Is it surprising that Albania is a great destination for castle hopping? Like, really great.
Albania is not a large country, and there are by no means countless historic fortresses and edifices — which means that castle sightseeing is not overwhelming, there’s no FOMO, or castle fatigue. Another huge plus – you don’t have to have a PhD in architecture or history to discern the variations of the Albanian castles — set centuries apart, these sites represent little known, but endlessly fascinating history of a country whose long road to nation state is interwoven with the storied histories of the Greek, Roman, and Ottoman empires.
We knew nothing about Albania or its history before we showed up in the capital city of Tirana ready for our grand tour organized by Albania friends. Our poor knowledge of the country was not entirely our fault — Albania spent the better part of 20th century completely isolated from the rest of the world by the design of its dictator in charge, Enver Hoxha. No one in Albania knew what was happening in the world, and conversely, the world knew very little about Albania, either past or present.
Albania’s communist era dictator, Enver Hoxha had his name carved into the hills overlooking the historic city of Berat, Albania. In a new era for the country, his name was changed into ‘Never’ – signifying a vow by Albanians to never allow the rise of dictatorship again.
Things are pretty different now days. Enver Hoxha is long gone, Albania is on the verge of joining the EU, and the country is open for visitors. And, as it turns out, a tour through the historic landmarks is a pretty awesome way to spend a few weeks in this country.
Just 20 kilometers outside of Albania’s most well known resort town of Saranda, Butrint is a massive archeological site that features an impressive repository of buildings and ruins spanning over 2500 years of history, including Greek and Roman empires as well as invasions and occupation of this territory by the Byzantine, Angevin, Venetian forces in the middle ages, and the Ottoman armies in 19th century.
The well preserved ancient Greek theater is the star of the show, and no wonder – walking around you can easily imagine yourself being transport back in time for over a millennia, at some point the 750-span (from 800 BC to 44 BC) that this place was a Greek trading town with its own acropolis, cemetery and all the other necessary bits! My favorite bits are always seeing how buildings had evolved and adopted throughout time by the different inhabitants. The Roman monument, which was converted into a church structure sometime during the Byzantium era in the 9th century.
The site is designated as UNESCO World Heritage Butrint is massive and very under-touristed. Although there were plenty of visitors when we were there in August, this was peak season, and we could still have each site largely to ourselves if we waited just a bit.
Another Unesco World Heritage site, Berat is actually the oldest settled town in Albania. The major highlight of the town today is a seven arch bridge spanning the Osum River and dating back to 1780 and the whitewashed Ottoman houses nestled on the cliff side and the valley of the town, garnering it the nickname of a ‘thousand windows.’
There are plenty of charming streets to stroll through, though the best views in our opinion are from the castle / fortress perched 650 feet above the town. The hilltop citadel was originally erected by the Romans in 2nd century, and then built up and considerably renovated in the 13th century during the Byzantium era. There are several well preserved churches dating back to that time inside the fortress, as well as, an excellent iconoclastic museum. The grounds are extensive, and offer plenty of space for exploration and relaxation.
Although Kruja doesn’t quite get up there in importance with Berat and Butrint – it was equally as fascinating to me, because it felt more important to Albania’s national psyche today than any other place we’ve been in this country. Kruja is the birthplace of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg. This man is revered as the main hero of the nation, featured on all the national currency, and has a statue in probably every inhabited place across the country.
What did Skanderbeg do to earn this great respect and pride? Over 500 years ago, Skanderbeg stood up to the Ottoman rule over Albania, calling for national independence and defending his castle and town in several lengthy sieges from the Turks for many years until his death. His actual family castle is still standing, though considerably renovated complete with life-at-the-time-of scenes set up with wax figures and historic artifacts. There’s also a Saknderbeg museum which we didn’t visit since we went to the national museum in Tirana.
A fun bonus – Kruja castle is the probably the center of souvenir trade in Albania with its renovated Ottoman bazaar. If you would like to pick up mementos to take home then this is the place to do it (though beware that most goods seem to come from Turkey, where they are sold on the streets for much, much cheaper).
So have you been to Albania? What did you think of the castles? I know we missed a few, so any other worthy points to add to our itinerary next time we make the trip?