The ancient city of Durres is the oldest city on the Albanian Riviera. Historically, it was known as Epidamnos or Dyrrachium. Presumably, it was founded by Greek colonists from the island of Corfu in the 7th century BC. Durres is a city where ancient ruins and modern buildings clash. The oldest city in Albania has a ton of things to offer to every type of visitor. Here are 8 things do in the biggest port city in Albania.
1. Durres beach
Durres is the most popular destination for domestic and foreign beachgoers. Albania has up to 300 days of sunlight per year, which means that a big chunk of that is spent by frequenting the countries coast. Durres is favoured mostly by the locals and people from the capital, Tirana. However, many foreigners and ethnic Albanians from neighbouring countries flock to the ancient city during the summer.
The reason why the beaches of Durres are sought after is that they are cheap and easy to get to. Durres’s most famous beach, Lalzi Bay (Gjiri i Lalzit) is only 15Km drive from the country’s capital. Lalzi Bay offers cheap accommodation and its shore is a soft sand type. In recent years Lalzi Bay and other beaches in the Durres county, have seen rapid urbanization and growth in infrastructure. These days, paved roads can take you from the capital and straight to the beach.
Another great aspect of beaches in Durres is how economic they are. If you were to head to the south of Albania, you would hefty prices for accommodation, beverages and other leisure. In Durres however, the prices are much cheaper. You can find rooms ranging as low as $20 a night in the city and $15 in the surrounding areas. Beverages and food are also cheap. In the city, you can order a plate of shrimp risotto for as low as $10. Seafood is especially fresh in the city, but even more so in the villages.
Traveling to the city is relatively cheap as well. A bus ride from Tirana costs around $3 dollars, but if you want a bit more comfort you can order a cab that will cost you around $25.
The beaches themselves offer a plethora of activities, from nightclubs that party all night on the shore, to a relaxing day in the sun. Going to the beach is the first thing you do on your first day there.
2. The Amphitheatre
The city of Durres can proudly boast of having the biggest and one of the oldest amphitheatres in the country. The city’s amphitheatre was built by the emperor Hadrian in 100 AD and at its prime, it could hold as many as 20,000 people. The scale of the amphitheatre is remarkable, considering that it was built by the Romans outside of their native Italy.
Another cool thing about the amphitheatre is that it forms a transitional link from paganism to Christianity. Inside the amphitheatre of Durres resides a chapel with stunning mosaics on its walls of different saints.
The chapel in the amphitheatre comes to show how a place where ancient plays used to be held, most which honoured the local pagan gods, now served as a gathering place to spread the word of the gospel. A fun fact to know is that Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire for quite a bit. However, in Illyrian cities like Durres, Christianity took root.
Ancient cities like Durres were allowed more freedom than other places in the empire. Being a free city with a great deal of autonomy, Durres allowed the new faith of Christianity to be preached within its walls. This goes to show that the Albanoi (Illyrian tribe from where the Albanians descend from) has always been tolerant of religions different from their own since ancient times.
3. The Royal Villa
The royal villa in Durres is a very unique building. The villa was build in 1937 for King Zog the first of Albania. Yes, Albania used to have a monarchy, albeit not as old or grand as those of western Europe. King Ahmet Zogu declared himself king in 1927 after he seized power in a cue. However, his monarchy would last until 1939, the year fascist Italy occupied the country. King Zog, along with his Queen Geraldina of Hungary and their infant son, fled Albania before the Italians could get to them. The royal family had an epic Odyssey ranging from Egypt to the United Kingdom, but that is a story for another time.
Ironically the royal villa in Durres was built by an Italian architect. Fascist Italy was paving the way to invade Albania, but before it could do that, it wanted to seem that it fully supported the Albanian monarchy. King Zog used the royal villa for only one year before the Italians invaded.
Even though it isn’t as glamorous as some other monarchs villas, it is a unique piece of architecture and with a very interesting history to it. Fun fact, the villa has functioned as a guest house for both Nikita Khrushchev and Jimy Carter. Sadly, the villa was ransacked in the country’s turbulent year of 1997 and has remained unaltered since.
4. Archeological museum
The archaeological museum of Durres is the largest in Albania. Even if you aren’t a history nut, the museum is a must-visit for all newcomers. The archaeological museum houses remnants of almost every age and empire that has held the city at some point. The museum is just a few steps from the waterfront and displays some amazing artefacts.
The archaeological museum is divided into sectors representing different areas. It starts with the ancient Illyrian culture, followed by Greek, then Roman, Byzantine and finally Ottoman period.
The most intriguing and beautiful artefacts come from the Roman period of the city. The Roman sector houses some wonderful statues of the goddess Venus and stone sarcophagi. The museum was built by the communist regime in 1951 and held a larger variety of artefacts than it does today. Sadly, the museum was sacked in the civil unrest of 1997 and many precious and unique artifacts have been destroyed or stolen. The Albanian government’s ongoing campaign to retrieve the lost artifacts has brought some results over the years, but there are still items to be found.
There might be a fee to enter the museum, I wouldn’t know as it was free when I last visited, but I don’t believe that it will be anything too drastic. The fee might be $5, ten tops, very cheap and worth visiting this amazing museum.
5. St. Michael’s Basilica
One of the oldest churches in Albania, St. Michael’s Basilica is located in Arapaja, a suburbs of Durres. The ruins of the church were discovered during an archaeological dig in 1974. The church is thought to have been built around 400 AD. That makes the church one of the oldest in the country. During the dig, some remarkable features were discovered. Not only are the church’s ruins preserved really well for its age, but it also contains a fascinating mosaic. The mosaic is extremely well detailed and preserved and it covers 54 square metres.
The site also contains the church’s naves and a fragment of a pillar with decorations carved into it. Seeing the ruins and the decorations, makes you think of the people that built them. What were their lives like? Who paid for the construction of this old church? How many people lived in these suburbs then? The ruins in Durres make you ponder on the lives of the people that built and lived with them. Saint Michaels Basilica is known as Bazilika e Shen Mehillit, to the Albanians.
Christianity gained a rapid expansion throughout Illyria, more so than in other provinces in the Balkans. Many scholars believe that the Illyrian’s tolerance of different beliefs and their way of quickly adapting to new strains of thought is the reason that Christianity spread so quickly in Illyria.
6. Via Egnatia
The city of Durres has always been a gateway to southern Europe. In antiquity, it was the link that connected the eastern part of the Roman empire to the western one.
The Romans valued almost all articles and commerce that came from the far east. Spices, essences and silk were some of the most sought after products from the faraway lands of China, India and Persia. Apart from military ingenuity and the creation of laws, the Romans were highly adept at one other feature, the building of excellent road networks. The roads that the Romans built, allowed them to quickly transport troops and goods to far-away provinces of the empire. One of their most important roads that connected the west with the east was via Egnatia or Egnatia road.
Via Egnatia started in the ancient city of Durres or Dyrrachion and stretched all the way to Byzantium, modern-day Istanbul. Via Egnatia was crucial to Rome’s commerce and a key road for moving the Roman legions quickly in case of any revolts within the empire.
The Egnatia road was also used by Pompei and Ceasar during the Roman civil war between these two legendary generals. If you are feeling adventurous, you can take a hike and retrace the remnants of the ancient road. In fact, via Egnatia can be traced for 470 Km, all the way to Thessaloniki in Greece. You could retrace it all the way to Greece, but you’d have to be really adventurous to walk all that way on foot.
7. Rodoni Castle
I have spoken about the Cape of Rodon before and will continue to do so whenever I mention middle Albania.
The castle of Rodon was one of the most strategic fortresses in medieval Albania. Skanderbeg, the legendary hero of the Albanians, ordered the castle to be built in 1452. He picked the Cape of Rodon because, from this rugged coastal terrain, you are able to see the north and south of the Albanian coastline. You can see the Montenegrin coast to the north and as far as Vlora to the south. On a clear and tranquil day, you may also see the coast of Italy.
Skanderbeg knew how to defend his domain, but he also knew how to make alliances. He married the daughter of a powerful feudal prince. She was named Andronika (Donika) Arianiti and as a wedding present, Skanderbeg gifted the castle of Rodon to her.
The Castle of Rodon wasn’t meant as a defence only against the Ottomans, the Venetians also coveted parts of Albania and did everything they could to secure them. Skanderbeg knew that a stronghold on an easily defensible position would secure his principality from coastal attacks.
The road that takes you to the castle is well paved but fairly narrow. To get there is mostly an uphill drive. You must be careful on those tight corners as the lack of signs makes it a difficult and dangerous road to traverse. I recommend you honk the horn whenever you take a corner.
The Cape of Rodon is part of a national park where you can also find an ancient orthodox church. The church is on an open plain on the hill where you can find a few guesthouses that offer a few traditional cuisines. There you can also find a small secluded beach to spend your day. It costs $1 to enter the park, which is fairly cheap.
8. Skanderbeg Cantina
Durres is home to the best Whiskey and Brandy that Albania produces. The Skanderbeg cantina. The cantina was created in 1933 by an Italian family. It is located on the hill of Rashdulli near Durres.
The cantina was privatized in 2001, which brought massive investments for the area and raised employment for the villages surrounding it. Skanderbeg brandy has won a couple of international awards for its great taste and modern refinery used to make it. The cantina possesses 40 Hectares of fertile land that grow grape vines. These grapes are then fermented and turned not just into the famous brandy but other spirits as well.
Tourists from all over the country, not to mention visitors, flock to the cantina all year round. The cantina offers tours around the vineyards and inside the cantina itself. There you can try the different variety of spirits followed by finger foods to accompany them. You will also have the option to buy the many products that the cantina makes. The great thing is that the cantina usually sells these products at lower prices than if you were to buy them at the supermarkets. During your tour, you will see the different process that the beverages go through until they are ready for distribution. Processes like distillation, fermentation and the analysis of the products at their modern laboratory.
The Skanderbeg cantina tour offers all visitors a relaxing afternoon accompanied by great brandy and lots of new knowledge. It is a pleasant journey that shouldn’t be missed.
Durres is one of those cities where the ancient and the new collide. The oldest city in Albania and the biggest port in the country. Fairly close to the capital and almost all other cities in Albania. It is also only a few hours of boat’s ride away from the Italian coast. A city of ancient architecture and good seafood. If you do visit Albania, then the ancient city of Dyrrachion has to be on your “to visit” list.