Durrës / Επίδαμνος / Dyrrachium / Драч / Dıraç / Durazzo is the largest harbour city and the second-largest city in Albania. It was also the first Greek colony in this area: it was founded as early as towards the end of the 7th century BC. The city has an extremely rich history, which can be seen, for instance, in the number of names it has had during the course of its history. It has belonged to, among others, the Greeks, the Illyrians, the Romans, the Bulgarians, the Turkish, and even to the Venetians. After Albania gained independence, Durrës was the first official capital city of the country (from 1913-1920). At present, it is one of the most popular Albanian resorts on the Adriatic Sea.
Durrës is one of the oldest cities in Europe: it was founded on the Illyrian coast in 627 century BC by the Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra. Originally, the settlement was called Epidamnos (Επίδαμνος).
In 312 BC the city was conquered by Glaukias, the king of the Illyrians, and in 229 BC it was taken over by the Romans, who made it their protectorate and changed its name into Dyrrachium / Δυρράχιον. Under Roman rule the city developed rapidly and in 146 BC the Roman proconsul Gnaeus Egnatius began to build a road, which in the very Dyrrachium had its beginning. Via Egnatia (gr. Ἐγνατία Ὁδός, this was the name of the road) ran through Thessaloniki to Byzantium, and was the most important, about 1,103 kilometre long trade route crossing the Balkans, which of course hasn’t remained without any influence on the city. Dyrrachium has been developing very rapidly, the water supply and the sewerage systems, as well as the amphitheatre are being built.
In the 4th century AD Dyrrachium suffered a huge earthquake. The destroyed walls were rebuilt and additionally strengthened, and as a result it was the best fortified city in the western Balkans. The walls were raised up to 12 metres, and they are said to have been so wide that four mounted men could ride side by side on them (on the road on top). Some parts of the walls have survived until the present day. They can be seen in the photographs.
After the Roman Empire had been divided, the city became the part of the Byzantine Empire. Often attacked by the barbarians, the Ostrogoths and the Bulgarians, time and again it was being passed from hand to hand. The Franks, the Teutonic Orders, the Venetians and the Serbs ruled here.
In 1446 Sultan Mehmed al-Fatih, the same who conquered Constantinople in 1446, tried to conquer the city. Finally, Durrës was counqured by the Turks in 1501 AD. The city (known as Dıraç in the Ottoman Empire) fell into a dramatic decline and lost its importance.
In December 1912, during the First Balcan War, the decision about creating the independent Albania was taken in London, and on 7 March 1913 Durrës became the first capital of the newly established country.
At the beginning of the World War I Italy, and later on Austria-Hungary, occupied the city. After the war, on 8 February 1920 the capital was moved to Tirana by virtue of the temporary government's decision. The harbour was enlarged and the city had been developing till the Italian invasion on 7 June 1939.
After the war, the Polish people had a big share in the rebuilding of the city. The communists rapidly expanded the city, it was also here where in 1947 the construction of the first in Albania broad gauge railway began, and on the sandy beaches the first holiday resorts emerged.
Durrës is located 39 km from Tirana, not far from the Airport of Rinas, so for about 10-15 euro you can get there by taxi straight from the airport. You can get by train from Durrës to Tirana, Shkodra, Pogradec, Fier, Vlora and Elbasan. You will get to the other bigger Albanian cities by bus, minibus or, of course, by car without a problem.
As I have written before, the construction of the Albanian passenger railways was started in Durrës in 1947. The railway depot and all the workshops are situated there. In comparison to the Polish network, the railway network in Albania is rather modest and unelectrified, so diesel locomotives, which reach the dizzying speed of 50 kilometres per hour, are used on all routes. You can find various train cars in one set: German, Czechoslovak, and seemingly even Polish ones. The cars often have broken windows and worn-out seats, but, on the other hand, it is warm in there so glass window panes would only bother the passengers. If you do not mind not travelling first class, and only care about getting to your next destination, then the train is a cheap and interesting solution, and a ride on it can be treated as a tourist attraction.
One can see the train timetable which was working in 2009 in the photo beside. I don’t know how often it is changed, so it shouldn’t be treated as up to date, and only as an approximate information on the frequency and speed of the connections. Beside there are also two nice posters from the railway station in Durrës. A normal ticket to Tirana cost 70 lek (0.5€), and purchasing it in the railway ticket office didn't create any problems for me, despite my lack of knowledge of the Albanian language. The train covered the 40 kilometre route from Durrës to Tirana within exactly one hour.
For simplicity, we can share Durrës into two parts (please see the map beside). Westward of the harbour there is the greatest number of tourist attractions. There you will find museums, monuments, and even a funfair, which my children very eagerly availed themselves of. Next to the harbour there is a railway station, and at the railway station buses and minibuses, offering drives to Tirana, Krujë, Berat and other Albanian spots, wait for passengers, too. Eastward of the harbour outstretches a long sandy beach, and by the beach – lots of hotels awaiting tourists.
Going from the railway station down the Skënder Bej Street and farther in the direction of the sea, we get to a characteristic round tower built by Venetians, which currently houses a nice restaurant. The remains of the walls surrounding the city are adjacent to the tower. Directly next to it you will find a very pleasant and inexpensive Hotel Mediterran.
Going to the tower down the Shetitorja Taulantia boulevard, which runs westward alongside the sea embankment, on the right we will easily find a newly-built museum of archeology. The oldest exhibits date back to the 6th century BC. We can see objects dating back to the Ilyrian Greek, Roman and Byzantine times: in one word, over 2000 years of history in one place. We will see a reach coin collection, small figures, ceramics, sculptures… On the lawn pieces of columns and sarcophaguses are scattered around the museum, and in the grass one can even descry an astrayed monument from the communist times! In 2009 a ticket cost 300 lek and it gave the right to enter the amphitheatre area.
After the visit to the museum, we can go back a short distance in the direction of the tower, and then turn left into Epikadëve Street. On the way, we will see the remains of a wall from the Byzantine times, which unfortunately was pulled down by the Turks for the most part. Having passed the gate, we will get to the Antique Amphitheatre, which hadn’t been discovered until 1996, when one local man started digging a well in the garden. Suddenly, the soil under his feet sank, and he fell into one of the corridors. Shortly after that, other buildings started to subside and a few families had to be evacuated from here.
As the result of this incident, the largest amphitheatre in the neighbourhood, which was built in the 2nd century AD and mentioned many times in ancient sources, was discovered. The oval structure was 120 metres long, 20 metres high and it could seat 15 thousand people, who surely watched, among other things, gladiatorial combats in the arena.
The exscavations are still going on, which we had an opportunity to see anyway. Unfortunately, as houses are still standing on the amphitheatre, it hasn’t been entirely dug out yet. However, one can see the tribunes, walk through the corridors, step into the arena…In one of the corridors, one can come across a Christian shrine built in the 6th century.
Going farther we reach the main street, which leads us to the central square. We should see a minaret of a large mosque. It is a new building built in place of the old one, pulled down by the communists in 1967 on the wave of an anti-religious campaign. Before entering the mosque, you should take your shoes off. Of course, we enter it only when it's not prayer-time.
Going down the Shevget Bej Street from the square at which the mosque stands, on the right we will pass by the remains of a Roman forum, melted into the socialist blocks of flats, as it usually happens in Albania. As a mettter of fact, the forum has been fenced, but even children don't treat the protection seriously, and, as if nothing happened, play football in those ancient environmental circumstances...
If, during the walk around Durrës, your stomachs start to rumble, it is worth looking about for a very popular in Albania appetizer. Burek is a sort of French stuffed cake. During our journey across Albania we tried this local specialty in many places: basically, it tasted differently each time, sometimes it had different shape and very different staff. For example, we managed to find the best sweet burek in Himarë. Till this day at the mere mention of it, my mouth waters. We ate the cheapest (30 L), and at the same time very good meat bureks in Berat. Whereas just in Durrës we managed to hunt the most delicious spinach burek, in a small byrektore run by the nice lady who can be seen in the photo. If I remember well, going from the Roman forum down the Shevget Bej Street, we turned right into the second street (Agustin Serreri). If you are walking around Durrës, the place is exactly what I recommend.
When you get sightseeing over with, you can go to the beach, which extands far eastward of the harbour. One can get here by a city bus, by taxi or by foot ‘on azimuth’, getting through some obstacles on the way. The beach is sandy and very gently ascends into the sea, so that even many metres from the coastline the water reaches hardly to the waist level. Even at the end of September we can see a couple of people enjoying sea bathing, and in high season it is very crowded in here. For those, who would like to stay here longer, restaurants and rooms in the hotels near the beach are waiting.
Having travelled almost entire Albania’s coastline, I claim that for me Ksamil is definitely the most pleasant place for sunbathing. However, if you don't have enough time to go farther southward, you can try sea bathing in Durrës, or preferably, on a wild beach not far from the city.
Durrës is a large city, and a very popular resort at the same time, so of course there is a lot of hotels and restaurants. Unfortunately, comparing to the smaller resorts, it is definitely more expensive. I don’t know the prices in the ‘beach’ part, but walking down the main promenade alongside the coastline westward of the harbour, I inquired about accommodation in a few random hotels and the prices varied from 60 euro up for a double room. Comparing to Poland, it is not expensive, of course, but for comparison, in Ksamil we paid 20 euro for a large room for 4 people.
The cheapest hotel we managed to find in that part of the city was the hotel Mediterran, where one night cost 40 euro. It is admittedly much more than we paid in other places, but one has to admit, that the room made a much better impression on us. With a clear conscience, I can recommend this hotel to the fussiest tourists!
By the way, I have to mention a hotel restaurant, to which we went immediately after arrival, to rest after many hours of journey by bus. The restaurant looked so impressive, that I had bankruptcy in my eyes! To our great surprise, the prices didn’t differ from those, to which we had got used to in other restaurants, and this one truly made whole lot better impression on us!
After the meal a waiter came and brought a complimentary dessert, offering, to our great amazement, coffee and alcohol at the owner's cost as well! Shortly after that on our table stood several bottles with different sorts of spirits, to which we could treat till morning, but for the fatigue after the journey!
To everybody looking for a place to rest in Durrës, I heartily recommend the Mediterran Hotel and Restaurant, not far from the Venetian Tower. And I give the owners kindest regards and thank for the hospitality.
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