Our rushed day in Durrës went like this; rain, walk, rain, walk, rain, where the hell is the amphitheatre, rain, walk, oh there’s the amphitheatre, oh there’s the archeological museum, oh man am I ever hungry, torrential rain, thunderstorm, emergency picnic, walk, rain, salad, mosquitoes, vagina lamp.
I have the impression that Durrës, due to its location on Albania’s Adriatic coast, is the beach vacation destination of choice for budget minded Europeans. We weren’t looking for the beach, however, we wanted the amphitheatre and that turned out to be quite a long walk from our guest house. We walked in the rain down a sidewalk studded with booby-traps, including open manholes and industrial trash. We walked past a train station (the only train station we saw in Albania) full of graffiti-covered and crack-windowed trains. We walked until the town started looking more attractive and finally the rain cleared up just about the time we found the amphitheatre.
Romans built the amphitheatre of Durrës in the 2nd century AD and it must have been quite the scene as it could seat more than 15,000 spectators. Think about 15,ooo people in one space. Last week I helped manage an event with about 1700 in attendance and that was a logistically complicated operation involving months of planning. If anyone reading this is a ancient studies scholar, please help me out because every time I visit a Roman era outdoor theatre I have the same burning questions. How did people get to the show? Like, was there a big lot outside to park 15,000 chariots? Was there advertising? (Tuesday Tuesday Tuesday watch Africa’s most bloodthirsty lions devour over 100 gladiators in one hour! Children 12 and under free. No toga, no sandals no service). Was there an admission fee? Seat assignments? Concessions? And most importantly, where did 15,000 people go to the bathroom?
The amphitheatre held up through the ages in part because it was constructed with an alternating pattern of stones and long skinny brick which strengthened the walls during earthquakes. (You’ll notice from my previous posts that this earthquake proof engineering is a common feature of Albanian architecture. I alternated between feeling impressed at the architect’s ingenuity and paranoia that we’d get caught in an earthquake).
The amphitheatre of Durrës was only discovered in the 1960’s. No one knew it was there because it was covered in houses and apartment buildings. You can see the above video clip that the theatre has only been partially excavated and how contemporary architecture is nibbling at the rows of seats.
The highlight of the amphiteatre is the 6th century chapel hidden in the galleries. Astonishly the chapel is decorated Byzantine style mosaics. Thank goodness I had packed a flashlight or we would have missed all the subtle details and coloring of this treasure.
This is the first time I’d ever seen lime green used in a Byzantine mosaic.
Pink cheeks—so charming!
Details of the hidden chapel.
Our ticket to the amphitheatre included admission to the archeological museum just a few blocks a way. The museum had some fine pieces (but no photo’s allowed, grrrrrrrr). By the time we left the museum we were starving but as we walked outside a heavy thunderstorm engulfed us. Taking shelter under an awning to a closed bank we grumbled about how hungry we were and with our guest house a long walk away dinner was not coming soon. Now this was a time for me, an internationally recognized picnic eating professional, to shine. Pulling my backpack to my chest, I took out emergency snacks and a plastic fork and (here’s the part I’m most proud of) condiments. HOB and I passed them back and forth, munching away inches away from lightening and sheets of rain.
Once the rain let up we schlepped back to our room where we prepared a proper dinner of a salad drenched with delicious Albanian olive oil.
After this rushed but culturally satisfying day, we sprayed ourselves with mosquito repellent, and slipped into bed, lit by the pink glow of this hilariously vagina-like night light.
How we got to Durrës: bus from Shkodër.
Where we slept: My Home Guest House. Price: €19.00 for a double. Recommended: yes.