Being an important port city on the Adriatic Sea just 30 minutes from Tiranë, you would think Durrës would be teeming with tourists. Think again. The sea is polluted so much that people are advised not to swim, and there don’t seem to be any resorts nearby to keep anyone there for an extended period of time. However, if you’re into archaeology, it makes for a worthy half-day trip from Tiranë.
Durrës was the ancient Greek colony of Epidamnos (Ἐπίδαμνος), later renamed Dyrrachion (Δυρράχιον), in ancient Illyria (Ἰλλυρία). Eventually, the Romans and later the Byzantines took over and they left enough things to keep me occupied for a few hours.
After about a 10 minute walk from the bus station, I stopped first at the basilica. There are a few columns standing and some inscriptions on stones that can be found if you look carefully. Chances are, you will be approached by a nice man who speaks Italian. He can show you around a bit to find some of the hidden highlights.
Coincidentally, this friendly man also holds the key to the Roman baths. Follow him down the path and he will also happily show you the baths, which sit under the Aleksandër Moisiu Theatre. He’ll uncover some mosaics and point out structural features of the baths. After having a little chat (him in Italian and me in very broken Spanish), he then pointed me in the direction of the Roman amphitheatre.
On the way to the amphitheatre, I passed the Great Mosque. It was built in 1931 on the site of an older Ottoman mosque. The communists closed it down in 1967 and destroyed the minaret. It was used as a youth center until it reopened as a mosque in 1993.
At the amphitheatre, I was greeted by an English-speaking archaeologist who gave me a brief history and then answered all of my questions when I was finished exploring on my own. This was the star attraction of Durrës by far. The theatre is one of the best I’ve seen even though it’s only partially excavated.
It was built in the 2nd century AD and had a capacity of 15,000. Abandoned by the 4th century, it was used as a burial ground by Christians in the 7th century and a Byzantine chapel was found with mosaics. The amphitheatre was discovered in the late 1900s and excavations began in the 1960s. There are plans to demolish the houses sitting on the part that hasn’t been excavated yet. If you visit, it’s worth climbing onto the field and exploring the far end that isn’t signposted.
Continuing towards the sea, I saw a Venetian tower which is connected to the Byzantine city walls. It was here that I was approached by a Gypsy woman asking for money. I politely declined, turned around, and felt a punch on the arm. Luckily, I didn’t make eye contact with her and avoided a curse, but in hindsight, this was probably my best chance to collect her tears (bad Borat reference).
I followed the walls and here is where I made my first directional mistake – I was supposed to enter the gate and see the Fatih Mosque, built in 1503 by the Ottomans. I didn’t, and I kept following the walls. Oh well.
Anyway, the road started going uphill through a neighborhood and then into the woods where I saw several bunkers. On top of the hill was the Villa of King Zog. Following the curved road around and further uphill, I finally reached the front of the villa, which has great views of the Adriatic Sea.
The villa was finished in 1937 by architect Kristo Sotiri and only used for two summers by King Zog. It’s built in the shape of an eagle. The Communists used it as a government reception building for guests of the state. It was looted and badly damaged during the civil unrest in Albania in 1997. The government returned the property to Prince Leka in 2007, who has plans to restore it. Unfortunately, you can’t go inside and walk through, but the views are worth the hike.
Moving further along, I was hoping to reach the lighthouse to get what are supposed to be even better views of the Adriatic. This is where I heard the barking of some dogs and decided not to heed the “Beware of Dog” sign.
I turned a corner and saw two pit bulls standing right in front of me. Probably not the best thing to do, but I stared them down as they kept barking at me. I turned around to snap a few pictures. Facing the dogs again, they started coming at me. Again, stupidly, I stood there and stared them down. They stopped running and I walked back the way I came – all the way back to the bus station and straight out of Durrës. So to any prospective visitors to Durrës, stop at the villa and skip the lighthouse. The only thing I missed was the Archaeological Museum.