Dürres , on the Albanian coast of the Adriatic Sea, is the second most populated city in the country. Underneath its industrial, untidy and somewhat chaotic appearance, it still has a Roman past, with the remains of monuments such as the amphitheatre, the public baths, the remains of an aqueduct, and the Venetian-Byzantine walls.
Venetian tower at Dürres
Today, as in the time of Ancient Rome, Dürres still has boat connections with Italy, both with the ports of Bari and Brindisi, as well as with Ancona and Trieste.
HISTORY OF DURRËS
Greek settlers from Corinth and Cocyra founded the settlement of Epidamnos in 627 BC. In 229 BC, displacing the Illyrian populations that had previously inhabited it. The Romans defeated the Lyrian king Glaukias who had ruled the city since 312 BC, aware of its strategic importance at the exit to the Adriatic Sea. Re-founded as Dyrrachium the construction of the Via Egnatia was promoted, which saved the way from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople) avoiding going around the Adriatic coast. From Rome the Via Appia continued to Brindisi and there goods and merchants sailed in ships to Dyrrachium. The role played by its construction in the middle of the 2nd century B.C. gave the ancient Dürres a boost as a seaport in the Balkans.
Pompey used it as a naval base in the civil war against Julius Caesar (in 48 BC), and already in the period of Emperor Augustus it acquired the title of Colonia Iulia Augusta Dyrrachinorum . It continued to be an important part of the Roman province of Epirus nova, but succumbed in 481 AD to the siege of the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great. The end of Magna Roma did not stop the economic growth of Dürres, and after the partition of the Roman Empire, Dyrrachium obeyed the directives of the capital Byzantium. One of the emperors, Anastasius, was born here, which helped the city to prosper.
The Norman Robert Guiscard captured the city in 1082 and after passing through the hands of the Byzantines, King William II of Sicily in 1185, the Venetians in the 13th century, and Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily, it became part of the Greek principality of Achaia. It was also contested by Serbs and Albanians in the 14th century, and in the late 14th century, in 1392, the Venetians held it until 1501 when the Turks conquered it, ruling it until the First Balkan War (1912-13). The capital of Albania during the brief period of its independence, it remained unstable throughout the 20th century and was first part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the Italians landed their troops after Mussolini’s fascist invasion in 1939. The Germans bombed its port in 1944, leaving a desolate landscape at the end of World War II. During the communist period, the industrial development of the port was prioritised over aesthetics, leading to the construction of massive structures that spoiled the coastline.
WHAT TO SEE IN DURRËS
Prejudices sometimes lead to an overly strict judgement on whether Dürres is a place to visit. It is undeniable that the urban sprawl of a sprawling city has meant that the backdrop seems unattractive. But if you pay attention, Dürres can offer a very interesting historical archaeological itinerary.
Amphitheatre of Dürres
The amphitheatre of Dürres makes a visit to the city worthwhile. Together with the Pula amphitheatre in Croatia, it is one of the largest and best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the Balkans. It was built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD during the reign of Trajan. The length of its ellipse is 132 metres long.The amphitheatre was 113 metres wide, and its seating capacity was between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators. After the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire and the arrival of the Ostrogoths, Dürres was sacked and the amphitheatre fell into disuse. The inhabitants took advantage of the quality of the blocks to build private dwellings, and buildings were even erected inside the amphitheatre using the foundations. One of these was a Palaeo-Christian church with a funerary chapel in honour of St Asti, the first bishop and martyr of Durres, built in the 5th or 6th century AD. The mosaics that decorated the floor of the church and part of a fresco still survive. Later, in the 7th century AD, it was abandoned and a large part of the amphitheatre was used as a quarry.
Mosaici called “The Beauty of Dürres”, now in the Archaeological Museum of Tirana.
Excavation began in 1966, but could only be carried out in part because of the existence of inhabited dwellings. In recent years, a recovery and conservation project has been undertaken, as the state of deterioration and degradation had put the site in irreversible danger.
Amphitheatre of Dürres
The 2nd-century AD Roman baths were found during one of the archaeological excavation campaigns underneath present-day Dürres. They are located near the theatre “Alexander Moisiu”. and part of the caldarium , the hot-water room, and the pool or natatio , covered with black and white slabs, like a chessboard, have been preserved.
The Archaeological Museum is housed in a new building on Taulantia Street, one of the most important of its kind and of great interest to visitors.However, one of the most relevant pieces found in Durrës, the so-called “Bukuroshja e Durrësit”, a mosaic from the 4th century BC, is on display in the National Historical Museum in Tirana.
Besides the amphitheatre there are other remains from Roman times such as part of an aqueduct (near the Industrial School also from Hadrian’s time and which was fifteen kilometres long) and the nearby 5th-6th century Byzantine forum with marble columns. Under the city there are still unexcavated hidden treasures, and from time to time remains appear during renovations of private dwellings, as in the case of the Orpheus Mosaic discovered in 1988, dated to the 3rd century AD.
One third of the original Venetian castle wall of the city is still standing. Between the Venetian bastion and the amphitheatre we find the seat of the Ethnographic Museum , inside the house of the famous actor Alexander Moissi, born near Durres.
One of the most pleasant places to relax over a coffee is Shatervani Square , with the town hall buildings and the Fatih Mosque. But the most interesting religious building is the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Paul and St. Asti of Durres (bishop martyred by the Romans).
Orthodox Cathedral of St Paul and St Asti of Durres
For one of the best views of Dürres from the top we can climb up to King Zog’s royal villa, which, although still under military control, has a panoramic view of the coast from its surroundings. From there you can see the edge of the harbour area and behind the Ventus hotel and restaurant – unmistakable – the beaches of Dürres begin, stretching for several kilometres.
HOW TO GET TO DURRËS
How to get there by car
It is only 34 km from Tirana to Dürres following the SH2 road.
Arriving by plane
Tirana airport is the best option to reach Dürres by plane. From the arrivals terminal it is about half an hour’s drive to the coast and the centre of Dürres.
Arriving by bus
The Dürres bus station is located on Rruga Adria Street, next to the port where ferries to Italy dock. Bus frequency with Tirana is high.
Arriving by boat
Many Italian tourists come to Durazzo (the name given to Dürres) to start their holidays in Albania. There are also many Albanians working or living in Italy who return to their homeland. Ferry connections from Bari and Brindisi to the port of Dürres are frequent.
Service operated by Misterferry.co.uk
There is a kiosk in Taulantina Street offering information about things to see and do in Dürres
HOTELS AND ACCOMMODATION IN DURRËS
TOURS AND GUIDED TOURS IN DURRËS
WHERE TO EAT IN DURRËS – RESTAURANTS
EXCURSIONS FROM DURRËS
From Dürres we can make day trips to Tirana, the city of Kruja, or to the Karavasta lagoon on the south coast. In the north is the cape of Rodon with the beautiful church of St. Anthony.