We walk up the slope, away from the water, past the coffee-shop tables on the pavements of Epidamn Boulevard. Then we turn left onto Rruga Kalase, and a hot day in 21st-century Albania melts, to be replaced by the second century and the Roman Empire in its pomp. Hemmed in by a scattershot of modern homes, but unmistakable in its majesty, Durres Amphitheatre could, without a huge leap in imagination, still ring with the sword-clash of gladiatorial combat, seats rearing tall above the arena floor. Carolyn Perry grins like the mother of a school sports day winner. ‘‘You weren’t expecting that, were you?’’ she beams.
I wasn’t. None of us were. On first inspection, Durres is precisely what you would expect of Albania’s second largest city. Freight containers crowd the port – which still clangs and clanks in front of the core of the town, ferries waiting to cross the Adriatic to Bari and Ancona. Traffic clots its narrow streets. Tourists jam themselves into the high-rise hotels which, flung up in a rabid first flush of construction when the country finally shook off communism’s grip in 1992, fringe areas of beach directly to the south-east.
But Durres’s amphitheatre revels in a story of many chapters. Not just the Roman one (it was built in the reign of the emperor Trajan), but the Byzantine epoch that followed (sixth-century mosaics, from a time when the theatre was used as a church, adorn two ground-level chambers) – and the Ottoman era that ensued in the 15th century (the arena was covered in the 16th century, houses swarming over it). And even this is only a fraction of the tale of a city that was founded as Epidamnos by Greek colonists in 627 BC – although this distant period is recalled in the statues and shards of pottery at the adjacent excellent Muzeu Arkeologjik. So is the significance that the city held under Rome, when, known as Dyrrachium, it was the start of the Via Egnatia, the highway that forged 700 miles (161km) east to what is now Istanbul. Remarkably, one of the ancient gates to this crucial route across the Balkans still stands, as part of the door to the Portiku Wine Bar, in Rruga Skenderbej.
This is a lot of detail to digest – but we attempt to do so later that evening, over dinner at Tirona restaurant, beyond the cranes and shipping lanes, in Durres’s resort zone. We are 13 in all, aged between early 40s and late 70s, and we have a few travellers’ yarns to weave. Of forays to states as niche as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – and, in safer decades, into now-troubled Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. But for all our passport stamps and wanderlust, none of us has any prior experience of Albania – a country which, we are swiftly realising, has a complicated, and glorious, past.
We are 48 hours into Origins of Illyria, a nine-day escorted tour run by Steppes Travel which – in truth – goes beyond its title, touching on many of Albania’s past 28 centuries, including its fraught (largely) communist 20th. But the prime focus is on the Illyrian peoples who thrived at this European crossroads between the fifth century BC and 168 BC (when they were conquered by Rome). We are keen listeners. Despite our air miles, few of us know much of these farmers and warriors who existed alongside the ancient Greeks, but have been semi-neglected in textbooks where their Olympics-founding neighbours have been heralded. Luckily, we have Carolyn – an expert in ancient history who has worked for the British Museum, guided groups in countries as different as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and developed such a love for Albania that she has bought property near Durres. On archaeological sites, in small cafes, and over dinner each night, she will unravel a thread of yesteryear of which, at the jaunt’s beginning, many of us are only loosely aware.
Her knowledge is tested at Lezhe, a town on the river Drin, 45 miles (72km) north of Durres, where she has to spin gold from the dowdy clump of walls that comprises the remains of Lissos, an Illyrian citadel founded in 385 BC. ‘‘One of the problems with the Illyrians,’’ she reveals, ‘‘is that they had no written culture. We don’t understand much about them directly. What we know was written by the Greeks and Romans.’’ Nonetheless, the ruins speak loudly to support her point – diagonal cuts to the stone, designed to help them withstand earthquakes, proof of Illyrian ingenuity; traces of a bathhouse evidence of later Roman hands. There are other alterations, too. What was once an Illyrian temple, and later the Cathedral of St Nicholas, is now a mausoleum dedicated to George Castrioti, a mighty military figure, better known as Skanderbeg, who held off the Ottoman advance into the Balkans in the 15th century. We admire 25 metal shields pinned to the brickwork, each saluting one of the battle victories attributed to this soldier-princeling between 1444 and 1468. ‘‘Albania’s is a many-layered saga,’’ Carolyn explains. ‘‘But that’s the joy of it.’’
She is aided by Dorian Disha, an affable bear of a man who, based in Tirana, peppers Carolyn’s grasp of fallen yesterdays with local perspective. As we drive south, he raises the bleak topic of the many defunct machine-gun bunkers that dot the fields – a paranoid legacy of the communist years, especially the Seventies, when the dictator Enver Hoxha was convinced that Albania was under threat of foreign invasion. Dorian finds mirth in these concrete shadows, cows now chewing the grass alongside them – and in the capital itself. “In 1992, when restrictions on movement were lifted, we all wanted to move to the city,” he laughs. “Now we are all sick of it. We all want to move back to the countryside.’’
There is self-deprecation here, for Tirana reveals itself as increasingly vibrant, new bars illuminating its trendy Blloku district. It sheds light, too, on Illyria, in its National Historical Museum – bronze armour from the third century BC, the helmet with long shield plates, which protected the head; an intricate three-tiered grave-marking stele from the same century, each tier a generation of the dead man’s family wishing him farewell; an ornate fifth-century BC terracotta vase unearthed at Kukes in the north-east of Albania.
To see such exhibits in display cases is one thing. To espy Illyrian heritage in the setting where it sprang up is another. It is a long drive, 90 miles (145km) south, to the remnants of Byllis, but our reward is to see Illyria and Rome entwined again. Another amphitheatre, a third-century BC slab of Illyrian culture, crowns this flat hilltop. Most of its seating is gone, but its size – it would have risen to 40 tiers – is still apparent. We fix our cameras on a flock of sheep gnawing the shoots between the ancient stones, before Carolyn leads us to the edge of a steep drop – where the river Vjosa shimmers in its valley below, and the name of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, is inscribed into a granite gatepost. The dance continues that afternoon, 30 miles (48km) north-west at Apollonia – which was born of Illyria in 588BC, and flourished under Rome in the second century AD, becoming a place of wealth and taste. Echoes reverberate, the six-column entrance to the Bouleuterion (council chamber) still redolent of discourse. An Albanian bride and her new husband skip gaily across the site, framing their wedding images with the ghosts of their ancestors.
We are still agog at the beauty of it all when we roll into Berat – only to discover that our pit stop for the night is as pretty as anything Albanian antiquity has given us. In a sense, this town, on the Osum, is divided – the Gorica district, on the south bank of the river, is nominally Christian; Mangalemi, on the north side; Muslim. But together, they swirl and smile as one evocative pocket of Ottoman-era splendour, houses wedged improbably into cliff-faces, sunlight flashing on their fronts in tribute to the prevailing nickname, “Town of a Thousand Windows’’. We sit down to dinner – baked lamb and mincemeat sausages – on the terrace of the Mangalemi Hotel, and marvel at a day of numerous photo highlights.
There will be more. The morning will take us east, inland, up, the road snaking, curling, bumping, the surface losing composure. All the way to the rural outpost of Ploce, where, initially, the vestiges of the Illyrian settlement of Amantia are guarded by nothing and no one. Carolyn begins to show us a horseshoe amphitheatre where volleyball markings, painted on to the dirt, suggest recent use – when a battered hatchback begins to wend its way from the village. Here is Lukas, the gateman – ready to collect the meagre entry fees.
We follow him on foot as his vehicle coughs up a rutted track, to a farm on the hill, where we tiptoe around a chicken coop, the birds clucking at us in annoyance – to glimpse the curved stone of gateway six, a grand entrance to Amantia, as it has been since the fourth century BC. Further along, strolling through tractor tyre imprints in the mud, we come to the lip of a bluff, where the land plunges. Below are the foundation blocks of a temple to Aphrodite, honey-coloured in the hazy summer light. The itinerary will carry us on, south, to Butrint – another Illyrian-Roman miracle. But here, looking down at this angle feels, momentarily, like peering at Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. By now, we are expecting to find such delights here, but our silent observation is no less appreciative.
Albania in the spotlight
When it is considered purely on location, it is difficult to understand why Albania is not better known as a destination. There it lies, between Greece to the south and Montenegro to the north - and only 45 miles from Italy, where the Strait of Otranto squeezes the Adriatic to its narrowest point. Throw in the fact that it has 296 miles of coastline, and Albania’s relative anonymity becomes even more implausible.
Part of the problem is recent history. Albania was the last country in western and central Europe to abandon communism, finally casting it aside in 1992 – but only after spending 48 years in its fist.
Access is improving. Plans are afoot to build a second air hub in the south of the country, at Saranda. This will complement what is currently the only international runway – at Mother Teresa Airport, which sits between Tirana and Durres, serving them both. Etihad Airways has direct daily flights to Tirana.
However, despite an improving road system, Albania is difficult to move around without assistance, making a tour a useful way to see its wonders. There is still an undiscovered ambience to a country of rustic beauty, but the secret will soon be out.