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Castle Hopping in Albania

November 17, 2015

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.

Castle hopping in Berat, AlbaniaAlbania’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.

Butrint, Albania

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.

Castle hopping in Butrint, Albania

ButrintAlbania_housetolaos_01The ruins of Butrint span over a millennia of human history from the time of Roman empire BC to the Ottomans in early 19th century. Albania.

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.

Castle hopping in Butrint, Albania

ButrintAlbania_housetolaos_11The Roman theater and Byzantium baptistry at Butrint, Albania. 

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.

ButrintAlbania_housetolaos_04

ButrintAlbania_housetolaos_05Site of a Roman library, Butrint, Albania. 

Berat, Albania

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.’

BeratAlbania_housetolaos_17

Castle hopping in Berat, AlbaniaCity of a thousand windows – Berat, Albania.

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.

Castle hopping in Berat, AlbaniaCastle hopping in Berat, AlbaniaCastle hopping in Berat, AlbaniaExploring the Byzantium era fortress city high up from Berat, Albania

Kruja, Albania  

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.

Castle hopping in Kruja, AlbaniaStatue of Skanderbeg – a national hero. Kruja, Albania.

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.

Castle hopping in Kruja, AlbaniaCastle hopping in Kruja, AlbaniaRestored castle of Skanderbeg in Kruja, Albania.

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).

Castle hopping in Kruja, AlbaniaTourist bazaar in Kruja, Albania.

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?

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  • http://papercranestories.com Joella // Paper Crane Stories

    I have to admit that Albania is one of those countries I just don’t know a lot about- which is wrong of me! But it looks really lovely and I would love to go and explore. And I love how they changed Enver’s name to Never!

    • http://housetolaos.com/ House To Laos

      I know the name change is pretty epic! Albania was definitely our top “gem that no one goes to” from all the counties we’ve been. It’s only a matter of time though, I am certain!

  • Gabi

    We loved Albania! Definitely on our list to go back to and like you said the “gem that no one goes to”. We did not see enough, though we also really liked Gijorokaster near the Greek border, pretty amazing mountains there!

    • http://housetolaos.com/ House To Laos

      Ah! I had no idea you’ve been to Albania — how fun! We didn’t see any parts of the mountains, and would absolutely LOVE to explore that part of the country. Thank you for the tip!

  • http://www.thesunnysideofthis.com/ Isabel @ TheSunnySideofThis

    Albania looks so lovely. I live in Slovenia (as an expat) and every day I start to appreciate much more what the Balkans have to offer. This post is perfect!

    • http://housetolaos.com/ House To Laos

      Thanks so much Isabel! Balkans really is great 🙂