Presentation of the destination
Once the capital of Albania and now its second largest city, Durrës is one of the most ancient cities in the country. Situated on the Adriatic Sea only 33 kilometres from the capital, Tirana, Durrës is known today as a beach resort, with many large hotels lining the sandy coastline. It's also the largest port in Albania, with passenger ferry links to Italy and Montenegro. It was founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists who travelled north to claim land, and has been inhabited ever since. There's plenty of archaological evidence of these early settlers, which makes Durrës a compelling destination for travellers. Durrës is located in the Central European Time Zone, and uses the Albanian Lek as currency. As you'd expect from its location on the Adriatic Sea, Durrës enjoys excellent weather making it an ideal destination for holidaymakers.
Points of interests / things to see
The beautiful Durrës Amphitheatre was built by the Romans under the rule of Emperor Trajan in the 2nd century AD to house gladiatorial combats, although later it played host to Christian events too. Discovered in the late 1900s and still only half-excavated, there’s nonetheless plenty to see here. Explore the staircases and 2,000-capacity seating of the largest amphitheatre in the Balkans, and imagine the scene a few thousand years ago. There's also a chapel with stunning Byzantine mosaics and paintings. Sadly neglected through much of the 20th century except for some brief excavations in the 1960s, luckily the University of Parma recently began a project to save it and now Durrës Amphitheatre is slated to become Albania’s next Unesco site. Nonetheless, with structural issues, decay and the encroachments of the surrounding modern developments, the Amphitheatre is also on endangered monuments lists, so now is the time to visit. Find it on E Kalasë Street, where English-speaking guides are available. Admission is 300 lekë and it opens every day from 9am-7pm.
Occupying a commanding position 100 metres above the harbour, this cream and salmon hilltop palace was built in the 1920s as a gift to King Zog, who used it as a summer retreat. Later it became a government reception building, drawing guests as famous as Nikita Kruschev and Jimmy Carter. The eagle-shaped villa was built gazing out over the Adriatic to Italy, and has become a symbol of the heritage of Durrës. The lavish interior, most famous for its blue marble and the size of its ballroom, was sadly damaged in the riots of 1997 during the national uprising that left 2,000 dead. The renovation is ongoing, but with plans to turn it into a resort and casino its future looks secure. Keep an eye out for happy couples – thousands of newly-weds flock there for luck each year, perhaps inspired by the grand 'wedding cake' architecture. You can’t miss the Royal Villa rising above the city, so hail a taxi or climb up by foot for a look.
Hinting at Durrës’ Byzantine past, Durrës Castle was constructed in the 1st century BC by Emperor Anastasius I, a native son of the city. Coupled with the excellent natural fortifications of cliffs and sea, the huge defensive walls left the city virtually unassailable until the terrible earthquake of 1273 crumbled them. True to its defensive purpose, in 1939 the castle also played host to another resistance, this time of Albanian patriots who made a brave last stand here until the city fell to the invading Fascists. The perfectly circular Venetian Tower was a 6th century addition that now house the rather lovely Art Bar Café, where you can sip a coffee under the rotunda roof and appreciate paintings by local artists. The Tower is located on Anastas Durrsaku Street and makes a good starting point for a walk around the walls, now carefully repaired. Visit the Art Bar Café website for an interactive map you can use to plan your visit (http://torraveneciane.com/art-bar-cafe/).
Packed with Ancient Greek and Roman artefacts from the nearby archaeological site of Dyrrhachium, the Archaeological Museum is a squat 1950s building that forms the largest of its kind in Albania. Particularly notable for the tiny busts of Venus that commemorate her worship in the Albanian ‘city of love’, the museum also boasts some fantastic carved funerary stones from the Roman era. Situated on Taulantia Street right on the waterfront, the museum suffered tremendous looting and vandalism during the 1997 uprising and is still undergoing renovations. These have been hampered by the proximity of the sea, which is causing damage both to the museum and the artefacts inside. Despite ongoing administrative issues, the exhibits are clearly laid out and it’s well worth a visit to discover Albania’s cultural heritage. The hauntingly beautiful busts alone are worth the admission fee, and there’s an impressive collection of coins, weapons and other metalwork from antiquity. There’s also a collection of later Christian art, including some brightly painted wooden carvings. Admission is 200 lekë, and the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 9 am – 3 pm.
Look through another window into Durrës’ past with a visit to these Roman remains. The Roman baths were discovered in the 1960s, during the excavations that also revealed more of the amphitheatre. The ruins are situated just off the big square at the back of the Alexsander Moisiu Theatre, and entrance is free. The pool, 7 metres long by 5 metres wide, was heated by a hypocaust, a form of early central heating used in Roman baths across the empire. Naturally, the furnace that heated the pool was expensive and labour-intensive to run, and so the presence of the baths in Durrës indicates that it was a settlement of some considerable wealth. The Byzantine Forum on Shevget Bej Street is also a Roman relic, built sometime after the Roman Empire divided in 395 A.D. when modern Albania was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. This circular structure was paved in marble, and surrounded by Doric columns. Now dwarfed by concrete tower blocks with a pipeline running through it, the forum still remains an atmospheric place. Free entrance.
Once you’ve finished exploring the impressive historical heritage of the town, it’s definitely worth a trip to Durrës’ big draw: the 6 km golden sand beach. Gently sloping into the azure Adriatic, it’s an ideal spot for family sunbathing. Hire sun loungers and umbrellas, and then wander the length of the beach to see men charming snakes or leading bears around, horses trotting up and down, and salesmen peddling fresh figs.
A few hours away by car or bus, the beautiful town of Berat is an ever-popular destination. This unspoilt ancient settlement is a Unesco site, with a citadel housing eight glorious medieval churches crowning the hillside. The white houses that tumble topsy-turvy down its slopes all have large airy windows to let in the air, which is where the town gets its name. There’s a fascinating Ethnographic Museum, a modern vineyard and an ancient castle from which to survey the stunning surroundings.
This tiny town just north of Tirana is famous in Albania as home to the castle from which Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero, coordinated the resistance efforts against the Ottomans, and in doing so forged an identity for the Albanian people. There’s also the Turkish bazaar to explore, where you can pick up colourful woollens, traditional Albanian slippers and a myriad of souvenirs emblazoned with the Albanian flag. It’s only 45 minutes by road from Durrës, or combine it with a trip to the capital.
Head to the capital for a real taste of Albania’s rich and tumultuous history – it’s less than an hour away on the rattling train, or go by road. There’s the National Historical Museum to start, in Skanderbeg Square, commemorating Albania’s hero warrior. From the Ethan Bey Mosque to the Catholic Church of St Maria, the religious buildings of Tirana are exquisite. Wander over the quaint Tanners Bridge, and buy a delicious burek pastry to eat while you watch the world go by.
Vacation rentals in Durrës (Durrës County)
How to get there ?
Flights to Albania land at Tirana International Airport (Nënë Tereza) from across Europe. Passengers coming from further afield will need to transfer at one of the larger European airports. From Tirana, Durrës is a short ride by taxi, bus or train. It’s also easy to access Durrës by boat. Ferries come from Bar and Kotor in Montenegro and from Bari, Ancona, Otranto and Trieste in Italy. Visit the Port Authority website for more information (http://www.apdurres.com.al/) International buses run from Pristina, Kosovo and Skopje, Macedonia. No international train connections exist, although it’s possible to travel inside Albania on the train network. There are small shuttle buses that run between many Albania cities, and within Durrës there’s the orange public buses. Taxis are ubiquitous, and you can also hire a car (http://www.albania-hotel.com/car-rental-in-albania), although traffic and road conditions are not always optimal. In Durrës itself why not rent a bike (http://www.ecovolis.info/index-4.html), or just walk around the city.
Hotels in Durrës (Durrës County)