“You should have come here ten years ago, Durres was beautiful. Now we have all these apartments, enough for a million people – when the hell will there ever be a million people here? The police do nothing and they keep building them. I still love Durres, Durres is my city, but you should have come here ten years ago. It was beautiful then”.
For the last few days we have based ourselves in the coastal city of Durres, a place with a surprising amount of history that on first glance is easy to miss amongst the towering half built apartment blocks and piles of rubbish. We are still getting over not too fun food poisoning in a tent experience and it seems to be difficult to get back to normal. Our appetites seem to be strongly diminished and we are both continuing to have strong stomach cramps and a general feeling of unwellness that is leaving us reluctant to set off cycling again. I don’t think staying in this city is helping too much either, with the strong smell of burning plastic from the numerous piles of smoldering rubbish and the filthy sea, black from the port and filled with waste it doesn’t seem like a healthy place.
It might not be clean, but the city has history. Named Epidamnos, it was founded by the Greeks in 627 BC, went on to become part of an Illyrian kingdom before the Romans invaded in 228 BC. Following this it passed hands between the Bulgarians, Byzantines, Argevins, Serbs, Venetians, Ottomans and the German Prince Wilhelm of Weld before briefly being the capital of Albania’s short 1918-1920 independence. Communism saw the expansion of the port and industries such as tobacco, a factory making plastic goods and a factory making rubber goods – all of which are now crumbling sprawling shells, their collective purpose to create during isolation is now long gone. It also saw the construction of large promenades to enjoy the two beaches either side of the port, a place for workers to enjoy their time by the sea. Capitalism has seen rampant development to further this, unfortunately poor planning and enforcing of building regulations has meant a dense jungle of built and half built apartment blocks right up to the waters edge. Traffic is manic and heavy and there is construction everywhere leaving considerable amounts of dust and debris. There are a few impressive things to see tucked amongst this such as the remains of the 6th century Byzantine city walls built to repel Visigoth invasions, Venetian towers from the 14th century and the largest Roman amphitheater in the Balkans, big enough to fit 20,000 gladiator watchers but all in all, these slithers of a rich past are not enough to make it an enjoyable place to spend any time, the smell and rampant modern expansion make it difficult to like. As with anywhere in Albania, finishing construction projects seems to be a major problem. Efforts to beautify the streets nearest the beaches have been underway for what looks like a long time, roads have been widened and new fancy streetlights have been installed. The only problem is huge gaping holes have been left in the roads and manhole covers have either not been installed or have been stolen. The street lighting doesn’t contain bulbs or has only been half installed and there is no electricity to power the few that have been finished and have bulbs. The result is a dangerous night time walk, no lights and deep holes all over the footpath and road edge. Waste isn’t collected frequently and is piled up in various areas, some of it people trawl through to collect metal some of it is burnt leaving a strong smell of plastic across the city.
We have rented a small apartment where we can use a washing machine and cook our own food for a while. The owners live downstairs and are really lovely, Fatima insists on bringing us cups of tea with cake in order to practice her English. Her husband is a local policeman who speaks excellent English and looks and acts very similar to an older and slightly more bulky Robert De Nero. Together they have made our stay a very pleasant and welcome one.
We have been passing our time here with various walks into town and eating lots to regain our strength. There is only one good supermarket in town, an Italian one that ships everything over from Italy – at a cost of course, but a welcome one to have some good and different food. On one of the more interesting ones we went for a walk to visit the summer palace of King Zog that sits on a prominent hill above the city. Yes, you read that correctly – Albania had a king called Zog.
Reading the Wikipedia page about the man reveals someone who lived in a truly remarkable time. Managing to make the transition from president to king he is said to have had over 600 blood feuds against him and survived 55 assassination attempts. His villa in Durres was a holiday home and was built by an Italian architect in the shape of an eagle in 1926. At the top of the hill it has incredible views of the sea on three sides, which at the time with few half finished tower blocks must have been beautiful. Utilized by the communists, many global leaders have stayed including Khrushchev, Cambodian prince Sihanuk and Jimmy Carter (in the 90s). The building has been sat abandoned for years, surrounded by thick piles of razor wire and tall walls. It was damaged in the 1997 uprising and was gifted back to Prince Leka who had plans to renovate it, but since his death in 2011 it seems nothing is happening. Finding a way to cross the wire we explored the inside, with no windows or doors remaining it was easy to get in. The inside was in remarkably good condition and was surprisingly tasteful and quite modest for a royal palace. The initial large hallway had a grand sweeping marble staircase leading up to stately bedrooms and a large ballroom. We spent an hour or so exploring the rooms and enjoying views of the coast from the roof. Unfortunately we were not able to find any entrance to the kilometers of tunnels that are rumoured to be underneath, built to offer various officials quick escape in event of an emergency.
We ended up spending a week in Durres, it wasn’t easy on our wallets but we needed to take the time to recover and regain our strength and enthusiasm to continue… we broke the bond we had formed with our apartment by catching the train… quite the experience!
We have intermittent wifi so have been trying to plan the next part of our trip, it looks like we will be cycling for one month more in this region before catching a flight from Belgrade to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We are going to try and set ourselves a new challenge for India which we will devise over the next few weeks. Although India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are going to be interesting and diverse countries, we are still disappointed that our original plans and route are not possible. India is well travelled (perhaps not by bicycle) and doesn’t excite us as much as the Caucuses, Iran and Central Asia but hopefully we will be surprised. Fingers crossed we will hear soon enough that relations with Iran have improved and we can go back to plan a!