So I started the day with a lovely breakfast outside at my little beach hotel in Qeparo Village and after breakfast, Gasie and I started the drive north. A few minutes north of Qeparo Village we stopped at Porto Palermo Castle reputed to be a castle built in the early 19th entry by Ali Pasha of Tepelena. However, the design apparently has led most people to believe it was built much earlier by the Venetians given the triangular floor plan and round towers that are similar to other Venetian forts. So the fort could have been constructed as early as the 15th century, although it is likely to be more in line with 17th century construction.
The castle sits on circular piece of land surround by water and connected by a tiny strip of land to the mainland. In order to reach the fort we had to climb up a a steep little hill covered by bits and pieces of stone and broken cobble stone.
Once inside the fort, we wandered around the main level, which consisted of a circular interior courtyard from which you could see each room except two: Ali Pasha’s room and the room of his wife, which was connected to Ali Pasha’s room by a private hallway The castle was actually quite small with only a handful of additional rooms: the soldier’s quarters, a meeting room, a chapel area, and of course, the harem.
Now the views from the rooms of Ali Pasha and his wife were spectacular, but the best views were from the top of the castle where the soldiers were stationed on the lookout for invaders. Now the interesting factoid about the castle is that the site served as former Soviet submarine base during the communist regime in Albania. In addition, across from the fort is a massive bunker where the submarines were hidden.
After wandering around the top of the castle and taking in all the rooms, Gasie and I left to the fort to begin the long drive along the coast and up and over a mountain pass to our next stop; Apollonia. Now the drive along the coast was full of hairpin turns passing through little coastal villages as we began to climb up into the Ceraunian Mountains.
We eventually stopped passing through little coastal villages and entered into a series of long switch backs that took us up higher and higher. The views to the Ionian Sea were spectacular, but it was a little hard on the equilibrium to continuously go back and forth, back and forth up the hillside.
Once we reached the crest of the climb at roughly 1,100 meters, we stopped and took a look a the magnificent views. And while I took a number of pictures, none can actually do the views justice. In particular, the view to cloud covered Mount Çikës rising over our heads at 2,044 metres above sea level (and the highest peak in the Ceraunian Mountains) was absolutely stunning as it loomed over the Ionian Sea.
Once I had enough of the views, we began the downhill drive through the Llogara Forest following much tighter switchbacks. We eventually left the forest and drove through a series of little mountain towns before finally, finally, finally, reaching some flat lands without the curvy roads. I had pretty much had my fill of the stomach churning turns for this trip.
We were now back on the coast driving along the Ionian Sea through little beachside towns filled with more hotels than I thought could possibly fit on such tiny stretches of beach. We finally reached the town of Vlora where the Ionian Sea left us and we picked up the Adriatic Sea. Now the difference between the two is actually quite stark. While the Ionian Sea had a beautiful azure blue colour, the Adriatic Sea was a little less pretty. And the reason? The Ionian Sea has no sand beaches while the Adriatic Sea has nothing but sand beaches. So the sand is kicked up with the waves and dims the colour of the water. Who knew?
Anyway, after a quick stop for some beverages in Vlora, we continued on a new stretch of highway to the turnoff to Apollonia. Now Apollonia was an Ancient Greek city founded in 588 BC by Greeks from Chofu and Corinth. The city was built on the right bank of the Aous (today known as Vjosë) River. Apollonia was a major trading center and had at one time upwards of 60,000 residents. The city continued to do well under Roman rule, but began to decline in the 3rd century AD when an earthquake changed the course of the river leaving the city without a harbour. In the 5th century AD a former Roman villa was converted into the area’s first church. The city was eventually abandoned.
Now the site was lost for hundreds of years, but rediscovered in the 17th century. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century when real excavation work began. Only a fraction of the city has been unearthed and excavation work continues in the area. However, the remains that have been uncovered are notable.
So once we parked the SUV under a shady tree (it was very hot today), we climbed the small little hill to take in the major sites centered in the area called the “Monumental Center”. Now as soon as we passed the crest of the hill, the magnificent remains of the Bouleuterion came into view. And of course, some of the pillars included new portions in order to have a full standing pillar, but nevertheless, the site was simply incredible.
As Gasie provided me with the history of Apollonia, I patiently listened wanting nothing more than to run all around the site.
Finally, with the history wrapped up I was unleashed to go check out the ruins. And for the next hour I did just that. Now mind you there was not a lot to see, but what there was fantastic. Most of the ruins were concentrated around the Bouleutarion, which housed the city counsel and dates to the 2nd century AD.
Next door to the Bouleutario was the Ionic Temple and annexes, which was built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Remains of three cult statutes and two alters were found at the site. It was also suspected that part of the building was used by the government.
And across from the Bouleutarion, was the Odeon, which was built in the middle of the 2nd century AD and was used for musical and theater events as well as political meetings. There was also some remains next to the Bouleutarion that was apparently a Sanctuary that predated the construction of the Odeon. There was not much left of the building, but it appears to have been a small, semi-circular shaped niche in which some deity was placed for worship.
I wandered past the Odeon to the left where I encountered remnants of once was a huge covered portico that stretched down what must have been a long road. I walked to the end of the portico and found the remains of a villa that apparently housed some mosaics, but only remnants remained. And across from the villa were storehouses for grain and an ancient cistern from which the locals could draw water.
I then turned and wandered up a hill and found a lot of ruins in pretty bad condition. Apparently these ruins were at one time a temple dating to the 2nd century B.C. These were the earliest ruins I could find at the site.
I then wandered back to the Odeon, climbed up the stairs and sat for a while taking in the site. To my right there were also remains of a library and the forum where shops once stood. As I mentioned, most of the site is still uncovered and excavation work continues, but given that 60,000 people once lived here that has to be so much more.
Anyway, after allowing me to have my fill of this site, Gasie finally pulled me away and we went to visit the old Roman villa that had been converted into a Byzantine church replete with frescoes and the remnants of mosaics from the Roman villa. While we wandered around, not one, not two, but three brides were posing for photos at the site. This was apparently a popular hangout for the wedding pictures.
After the visit to the church, which quite frankly was a bit of a sorry afterthought, we stopped by the museum that holds some of the many finds from the digs. And all I can say is Oh. My. God. These were not bits and pieces. These were entire pieces of ancient artifacts virtually intact. There
were perfume bottles with vivid paint dating to the 6th century B.C. and busts of women dating to the 2nd century B.C. There was a perfectly preserved Illyrian shield and sword dating to the 4th century B.C. There was a statute of Nike killing a bull (again sorry
Denice aka the Bull) dating to the 3rd century B.C. There were theatre masks and a statute of Atlantis dating to at least the 2nd century B.C. And on and on and on. When I encountered a number of Roman statutes dating to the 2nd century AD, my reaction was “oh only the 2nd century AD.” The amount of artifacts uncovered from the site, the fact that so many artifacts were almost 6,000 years old and the pristine condition of most of the treasures was startling.
I spent about an hour wandering around the museum before it was finally time to leave Apollonia. This ancient site was far and away my favourite visit in Albania (although the museum in Durrës was a close second). By now it was just after 3:00 and we had one more quick stop to make before we reached the UNESCO World Heritage site of Berat, where we would be spending the next two nights.
So shortly before 4:00 we stopped at the Monastery of St. Mary of Ardenica, which dates to the 13th century and was built by the Byzantines allegedly on the site of a Pagan temple. The monastery is famous as the place where Albanian national hero Skanderbeg was married in 1451. In 1969 the monastery was closed by the communists when they declared Albania an atheist state, but in 1988 refurbishments began because of Skanderbeg’s ties to the site.
Inside the church, there were incredible frescos dating to 1744 including paintings from the Old and New Testament. And while I enjoyed walking around and looking at the amazing artworks, I am afraid they paled in comparison to the fantastic ruins and artifacts at Apollonia.
Anyway, I only spent about 20 minutes at the monastery before I told Gasie I was ready to go. We walked back down the cobblestone road to the car and less than an hour later we arrived in Berat. It had been a long day and it was time for a rest and some food.