Exciting trip to Albania

An exciting trip to Albania, I have not accidentally called this travelogue. Albania is a state of controversy. Incredibly beautiful sights and invaluable historical sites coexist with architectural absurdities and frank nonsense. I had the opportunity to go through the major tourist cities in the country – Durres, Kruja, Berat, Tirana, Vlora, the sinking town of Butrint and Saranda. They are impressive, but I do not intend to come back in the coming years. After crossing Albanian land, two “landmarks” were brought to our attention, which accompanied us during the whole trip. One of them is the Albanian bunker – over 700,000 in number, scattered all over the country, designed to fit the entire population as needed. There are probably shelters of different shapes and sizes, but the most common typical concrete mushrooms look terribly narrow and claustrophobic. Our first destination was Durres, a coastal town on the Adriatic Sea, which at the end of the 10th century entered the territory of Bulgaria for some time.

It is the second largest in the country and the largest Albanian port. It is also one of the oldest cities since it was founded before 2700. Its rich history is preserved a little. It was founded by the Greeks and later under the rule of the Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Normans, Serbs, Venetians, and eventually fell under Ottoman rule in 1501. The city is the birthplace of composer John Kukusel. The beach is wide, but it can not be compared to resorts like Rimini (more about my summer in Rimini here) and will definitely be narrow for the tens of thousands of tourists Albanians are obviously trying to attract. On the beach we met a remarkable pack of stray dogs. Durras is about to become an overlooked seaside resort. Throughout the country, constructions are strikingly megalomaniac and unrealistic with reality, but this, at first glance, city seems to go to complete ruin.

The hotels are enormous, glued to one another, stacking each other’s view, windows facing other windows, and sometimes jumping between them. Most buildings are still unfinished and who knows if they will ever be. The next day we drove to the city center. There are two major tourist attractions – antique theater and fortress wall, which has been repeatedly rebuilt and modified over the centuries. The Ancient Theater is quite ruined and unusable. It dates back to the 2nd century and the reign of Emperor Trajan. He used 15-20 thousand spectators and was used mainly for gladiatorial battles. We had the opportunity to walk by the side of the fortress and take a picture against the wonderfully preserved Venetian tower.

At the harbor, we found a brand new (functioning since 2009) and a very neat church called “St. Paul and Saint Asti” (Asti was the first martyr of Duras, also died during the reign of Emperor Trajan). Then the guide gave us a great idea, and we climbed into the panorama cafe on the fifteenth floor of one of the nearby tall buildings. From the top there was an incredible view of both the harbor and the concrete jungle, which is yet to grow and thicken. The next stop of the day was Kruja. The city was founded in the 7th century and its name means “water source”. It is situated on a hillside at the foot of a mountain and above it stands a mountain peak of the same name. This is the birthplace of the national hero of Albania – Skenderbeg. He is known for his revenge, which he gave the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century for 25 years. His story is curious, but I’ll just focus on the facts.

George Castriotti, known as Skenderbeg, was born in 1405, has eight brothers and sisters, and is the smallest of the boys. His father was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, and about eighteen years old Georgi was sent to host Sultan Murad II. There he accepts Islam and calls him Iskender-bey. He has been trained in military arts and has served the Empire for many years as a warlord. It is curious that, a little later and under similar circumstances, another historical person is hostage to the same sultan. This is Vlad Tepes, known as Dracula, who has a much more controversial reputation, but honors him that despite the pressure he has never accepted Islam and has not witnessed such loyalty (more about Vlad Dracula’s castle and Romania here). Skenderbeg managed to win great victories against the Ottoman troops, often battling with a number of times a superior number of opponents.

Cruia survived several cruel sieges by Murad II, but despite the casualties and destruction, the city resisted. It is said that in one case 1500-2000 defenders managed to repel an army of nearly 100 000 people. This is a period of intrigue, thin accounts, alliances, and betrayals for which a soap opera can be made. The Venetian rulers also intervened and somewhat helped the Albanians, and the then Pope Pius II was about to crown him king but died before he could do so. Skenderbeg himself died at the age of 62 in 1468 from malaria. Ten years later, after one year’s siege, and after the city’s inhabitants had exhausted all their forces and food supplies, Kruja finally fell into the empire’s power. The Turks promise to let the people of the city leave him if they surrender but then break the word, killing men and enslaving women. Kruja’s main landmark is the remains of the fortress that has preserved the city in the past. It has built a Skenderberg museum.

It looks like a castle and contains information about the life of the national hero and objects and weapons from the relevant historical period. For Kruya, we have prepared for us that this is the best place to buy souvenirs because it has the greatest variety, best prices and the opportunity to bargain (something I terribly hate and I do not know). There is an oriental market street in the city that reminds a lot of some passages in Istanbul or the streets of Mostar on either side of the famous bridge. Sergies and antique shops go from all kinds of tourist stuff – from cards and guides, to local alcohol and treats, to magnets, jewels and various figurines, mostly bunkers. Yes, this market is indeed the most appropriate place to buy souvenirs, but we were still at the beginning of the trip.

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