The Castle of Himare and Old Himare sits on top of the hill of Barbakas. Dating back over 2500 years, it is surrounded by the Ceraunian mountains, the hill of Skurata, and the canyons of Kole Midharit and Visha.
Once home to several hundred families, now only 20 or 30 remain. In 1945 at the dawn of the Communist regime, many fled persecution and resistance and never returned to their homes.
Today, the castle and the surrounding town consists of many large houses and mansions, churches, streets, gardens, and squares. While most is in a state of disrepair, it retains an air of charm, mystery, and unforgettable intrigue. As well as the families that remain, there is a Greek school that was established in 1775 and is attended by around 170 children.
Adjacent to it is a church with a grave that has been sadly vandalised and not repaired, despite it being a cultural monument. Throughout Old Himare there are a number of Orthodox churches, all in varying states of disrepair. One beautiful example has been half restored but never finished and has ageing scaffolding supporting the wooden roof.
Our guide tells me that the Church wants to restore it but the Ministry of Culture, who it belongs to, will not. Instead, local residents are trying to raise money to restore it themselves but this is not an easy feat.
This is the same story throughout as much of the old city and castle have been left to rot. Reasons why include lack of money, political and ethnic tensions, and issues with ownerships. Families who lived there for hundreds of years now have descendants spread around the world. Few have an interest, or can agree on whether to restore or sell and as a result, large villas and palatial homes remain empty.
Moving on, our guide took us to the top of Old Himare and stopped to speak to a local man tending his vines behind a low wall. They spoke in Greek and our guide told me he was cynical of journalists and ulterior motives they might have. I reassured him that I will just write what I see and I have no interests in promoting either side of the ethnic argument. This seemed to calm him and he invited us into his home for a homemade raki.
Now an elderly man, he spends winters in Athens and summers in Himare, returning to take care of his grapes and make wine and raki. Switching between Greek and Albania, he explained how he rents out a couple of rooms in his sprawling, ancient, stone home, mainly to Scandinavians and Germans.
The view from his terrace is astounding- almost like a view you see from the window of an aeroplane. Framed by his precious plants, the hills roll down below us and meet a tiny strip of white that quickly drops into the ocean beyond.
Upon leaving, I thanked him for his kind hospitality and he proudly presented me with a bottle of homemade white wine from 2017.
We meandered on through the cobbles and came to a small courtyard with benches placed throughout. The remains of a grand home sat behind us at the top of a stone staircase- Greek letters still visible in the stonework. I noticed the remains of a stone oven, open now to the elements but that would have once been used to cook an Albanian staple- byrek.
At the very top of the old town sits another crumbling church. Inside, the air is thick and musty and the only light comes from a broken door to the left. Beautiful, colourful paintings of saints adorn the wall behind the altar and the faint hint of gold can still be seen in some places.
This church, my guide tells me, sits on the ruins of the old temple of Apollo. Years later, materials from a church in Corfu were brought here and the current version was constructed. He tells me there was once an old stone here that commemorated Apollo’s founding of the church, written in ancient Greek letters.
Walking to the highest point of the castle, I gaze down at the spectacular view below. Here, the ocean meets the sand which in turn meets the greenery of olive trees and abandoned fruit orchards. My guide tells me how when he was a boy, on his way to the beach him and his friends would detour through the trees, picking handfuls of figs, oranges, and mana. Now the orchards are largely abandoned and slowly, tendrils of concrete development are reaching back from the shoreline.
He shows me to one house, now long forgotten, and points out a well where he and his friends would stop to drink water while playing in the narrow streets of the city. The woman who lived there is long departed and the home has been left to crumble. I stopped to look at the softly worn floorboards and the layers of coloured paint flaking from the walls, each layer telling a story of a different era lived within.
As we continued to stroll through the ruins and still inhabited homes, the smell of unidentified herbs and flowers permeated my senses. Citrusy, floral, sweet, and spicy smells wafted through the alleys as the midmorning sun beat down on the back of my neck. This is the sort of place you need a day to explore, appreciating each stone and ruin and imagining what was there before.
Upon returning to Tirana, a descendant of a previous homeowner contacted me through Instagram, explaining that their family had lived there for over 200 years. Sadly, when their grandmother reached a certain age, she had to leave her home to live with family elsewhere. The once regal home is now deserted and decrepit as its owners are living in different countries and cannot agree on what to do with it.
The Castle of Himare and the buildings that surround it are perhaps the most intriguing and beautiful that I have witnessed in Albania. They deserve to be lovingly preserved, restored and maintained. Regardless of what language people want to speak or whether they want to be referred to as Greek, Albanian, or both, this is a cultural gem that could bring significant economic and touristic benefits to this community.
Places like this are not common and perhaps the joint goal of reconstructing and promoting this place as a location for intelligent and sustainable tourism could be something that closes the divide amongst locals and the government.