The people of Korça are justifiably proud of their city’s cultured and intellectual traditions. The city is home to a number of interesting museums and was one of the main centres of the Albanian cultural renaissance (Rilindja Kombëtare), which created the sense of national identity that ultimately led to the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. The first Albanian-medium school was opened here in 1887, with the first girls’ school following four years later, and the town was one of the focal points of the movement to standardise the Albanian alphabet.
What to see and do in Korça
National Museum of Medieval Art
Located in a purpose-built gallery, the National Museum of Medieval Art has the largest collection of icons in Albania, with 7,500 objects spanning seven centuries. It also has a fine collection of other liturgical art, such as hammered silver Bible covers and gold-plated crucifixes. Around 400 works are on permanent display, and the new museum provides space for conservation and restoration laboratories. The exhibition is spread over two floors and there is a lift.
The ground floor displays some of the most famous works by Albania’s best-known icon-painters: the 16th-century Berati artist Onufri, the 18th-century David Selenicasi and the 19th-century Katro (Çetiri) and Zografi families. But there was a long tradition of icon-painting before artists began to sign their work – Byzantine painters believed their work was to glorify God, not themselves – and the earliest works in the museum were painted by these anonymous artists. They include a 13th-century icon of St Nicholas, in lovely warm colours, from one of the churches in Vithkuqi, and 14th-century icons from St Mary’s Church in Mborja: another St Nicholas, this one almost monochromatic, and the stunning Archangel Michael in his armour. Dozens of icons fill the full height of the wall of the gallery, with a viewing platform from which to study them.
The items displayed in Korça’s Archaeological Museum come from sites all over the southeast region, including the neighbouring districts of Devolli, Kolonja and Pogradeci. The whole region is a prehistorian’s paradise, with many very large tumuli (raised barrows) excavated – one of these, Kamenica, is open to the public and has an excellent site museum. There is a model of a tumulus in the Korça museum, showing how the graves were arranged concentrically.
The exhibition begins with a display of examples of the different types of tools used by Neolithic people (made of bone and horn as well as stone), their ceramics and their cult figurines. From very early on, they built lake-dwellings, using water to protect themselves from wild animals or human enemies. The site at Maliqi, excavated in the 1960s, was the largest in the Balkans (15ha) and was inhabited continuously from the Chalcolithic (3000–2200 BC) to the Archaic period (8th–7th century BC). A scale model of the Maliqi settlement illustrates how these wooden houses were constructed on stilts.
This beautiful building now houses a museum devoted to the life and work of the photographer Gjon Mili (1904–14), well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in photography. Mili was born in Korça, but his family emigrated to Romania when he was four years old. From Bucharest, aged only 19, he emigrated again, this time to the United States, where he had a long and successful career with Life magazine.
His early training as an electrical engineer helped him to develop innovations in stroboscopic and stop-action images. Many of his photographs used these revolutionary techniques and these are displayed in the museum, along with tems of his photographic equipment. The exhibition is labelled in English and Albanian, and a 50-minute film about Mili’s work and life runs on a loop.
The best place to begin exploring Korça is the city’s main square, where the tourist information office is. Dwarfing everything else in the square is the modern Red Tower (so-called, although it is not red). A lift (50 lek) takes you to a viewing platform from which there are good views of the city and the mountains that surround it.
From the square, the pedestrianised Boulevard Shën Gjergji leads first to the site of Korça’s original cathedral, which was built in 1905 and demolished in 1971 to make way for a new city library. The library is still there; however, when the boulevard was being pedestrianised and landscaped in 2014, the outline of the façade of the destroyed cathedral was set into the pavement outside the library. This is an admirable way of commemorating one part of the city’s history without destroying another.
Continuing up the boulevard, buildings of note include the house of Themistokli Gërmenji now a restaurant-with-rooms, the Museum of Education, and two beautiful examples of Korça architecture, the Rumanian House and the former Greek Consulate, now restored after many years of neglect. Facing down the boulevard, above a water feature, is the statue of the kilted Patriotic Warrior (cast by Odhisë Paskali, the sculptor of imposing statues in several other Albanian towns and cities).
The road running across the end of Boulevard Shën Gjergji is Boulevard Republika, which bisects the historic centre of Korça. Directly behind the Patriotic Warrior is the Orthodox Cathedral, built in the 1990s to replace the destroyed original. An information panel on the cathedral piazza has maps of the city and the region. Behind it lies a warren of streets of 19th-century houses, built of local stone, slaked with lime and roofed with small, curved tiles.
Travel to Korça
The main border crossing from North Macedonia into Albania is Qafa e Thanë, a few kilometres from Struga on the northern shore of Lake Ohrid. From Greece, the principal border crossing for Korça is at Kapshtica. Those with their own transport might also consider using one of the smaller border crossings to get to Përmeti, Prespa or Pogradeci; for these, please refer to the relevant section in this chapter.
From Tirana, the traditional route to Pogradeci, Korça and Kapshtica is via Elbasani and Librazhdi, over the mountains via Prrënjasi and a series of hairpin bends, then down the western shore of Lake Ohrid. By the summer of 2022, upgrading work is expected to have been completed on the road connecting Qukësi, west of Prrënjasi, and Qafë-Plloça, a few kilometres south of Pogradeci. This road will avoid the most difficult section of the traditional route and will be the fastest way between Tirana and Korça.