Whilst some might scoff at you if you tell them you are taking a trip to Durres, don’t let them dissuade you. This is a small city, with a BIG past and if you are looking to mix up a bit of beach time with a dose of history, you could do a lot worse than checking it out.
Durazzo in Italian, Durres in Albanian, and known historically as Epidamnos an Dyrrachium it is the second-largest city in the country, being beaten to the number one spot by Tirana. Situated in Durres county, around 40 minutes drive from the capital it is home to around 175,000 people.
Its history goes back to at least the 7th Century BC and its location on the edge of the Adriatic Sea has contributed to it being one of the most important economic and historic parts of the country. A part of various empires over the years, including the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, it is also a part of the Via Egnatia and the continuation of the Via Appia. These ancient trade routes span all the way from Rome to Durres, across Macedonia and Greece, to Constantinople, Turkey- what is today Istanbul.
Following the Albanian declaration of independence, it was briefly the capital of the Principality of Albania. It was then annexed by the Italian Fascists and Nazi Germany in the interwar period before expanding rapidly during communism.
Today it is a Port, one of the biggest on the Adriatic and it connects Albania to Italy and a number of other neighbouring countries.
In terms of attractions, its Amphitheatre is included on a tentative list as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Centuries ago, it would have held up to 20,000 people and is the largest amphitheatre on the Balkan peninsula.
It was built by Emperor Trajan in the 2nd Century AD but found itself at the mercy of huge earthquakes over the years, falling into disuse sometime after the 4th Century AD. Some years later, a Christian chapel was constructed on the site and covered in frescoes and mosaics. Another chapel was built in the 13th Century but the amphitheatre itself was covered over in the 16th Century, after the Ottoman occupation. It was discovered and partially excavated in the 1960s by Vangjiel Toci and then by Lida Miraj in the 1980s.
It measures 201ft by 138ft and is an impressive 66ft high. It sits on a hill in the centre of the city and many of the mosaics within the chapel are still preserved.
Other sites include the Durres Castle which was built in the late 5h Century by Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I. It was devastated by an earthquake in 1273 and it was repaired and reinforced many times over the years.
In 1939, Albanian patriots fought Italian invaders- 360 locals lead by Abaz Kupi and Mujo Ulqinaku lead the resistance armed with small weapons and three machine guns. They managed to keep the Italians at by for a few hours, until the Italians, quite literally brought out the big guns in the form of light tanks.
When in Durres, you should also make time to visit the largest archaeological museum in the country situated just a stone’s throw from the beach. Its contents mainly consist of artefacts found nearby and include Illyrian, Greek and Roman items. Some of the most important finds include stone sarcophagi, mosaics including the 17ft ‘The Beauty of Durres’, and the miniature bust of Venus.
After you have had your fill of history, and some fresh fish from one of the many seafront restaurants, it is time to head to the beach.
The biggest and most visited stretch of sand in the country, it is around 10.5km in length. It is a very popular holiday destination with families from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and it receives around 600,000 visitors each year.
So what are you waiting for? Pack your sunnies and towel and head off to Durres for the weekend to soak up some sun and history in Albania’s second-biggest city!