, so you must visit Mrizi i Zanave to taste it yourself. Make sure to call first, as the restaurant does not accept walk-ins. Altin needs to know how many guests he will have so his food can be as fresh as possible for you.
You can read more about the restaurant on their website here.
Lezhe is a city of many opportunities. It can provide you with a nice relaxing time at the beach, cheap accommodation, fast and easy travel, great archeological and spiritual experience and a great mountain hike, not to mention one of the best, if not the best restaurant in Albania. So, if you visit the northern part of Albania, do not skip the city of Lezhe, it will provide you with a piece of Albania that you will not see in the rest of the country, it will provide you with the dawn of the country itself.