Albania: Memories of Durres

During this visit i had a most unremarkable time in Durres; being so near Tirana, less than one hour away, my company and I drove there haphazardly one Sunday, coupling it with a visit to the Bay of Lalzi; a secluded beach that in my view outdoes the one at Durres. At Lalzi, we parked our car, walked past the woods and to my pleasant surprise were met with a white sand beach strewn with cute wooden umbrellas the kind of which I’d never seen before. The only catch was it was a cool, cloudy and somber day and not a soul was around. We strolled a bit, jumped back in the car and zigzagged through a suburban neighborhood of nice, gated houses; a concept that didn’t even exist back when I was growing up here. We only stayed in Durres for lunch, eating in the restaurant of a random hotel. The food was average, the weather dreary and rainy…

I prefer to remember the Durres of my youth. Back then, Durres was a popular beach destination. Being on the Adriatic coast not too far from Tirana, though back in those times one took the train, it was the default destination for middleclass Albanian families of all nearby towns. We went there every summer, for one or maybe two weeks.

One particular vacation to Durres that comes to mind is 1990. I know this because it was a World Cup year, and being a young Albanian kid, I was mad about soccer. I was only seven but I understood the game and I loved watching it and playing with my friends outside on the dusty asphalt of our apartment building. Today, except for the World Cup, you can’t pay me to watch your soccer! I prefer football but back in that time and place I was a fanatic, like my brother and our friends. All the men in the country were soccer heads. All the women never watched a single game! But now times have changed there and girls and women participate in athletics.

That year a friend and colleague of my dad’s was also vacationing with his family in Durres. This guy had a kind of gift at getting ahead in life under communism. He always found a way to make friends with those in power and in turn secure advancement for himself and his family under the most meagre of material circumstances. Well, in Durres, he did it again! He had pulled some strings, and booked a room for his family in the fanciest hotel in town, reserved at that time for western tourists and the political elite only. We would visit them daily and live the high life which to me today seems standard, but back in that day when material possessions were so very lacking, everything this hotel had was a big deal.

It was the at that very hotel that I first became exposed to color television. At home, all throughout my life we only had black and white TV. Seeing this new color TV set in the lobby of the hotel was a huge deal. It was a new thing for us. Moreover, it was absolutely awesome because that World Cup I mentioned was taking place at this time. We could watch games on color TV! Boy oh boy, I have seen one of the wildest soccer games of my life on that TV. It went into overtime and then into penalties. We were loving every second of it, only as a fanatic can!

Another incident that took place at this hotel was more comical. It was here that I tasted Coca Cola for the first time in my life. But not in the usual way, where one buys a drink and enjoys it. No, we weren’t staying at the hotel so I suppose we weren’t allowed to buy anything. Besides we didn’t know what coke was. Anyhow, my mom, my brother and I, and her friend and her two sons went up to an empty table spontaneously on a patio cafe where the privileged westerners had just leisured and left all their pop cans. Well, we saw the remains of a dark fizzed drink at the bottom of their glasses. Out of curiosity to know what it was, and perhaps to see what the fancy tourists were having, we picked up their cans and had a taste. It was awesome! It was Coca Cola. It was also pathetic that our country’s economy could not even provide us that…

Albania: Durres history


With a history as old as Europe, Durres is Albania’s most ancient city. The fame of Durres rose with the Greek Colony. It was here by the Adriatic Sea, on the land of the Illyrian tribe of the Taulanti, that they would settle in the 627 BC. They came from Corinth and Corcyra and would stay for over 300 years; until the city was captured in 312 BC by the Illyrian King Glaucus. Appian Alexandrinius, a writer of the 2nd century BC tells us the founder of Durres was called Epidamnos and named the town after himself. His nephew was called Dyrrachion and built a pier on a bay near the city which he named after himself. Later Strabo, the Greek geographer, writes Dyrrachion took its name from the peninsula on which Durres was founded.

The Greeks set a foundation for a city that would stand the test of time. For several centuries, when part of the Roman Empire, Durres became the greatest city on the Adriatic. In the first two centuries of Roman power, an amphitheater, a library, public baths, an aqueduct, and many luxurious villas were built. It was at its port that the Via Ignatia, the Military Highway of the Balkans, began and led to the east past other major cities of the time like Manscio Scampa (Elbasan) and Thessaloniki to Byzantium. Durres’ ancient port, the largest of Illyricum, has survived over 2000 years, and is still Albania’s largest port today. The city became a center of trade and gave and took goods from other major cities of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Italian Peninsula.


Durres like the rest of Albania has been invaded often through the ages. Perhaps, even more so, owing to the fact it is susceptible to invasion by sea. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Bulgars, Serbs, Normans, Achaeans (Greeks), Venetians, Sicilians, Turks, Nazi Germans, Italians, and the like have all passed through Durres. Some stayed a very long time. The ancient Greeks spent over 300 years here; the Romans over 400; the Byzantine Empire held Durres for 800 years, the longest of all, with periodic interruptions from Albanian families or invaders, which lasted for years to decades to even centuries. After the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire held Durres for over 400 years.


Of all eras, a little to a lot of evidence can still be found today. Greek artifacts abound. Numerous historical sights worthy of recognition stand today. The Romans built the 1500 seat amphitheater, the second largest in the Balkans. The Roman era also gave Durres a castle, a small part of which still stands. The Byzantine Empire which held Durres the longest time, built a church in the 9th Century. The Venetians built a tower in the 1500’s, which still stands and in good shape, although as a cafe. While the Turks who would hold Durres for four centuries converted the population to Islam and built mosques. Later in the early 20th century, the Italians built roads and government buildings.


Important personages have noted Durres. Aristotle wrote of its constitution. Cicero wrote “I came to Durres because this is a free city and loyal to me,” and may well have lectured here, perhaps at the amphitheater itself. Julius Caesar came here probably during Rome’s fight with Pompey, which happened on the Adriatic coast. Durres captures the imagination for its ancient storied past, in particular for its classic Greco Roman civilization. While today it has been outshined by Tirana, it was in fact declared modern Albania’s first capital in 1912, and remains Albania’s second largest city. Though Durres may be thought of as second best, and a “has been,” its history is old as Europe itself.


Sources:


Hoti, Afrim. Epidamnos-Dyrrhachion Durres. Cetis. Tirana, 2006.


http://www.britannica.com/place/Durres


http://albania.al/destinations/durres/

Photo:

Venetian Tower https://wherefoodtakesus.com/tirana-day-trip-what-to-do-in-durres/