Durrësi

The headland at the north of Albania’s Durrësi Bay forms a natural harbour in which ships have anchored since the 7th century BC. In antiquity it was known as Epidamnos, and the city that was built around it was called Dyrrhachion. In the 5th century BC, a popular uprising in Dyrrhachion helped to start the Peloponnesian War, which engulfed the whole of Greece from 431 BC to 404 BC.

What to see and do in Durrësi

The amphitheatre

The huge Roman amphitheatre, which is one of Durrësi’s main attractions, was built in the early 2nd century AD. The largest in the Balkans, it is elliptical in shape, about 130m at its longest point, with the arena itself measuring about 60m by 40m across. On the terraced seats there would have been room for about 15,000 spectators, about a third of the capacity of the Colosseum in Rome.

amphitheatre Durrësi Albania
Durrësi’s amphitheatre was built in the 2nd century AD © Pudelek, Wikimedia Commons

You can go down into the vaults below the rows of seats – the original steps, supplemented with less slippery modern ones, are just after the ticket booth – and see how the amphitheatre was constructed. The Romans alternated rows of brick with opus incertum, a mixture of stones and mortar, a technique designed to resist earthquakes. You can see this opus incertum in several places around the amphitheatre, including three full rows, well over 2m high, in one of the galleries. The technique was evidently quite successful, since most of the amphitheatre is still standing, despite Durrësi being hit by several strong earthquakes over the centuries. Behind the gallery, you can see the pens where the wild animals were kept; leading out from it is the tunnel through which the gladiators entered the arena. When the site was first excavated, 40 skeletons were discovered with their necks broken – could they have been unsuccessful gladiators?

Archaeological Museum 

Durrësi’s Archaeological Museum covers the prehistoric, Hellenistic and Roman periods; the museum’s Byzantine collection will eventually be displayed on the upper floor. There are helpful information panels in English and Albanian. The fact that the city has been more or less continuously inhabited throughout its history means that most of it has never been systematically excavated. Many of the items in the museum were discovered by chance, as local people ploughed their land or as foundations were dug for the new high-rise apartment blocks.

A highlight of the museum is a whole case of terracotta faces and other body parts. These were votive offerings and were excavated in the 1970s at a sanctuary site northwest of the city. An incredible 1,800kg of fragments were recovered, of which those on display are obviously a selection. Many of the figurines represent Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Other female deities are represented too, including Artemis, the goddess of the hearth. Some scholars believe that the sanctuary was dedicated to her rather than to Aphrodite.

The city walls

Durrësi was first fortified in the Hellenistic period and then refortified shortly after the Roman conquest, in the 1st century BC. However, the oldest surviving walls are Byzantine, built during the reign of the Emperor Anastasios to replace earlier fortifications that a catastrophic earthquake in 348 AD had destroyed. These walls protected the city for several centuries, until the Byzantine Empire began to collapse and Dyrrachium and its valuable port fell prey to one invader after another. The medieval city within the walls covered an area of around 120ha.

city walls Durrësi Albania
Durrësi was first fortified in the Hellenistic period © Gertjan R., Wikimedia Commons

Dyrrachium – or Durazzo, as it was by then known – was part of the Venetian Republic for the whole of the 15th century. One of the towers that the Venetians built, at the southern corner of their walls, is known as La Torra, now dwarfed by the high-rise Veliera development. Finally, in 1502, the Ottomans rebuilt the old fortifications and garrisoned their troops within them. An information panel at the city gate, which leads to the amphitheatre, shows an outline map of the fortifications as they changed over the centuries.

King Zog’s Palace 

It was not until the Balkan Wars and Albania’s independence that the city re-emerged from obscurity; it was the new nation’s capital in 1914, under Prince Wilhelm of Wied, and then again from 1918 until the final decision to site the capital in Tirana.

King Zog I had a palace built here in 1927, a cream-and-pink villa up on the hill with marvellous views over the city and the bay. The building has now been returned to Zog’s descendants and is not open to the public.

The coast

A walk along Durrësi’s promenade takes about half an hour end to end, although most people will want to stop for an ice cream or a drink in one of the many bars and restaurants that line it. Two structures have been built out into the sea. The Ventus Harbor complex has trendy bars in the section nearest the beach and a hotel with a fish restaurant at the end of the pier. Further west, the so-called Sfinks is a public space, where locals come to sit and chat, fish from the steps or skateboard. In summer there are often live concerts there.

Durrësi sea Albania
People flock to Durrësi for its picturesque beaches and attractive seafront © GentiBehramaj, Wikimedia Commons

The beaches to the south of Durrësi have become very built up. Particularly in the peak tourist season (July and August), huge numbers of Albanians from landlocked Kosovo and North Macedonia fill the hotels and holiday apartments with which the coast is lined. At this time of year you should expect to find crowded beaches covered in litter, with the sea full of empty plastic bottles and crisp packets. On the positive side, this stretch of the coast has lively nightlife during the tourist season. If you are staying in the town centre and want a quick dip, the best option is one of the small beaches along Rruga Currilat, at the northern end of the city, beyond the Archaeological Museum. The hotels and restaurants along this stretch have reserved sections of sandy beach, with sun-loungers and parasols for which there is a small charge.

Travel to Durrësi

By land

Buses to Durrësi leave Tirana from the North/South bus station and terminate at the bus park outside the railway station. There are frequent departures throughout the day until 18.00; the fare is 150 lek and the journey takes about half an hour.

There are buses to Durrësi from all other cities in Albania. From the south, any bus going to Tirana will drop passengers off at Plepat bus station, where the city bypass leaves the coast road (SH4) a few kilometres south of Durrësi. A shuttle bus runs between Plepat and the city centre, or there are always taxis waiting.

By air

Durrësi is less than an hour’s drive from Mother Teresa Airport, and a bus connects the two; the schedule is on the airport website and can be checked by calling the bus company,

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