Surprising Durrës: ancient ruins among modern buildings
January 1, 1970
by Vittoria Berti
DURRËS IN ONE DAY: WHAT TO SEE
My boyfriend and I decided to go to Durres for the 1st May long weekend. We decided to go there besides everyone told us that Durrës isn’t a beautiful city to visit, rather it isn’t at all. But we decided to go there because of the sea, and we thought that it could be nice to visit it before the season starts: we have been told the city turns in one of the most touristic of the Albanian coast. After that, if you live in Kosovo (as we do) and you don’t own a car, the choices of a seaside place where to go for a couple of days without spending more than the half of your available time on the bus are limited.
We have to say that they were right: Durrës isn’t a beautiful city. It’s overbuilt, it’s under construction almost everywhere and often kitsch. But we found out actually that it’s a very interesting city. Explain interesting: among massive and horrible communist style buildings, there are Roman ruin, the ancient city walls, Archaeology sites, a Venetian tower, the summer residence of the Albanian royal family, some lovely modern sculptures along the pedestrian, and some other unusual glimpse all around the city. All this make Durrës a bit odd and schizophrenic, but for sure it’s not going to make you bored!
THE OLD DURRËS
All around the city centre may happen to bump into the Byzantine Forum, a complex of columns where it used to be the old market or the Roman amphitheatre, both surrounded by modern buildings. It seems that the municipality neglects them entirely or almost. Actually, these attractions tell us much more about the city, the history (that grounds its roots in the Illyrian time) and the relations among other great population of ancient times.
Coming from the harbour, the first interesting thing that you will encounter is the Venetian Tower, part of the city walls. Built in the XV century, when the city was under the Venetian domain, it’s a stocky and large tower, hosting today a cafe with the view of the sea and the pedestrian. All around the tower, grounded below the asphalt, is probably the whole ancient city of Durrës, unfortunately, covered. When we went there, they found new ruins while working in new projects for the city. The terrible news is that they’re going to be (probably) covered again.
On the left side of the tower, the walls climb up the road side by side with a small park. All along the wall, there is an entrance to the old city. At the end of it, a tiny cobblestones road brings you to the Roman Amphitheatre. The entrance is with a payment of 400 Lek (around 3€), and it also includes the Archaeological Museum. A girl at the entrance offered us to be our guide and to tell us the main history of the place. Built during the reign of Emperor Trajano in the 2nd century AD, the amphitheatre is the biggest in the Balkan peninsula, having the capacity of 20.000 people. It was active for gladiator games until the 4th century when an earthquake damaged it. A Christian chapel was built over it and decorated with frescos and mosaics. Nowadays, mosaics are still visible. After, the whole structure was grounded and discover again and excavated just during the 1960s. Still today part of the amphitheatre hasn’t been dug, but the view is amazing, and you can walk inside some of its galleries.
Just 5 minutes walking far from the amphitheatre is the archaeological museum. There are preserved parts of the ancient walls of Durrës, sarcophagus, artefacts from Greek and Roman periods.
Strolling up to the Royal Residence
Almost from everywhere in the city, you can see the summer residence of the Albanian royal family that dominates the city from above. A short walk will bring you there, keeping walking along the city walls. The way is not long, but it’s a bit uphill. You have to know, that no signs of touristic attractions are distributed in the city, and you have to find the way yourself, but actually it isn’t so hard because mainly everything is in the same small area of the city centre. Unfortunately, the Villa is closed to the public, but I recommend going there, up through a tree-lined road, where you can see a lot of bunkers! (I am a bunker fan!). In particular, it was bunkers with cows all around! Another thing you need to know is that is common to see all around Albania both of them: bunkers and cows. Personally, it was the first time that I saw them together!! 😛
Besides these considerations on bunkers and cows, on the way down from the Villa, you can stop on a terrace on the ancient walls. It’s a bit hard to find, but it is worth to visit. When you are walking down, just go straight instead of turning when is a big bend of the road all around a park. From this panoramic viewpoint, you can overlook the whole city, the sea, the harbour, and the gulf of the southern coast. And have a rest from the walk.
THE LIVELY DURRËS: seaside and shopping malls
From the Venetian tower starts the pedestrian along the seaside. The first part is a full volume Lunapark full of strolling families, bars and restaurants. A pier connects a floating restaurant to the pedestrian, from where you can enjoy a great view of the sea and the city. Keeping walking, you will find some interesting installations and constructions that I liked. One of them I enjoyed the most is the staircase on the sea, a perfect location where to enjoy the sea and the sunset with a couple of beers! And of course to take great shots 😉
At the end of our day, we had a walk in the municipality square (taking the road on the right side of the Venetian Tower). The new mosque overlooks the square, and a wide terrace offers the view on it. Just over the theatre building, there is the city shopping street full of shops, trade centres, small and lovely bars and cafes. With a slight deviation on the right, you’ll find the Byzantine Forum, the ancient market square, made of a small circle of columns.
It took to us just one day to see all this, then we just dedicated to the seaside, even though it wasn’t sunny we had some long walks in the southern part of the city, just over the harbour, where is the beach for kilometres, with resorts, hotels and restaurants. Luckily, the season wasn’t started yet.