The fantastically named King Zog, a name often used in Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches, was the improbable ruler of the first Albanian nation. He was actually an elected president, and shunned by the European royalty for his lack of blue blood, but the local population was still living under the same feudal serfdom that they had since Ottoman times, and eventually crowned him as king, as the concept of president was still alien to them.
Despite his legendary name, his performance was a bit of a mixed bag. He weeded out the last remnants of serfdom in the country. He instigated modern reforms, like banning the veil. He tried his best at diplomacy, but the poverty of the country, and the expansionist intentions of nearby Italy made this almost impossible, and he slowly let the country drift into Mussolini's sphere of influence.
He was also a bit of a jet setter, with his cocked military cap hinting at the waggish lifestyle he led. He reputedly spent as much as 2% of the Albanian budget on his lavish lifestyle. He was often seen in the theatres and clubs of Europe, living the high life. This was something he couldn't do in Albania, due to the lack of any high life at all.
It's quite possible he drank and partied in order to forget the troubles of politics. In his relatively short reign as king, he was reportedly subject to 55 assassination attempts, and was under threat of over 600 blood feuds, for his many breaches of Albania's ancient law, the Kanun. He finished his life in exile in France, after unsuccessfully attempting to bribe the US government into letting him bring his entire court to the country.
His residence in Durres, a white and pink palace on the hills overlooking the harbour, is one of the main sights in the city. It's not possible to visit now, as it is occupied by the military, but you can walk up there and the views are great. It's also on the way to the lighthouse which has even better views.
The pearl white Madhe Mosque (Xhamia e Madhe) sits overlooking the shady town square, where the sensible old folk of the city take refuge from the burning midday mediterranean sun. Its pristine condition can be attributed to the fact that it is practically brand new. It was built in 1993 with Egyptian money after the previous one had been destroyed in the 1979 earthquake.
Sitting in the centre of the city it makes for a good navigation marker, not that you're likely to get lost in Durres. The only difficulty to navigating Durres is finding anything, as little is signposted. Once you have been somewhere, it's easy to find your way back.
The amphitheater in Durres is their biggest tourist sight I would say, and also the biggest amphitheater in the Balkan countries. It was built by the romans in the second century AD, and once it could hold up to 20 000 spectators.
Today just half the stadium is above ground, as the city doesn't seem to happy about spending the money it would cost to dig up the whole place. It wasn't until 1966 they started to dig up the sight, but it seems like the project never will be finished.
But it's still a very impressive building, and well worth the walk up from the harbour front. There is no real entrance, but just a gate where a woman sits to take up the entrance fee. There is one fee for albanians, and another, way more expensive, for foreigners.
There seem to be different opening hours, as it's more about when the woman has the energy to sit there than real hours. Try to check with the local tourist office so you don't go all the way for no reason.
Although, also from the outside one can see the theater very well.
It's not the same feeling as when entering Colosseum in Rome, but in Durres one can instead walk around everywhere in the stands, and also on the field at the bottom. The quality of the steps aren't the best anymore, considering the age of the building, so one should be a bit careful where one put down the foot.
Don't either miss the tunnels under the theatre. Quite dark, or even very dark. But cool feeling to walk around there.
When the Italian army invaded Durres in the Second World War, British secret agents teamed up with local Albanian resistance fighters to stop the occupation. They didn't succeed, but they did manage to be commemorated down on the seafront, in the form of gun-toting resistance fighter Musa Ulqinaku in bronze, aiming at the sky. The platform underneath is covered in graffiti, but a bronze two headed eagle (still with communist star) has so far escaped vandalism. Around this bizarre monument is a small funfair which seemed to be lacking in fun on that warm April afternoon, but is maybe more jolly in the summer months.
The city walls meet Rruga Tregetare at a small tower, now part of a cafe. In the gardens surrounding the tower is a statue of a Dutch soldier, somebody Thomson, who seemed to have died in Durres. I don't know the story behind it, but there is a plaque explaining all about him if your Albanian or Dutch is any better than severely limited!
Past "Baywatch", close to the university, a long sandy beach stretches off into the distance. Not the cleanest of sands, I was a bit disappointed, although it is right in the centre of a port city, so you can't expect miracles. Still, it was nice enough, backed by cafes and more than a few half-built projects, and overlooked by King Zog's villa on the hilltop. Maybe in the summer months, the sands are cleaned and it is a lot nicer?
Head north from the port, and you'll find yourself on a seafront promenade. The first part is backed by gardens and a lacklustre funfair, but further on are some cafes and small hotels, as well as a half-finished pier which is popular with fishermen. Keep walking, and you'll eventually arrive at a makeshift shack, calling itself "Baywatch"...don't get too close trying to look for bronzed lifeguards in red and yellow swimwear, as the only occupant seems to be a mad barking dog.
A short distance from the old centre, archaeologists may find what remains of a Roman market interesting. A few colums and old bricks now lie in an overgrown park, labelled Sheshi Treg in Albanian (treg means market)...I had a quick look, but I think only experts would get off on these ruins.
Maybe this tip is a bit misleading, as Durres doesn't really have what you'd call an old town. But the lanes surrounding the amphitheatre (i.e. between the city walls and Rruga Tregetare) contain many oldish houses, and its nice to spend half an hour or so wandering around. It feels older than the rest of the city, probably because the streets are narrower, steeper and quieter.
The main street of Durres, Rruga Tregetare is quite pretty, with many of the colonial buidings looking like they've been painted recently. Pavement cafes, a couple of postcard shops, lots of bicycles, and a huge mosque (supposedly old, but reconstructed so it actually looks modern)...a good place to people watch!
Running next to the amphitheatre are the remains of Durres' city walls, which extend from the seafront up the hill behind the Roman ruins towards a big mosque. A small section has been done up and made into a sort of park, but the rest is crumbling.
Undoubtedly the major attraction in Durres, I was quite disappointed to find the gates of the Roman Amphitheatre fimly padlocked. A sign on the door announced it was open, a radio was playing from somewhere within the ticket office, a coffee cup next to a chair on the terrace, but nobody was there to let me in. Luckily you can walk around the outside and get good views of the amphitheatre from the top. It has not fared well over the centuries, and doesn't look like it has been restored much, so don't go expecting marvels...but there do look to be tunnels a-plenty, which might be interesting to explore if you're lucky enough to enter.
I gave up, and went to investigate the beach, passing by the amphitheatre on my way back on the off chance that the caretaker ahd returned. The coffee cup had gone, nothing else had changed.
In front of the Byzantine tower, stands a monument to the heroes of the people (hero I popullit) with six names carved on a column on which is standing a man with a machine gun and showing inland with his raised hand. The main carving says “Mujo Ulqinaku”. That refers to Ulqin (Ulcinj in Montengro) but I don’t know what is the connection.
Thank you Sula_G for giving me the answer. I quote her
"Mujo Ulqinaku- the first Albanian hero of the WWII. His last name is Ulqinaku, which means "from Ulcin" (a city in Montenegro, mostly inhabited by Albanians), meaning that his ancestors came from that city, hence the last name."
In the outskirts of Durrësi, house owners seem to have completely unleashed their inspiration for the choice of the colors to paint their house. Look at this bright blue and bright yellow house with red stripes! On the second photo, even a garage have been painted in bright blue, may be with the paint that remained from the house!
30 km away from Durrësi, in Fushë-Krujë, I will show more brightly colored houses (page not yet built).
In the city center, new buildings have been built with more architectural research. I suppose that the prices are higher in these buildings that in those shown on the previous tip!
The first photo shows what seems to be an offices building, on the other side of the street to Fathi Djami, with a bright orange strip.
The second photo is for housing and is painted in a delicate grey. Some balconies are closed, other not. It seems that everyone can chose the color of its sun screens!