So we left the little town of Prizren heading back to Albania. We retraced our route back through the Albanian Alps to the border. And as with my prior experience crossing from Kosovo to Albania, the Kosova guards checked my passport, but the Albanian guards simply waived us through. Scary.
Anyway, we no sooner crossed into Albania than we came across a massive lineup of trucks. Apparently the truckers are staging a strike and are going to go on masse to the Albanian-Kosovo border. I’m not sure of the point of this exercise given that the border guards have to check each vehicle so its not as if they are going to be able to pore over the border. As I said to Gasie, “I don’t get it.”
We continued our drive south out of the Albanian Alps passing the Fierzë Lake that was created by the dam and some additional smaller lakes. Another site that we passed was this strange phenomenon I called “duplicate houses”. Apparently it is tradition in farming communities in Armenia (as well as Kosovo) to set aside a plot of land for the homes of the sons. And in order to avoid controversy or jealousy, the houses built on the land must be identical (although I think they can change the colour if they choose). Fair, but a little odd.
So about two hours into the drive, we left the freeway and took a side road to the little town of Krujë. Now originally we were supposed to go to Krujë and Durrës tomorrow, which really didn’t make any sense since we were passing both towns on the way to Tirana. So Gasie called an audible and changed the itinerary, which made a whole lot more sense to me.
The drive to Krujë took us up, up, up a very windy road back forth up the hillside. We passed through a small forest before reaching the very hilly town of Kruja. Now the three main sites in Krujë are the remains of the Krujë Castle, the Skanderbeg Museum and the old Ottoman bazaar. First up was the castle, and the museum, which sits within the castle walls.
Once we parked the car, we walked through the bazaar and up the cobblestone road to the entrance of the castle. Now Krujë Castle is believed to have been built in the 5th or 6th century and sits high above the little town.
Krujë Castle is most known as the stronghold of Gjergj Kastrioti, aka Skanderbeg, who was an Albanian nobleman and military commander. When he was young, and as was the custom throughout the Ottoman Empire, he was chosen to serve in the Ottoman court. When he was older, he abandoned the Court, took control of the Krujë Castle, organized the other principalities in Albania under his command and led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in Albania. Skanderbeg managed to beat back three Ottoman attacks on Krujë Castle over 25 years before his death. Skanderbeg is credited with maintaining a line of defense against the Ottomans preventing them from sweeping across Europe.
Anyway, once we reached the castle, we wandered around what little remains of the castle that are visible today: the outer wall, a tower, a portion of a minaret that was attached to a mosque, and a hammam. Then it was time to visit the museum.
The museum, of course, is dedicated to Skanderbeg. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed, but I can safely say I now know everything I ever wanted to know about the legendary Albanian leader. There were three floors of exhibits arranged to chronicle Skanderbeg’s life and military achievements.
We wandered around the museum looking at Skanderbeg’s papers, statutes, paintings of famous battles and even a replica of the Arms of Skanderbeg: a goat head-topped with a helmet and sword. However, the best part of the museum was a movie depicting a Skanderbeg famous battle. Based on what I saw, it appeared to be the first battle to defend Krujë Castle. Now I say the best part because it was hard not to laugh. While I give them credit for trying to recreate the famous battle, the overacting, lack of blood when someone was speared and the overall 1920s esq feel of the movie (think no talkies) made it very humorous. Sorry I didn’t take it seriously, but I thought it was a hoot.
Anyway, after the visit to the museum we headed for the bazaar where I was on the hunt for an Albanian Christmas ornament. As we walked, we passed an elderly gentleman playing a çiftelit, a mandolin like instrument with a long neck. It appeared he only started playing once someone walked by because as soon as we passed he stopped playing and then started back up when a group of tourists passsed.
Gasie decided to go sit and wait for me at the entrance to the bazaar as I wandered around. I ended up stopping at a display of artwork that an elderly gentleman had set up on the exterior castle wall. I ended up buying a small picture he had painted of a man actually play a çiftelit. It just seemed appropriate.
I then began the downhill walk along very uneven cobblestones in search of the elusive Christmas ornament. It began to look grim as I wandered in and out of shops that were primarily filled with Chinese chachkies when I finally struck gold. I found a little shop with handmade felt ornaments! I ended up buying a cute little Armenian house with some snow flakes etched on the roof. Super cute! And of course, once I saw Gasie I just had to gloat!
By now, it was about 2:00ish and I was wearing down, but we still had one more stop to make in the town of Durrës to visit the Durrës archeological museum and the Durrës Amphitheatre, the largest in the Balkans. The drive to Durrës took about an hour and as we approached the town on the Adriatic coast, the sky was becoming darker and darker. Uh oh. So far I had not encountered any rain during my trip, but this looked like a whopper of a storm.
By the time we pulled up to the Durrës Amphitheatre not only had the rain started, but it was hailing and lighting was flashing all around. I jumped out of the SUV and grabbed my rain poncho from my suitcase and hopped back in the car just as the skies really opened up. Rivers of water were literally flowing down the street.
After sitting it out for about 10 minutes, Gasie and I decided to go to the Durrës archeological museum first with the hope of waiting out the storm. So once we parked, we had to hop over the rivers of rain running down the street and dash into the rather modern looking glass and concrete building.
When we walked into the building, my mouth actually fell open. I had no idea I was going to be walking into a gallery of incredibly preserved marble statues and other relics from the Bronze, Illian, Greek and Roman periods. It was amazing.
I wandered around for the better part of an hour taking in each and every display containing artifacts which had been all recovered in and around Durrës. There was typical items likes weapons and pottery. However, there was also delicate marble sculpted statutes, large storage containers covered in barnacles that had been recovered from the Adriatic, a large display of ceramics busts of the goddess Artemis, and even blue glass vases (very, very rare). And one interesting find was a pair of handcuffs form the 4th century B.C. And remarkably, the handcuffs looked virtually identical to what we have today.
I wandered up and down the aisles saving what I perceived to be the best for last. The exhibit of massive marble statutes as well as a stone sarcophagi that were close to intact. The curator of the museum told me that the largest statute situated in the middle of the grouping was found during an excavation of a site for a nearby building. It sure makes you wonder what else was under the ground in this area. I really could not get enough of the sculptures and wandered around this last exhibit twice. It was really breathtaking, and what really impressed me was how realistic the folds were in the togas. The folds appeared so real that it appeared to me if I reached out and touched the folds, the folds would feel like cloth. Incredible.
With the storm abating, Gasie and I left the museum, hopped over the streams of water and got back in the SUV for the short drive to the Amphitheatre part deux. This time, we were in luck. By the time we parked the car, the rain had stopped. We walked across the street and through the old Byzantine walls and into the Amphitheatre.
The Amphitheatre was built by Emperor Trajan in the beginning of the 2nd century AD. It was used for gladiator fights and other “games” until the 4th century AD. The site was rebuilt at least twice following earthquakes. And in the 4th century a Christian chapel was constructed inside the Amphitheatre and was decorated with frescoes and mosaics. In the 13th century a new medieval chapel was built and decorated with frescoes. In the 16th century, the Ottomans filled in the Amphitheatre leaving only the Byzantine walls. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Amphitheatre was discovered and today, work continues to uncover the entire site.
We took a quick look at the massive stone structure before going downstairs to take a look at the remains of the 13th century chapel complete with frescoes and a baptismal pool. There was also a giant semi-circular hold in the Amphitheatre, which led to the holding area for the lions (where they were apparently starved before taking on those sentenced to die).
I wandered around the Amphitheatre and took in the views from different angles. At one time the building could seat upwards of 20,000 people with two different viewing levels. As I wandered, I couldn’t help but visualize what it must have been like to sit in the Amphitheater in the sweltering sun watching gladiators battle it out while Emperor Trajan watched along. It must have been something else.
After I had my fill of the Amphitheatre, Gasie and I headed back to the car for the hour plus drive to Tirana in rush hour traffic. We finally arrived at the lovely Hotel Gloria around 6:30 p.m. after a mega long day. It was time for some food.