Kruja has been fortified since ancient times – ceramics and coins from the 3rd century BC have been excavated there. The name comes from the Albanian word for the spring (krua), within the castle, which provided its inhabitants with water. The castle of Kruja was the centre of Albanian resistance to the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century, which was led by the great national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, also known as Skanderbeg. The buildings and museums within the castle walls, combined with the attractively restored bazaar area just outside them, provide an excellent introduction to Albanian history and traditions.
Kruja is the only town in Albania, apart from Saranda in the far south, which is really geared towards tourists; it is one of the best places in the country to shop for souvenirs.
What to see and do in Kruja
Kruja Castle stands on a crag overlooking the plain below the town, with views on a clear day out to the Adriatic (it can sometimes be seen from the plane as you approach Tirana International Airport). Within the castle walls are two very different museums, a historic Bektashi teqe and several other places of interest; you could easily spend several hours visiting these and wandering around the cobbled lanes in the residential area. The usual approach to the castle is up the cobbled street of the bazaar, which is closed to traffic. The road that runs parallel to it, around the back of the Panorama Hotel, lets you drive up to the castle entrance, but it is hard to park there. You should allow at least 2 hours for your visit, more if possible.
On your left as you emerge from the vaulted entranceway is the Historical Museum, designed in 1982 in a sort of castle-ish style by the architects Pranvera Hoxha – daughter of the communist leader Enver – and her husband. The displays on the ground floor cover the Illyrian city-states, the Roman and Byzantine periods and the development of Albania’s medieval principalities. Then comes the story of Albania’s struggle against the Ottomans, told through maps, murals, books and replicas.
On the upper floors, there are scale models of Kruja and other castles, in a room with an etched-glass window showing the second siege of Kruja, and an exhibition focusing on Skanderbeg’s diplomatic efforts to rally support from other European countries for resistance.
One of the most interesting ethnographic museums in the country lies opposite the entrance to Kruja Castle (from where the sign is clearly visible). Its interest is partly due to the house in which it is located, designed for the prosperous and influential Toptani family and built in 1764. Laminated information sheets, in English and Albanian, explain the items on display.
The ground floor of the house is where the livestock were kept, the produce from the family’s lands was processed and the tools were made or repaired. There is a raki still, an olive press and equipment for making felt, one of Kruja’s traditional industries. The herdsman slept in the stable, with the sheep and/or goats, while the family lived upstairs, in rooms accessed from the covered balcony that was used as the living space in summer.
A walk around the citadel
Ordinary families still live within Kruja Castle, although in less luxurious houses than the Toptani house. A network of cobbled alleyways spreads downhill from the open area where the museums are. Down one of these is the castle’s beautiful little Bektashi teqe (100 lek). Bektashism is a Sufi order, founded in Persia in the 13th century; it was introduced to Albania in the wake of the Ottoman conquest and became widespread there in the early 19th century.
The Kruja teqe was built in 1770 (1191 in the Islamic hijri calendar) and is one of the oldest in the country. The olive tree in its garden is said to have been planted by Skanderbeg himself, as part of his campaign to encourage the other landowners of Kruja to plant olives.
The bazaar was restored in the mid 1960s, but the wood-built shops and cobbled streets have a very authentically Ottoman feel. The extra-long eaves and the gutter in the middle of the road mean that rain, or wet snow, falls off the roofs and drains downhill straight away – an unusual but effective architectural device. Many of the shops sell small souvenirs such as Albanian flags, copper plates and ashtrays in the shape of bunkers.
There are also traditional felt-makers, who produce slippers and the felt caps called qeleshe; carpet shops, in some of which you can watch the local women weaving the next batch of qilime (woven rugs; this is the same word as the Turkish kilim) with their ancient patterns; and antique dealers, where wooden butter paddles, cradles and intricately carved dowry chests pause in their journeys from highland villages to modern cities. Kruja’s bazaar is a laid-back place and nobody will mind if all you want to do is window-shop.
Getting there and away
Kruja is about an hour’s drive from both Tirana and Durrësi. The town at the junction with the SH1 highway is called Fushë-Kruja (‘Kruja on the Plain’); if you are driving yourself, it is worth pausing briefly in Fushë- Kruja to take a look at the statue of US President George W Bush, who visited the town in 2007 (and allegedly had his watch stolen during his visit).
Kruja is less than an hour’s drive from Tirana International Airport. This makes it an attractive option to spend your last night, or your last morning, in Kruja and go from there directly to the airport. A taxi from Kruja to the airport should cost €15–20.
Minibuses leave Tirana from the North/South bus station (page 60), with departures from early morning to late afternoon; the fare is 200 lek. You should take care to board a vehicle that is going all the way up the hill to Kruja; there are more frequent minibuses that go only as far as Fushë-Kruja.