A Roman amphitheatre, Byzantine mosaics, and an emergency picnic with bragging rights in Durrës

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.

ampitheatre

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?

wall

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.

wall

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.

jazzhands

This is the first time I’d ever seen lime green used in a Byzantine mosaic.

face

Pink cheeks—so charming!

detail

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.

salad

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.

vaglight

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.

19 comments

  1. Parking for 15,000 chariots made me laugh! (On a train!) My specialty was modern history so no idea about the logistics. I should ask a fellow historian 😀

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    1. Glad I made you laugh, but seriously, parking is something I deal with a lot at my job and I really do want to know how so many people got to the theatre at the same time—it’s not like the population was so dense in that region at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are right and, I thought you have a good historical point of view! You could write a paper if historical materials are available!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A chapel under the amphitheater? Well, the Mall of America next to the Minneapolis airport has a wedding chapel. In fact my brother’s third wedding was there. They took care of everything from flowers to little Jordan almonds. (15 years ago, and he is still married). Good adventure! And I’m sure you had your trusty waterproof shoes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Jordan almonds were a classy touch—glad marriage number three was a keeper!

      My brother got married at sort of pop up chapel operation in Niagara Falls. The ceremony was in front of the falls and they brought a boom box with a scratchy renditions of “here comes the bride” that they switched on a the crucial moment.

      Yes, the waterproof shoes out in force. I adore them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Don’t you think most people got there the same way you did? By walking?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, a lot of people walked but thinking about population density I wonder if that many people lived within walking distance. I’m so curious to know!

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  4. As always, you cracked me up. And how pretty you look in the video. And where DID they go to the bathroom??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to share a laugh with you. I think I was feeling more water logged than pretty, but thanks.

      I want to know where the bathrooms were but I’m not sure I want to know what it would be like to clean a bathroom for 15,000 guests….

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  5. Thanks for posting. Likely never be able to visit there, so you am enjoying these photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, marlandphotos. I hope you do get a chance to visit Albania—I’m sure your photos would be much better than mine!

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      1. You are so humble and modest! Thanks for the compliment, but I also think you take great photos.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. 19 Euros for a double? Holy schnikes! Cracks around the windows? Is that why you had to use mosquito repellant?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it was cheap and a pretty nice place too, basic but clean. Our shower involved a bucket! The room was right next to the beach and I think the whole region is a mosquito party zone.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Bathrooms? They’d have been mostly men in the amphitheatre, right? They probably had a ditch dug outside that drained into the nearest brook. Or the outside walls now benefit from preservation by ammonia! I don’t think I’ll ever get to Albania either, so thanks for the tour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that image of a gigantic piss ditch, read it right after I finished lunch…….

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  8. You’re welcome. You did wonder….!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post! Durres was a main city back in Roman days as they landed there after crossing the sea. It was supposed to be very busy station.
    By the way, right next to the museum is Vollga zone, which has some good restaurants to eat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks thedailyam. The next time we’re in Durres we’ll look for one of those restaurants—I hear the sea food in Durres is excellent!

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