Albanian Heritage – (UNESCO World Heritage & Greek and Roman Ruins)
knowledgeable local guide customisable all year round
It may seem unbelievable now, but Albania’s importance in the ancient world is writ large in the historical sources.
Why was Albania so important? One look at its geography will tell you. This is a country blessed with natural harbors, and a short sea crossing to the Italian port of Brindisi. It is also the start of the most direct overland route from the Adriatic to Istanbul, which in Roman times was traced by the Via Egnatia. A natural staging post between the eastern and western Mediterranean, Albania flourished under Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.
It is this rich and forgotten history that forms the backbone of our tour. We visit ancient cities that once had glittering reputations, but have since fallen into ruin and have only ever been partially excavated. Meanwhile, the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Berat and Gjirokastra shine a light onto the civilization that developed under five centuries of Ottoman rule. Berat, known as ‘the town of a thousand windows’, is home to the museum of the sixteenth-century iconographer Onufri, while Gjirokastra, the birthplace of the novelist Ismail Kadare, is believed to be the setting for his celebrated Chronicle in Stone.
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All our tours are private and can be adapted to your wishes. Simply get in touch to arrange your dream itinerary.
The largest museum in Albania holds many of the country’s archaeological treasures and a replica of Skanderbeg’s massive sword (how he held it, rode his horse and fought at the same time is a mystery). The excellent collection is almost entirely signed in English and takes you chronologically from ancient Illyria to the postcommunist era. One highlight of the museum is a terrific exhibition of icons by Onufri, a renowned 16th-century Albanian master of colour.
Durres was a key port for both the Greeks and the Romans, and a vital link on the route from Europe to Asia. We visit its amphitheatre, the largest in the Balkans, as well as the Roman forum, the ancient city walls and the archaeological museum. Then it’s time for Apollonia. Founded by colonists from Corinth around 600 BC, it was later home to a famous Academy, where Octavian was studying in 44 BC. Finds are displayed in the cloisters of a 13th-century Byzantine monastery. First of two nights in Berat.
Berat. A UNESCO world heritage site, Berat is one of Albania’s oldest and most attractive cities, with many Ottoman houses scattered across the hills above the river. A walking tour of the lower town includes the 15th-century mosque and the 18th-century Halvati Teqe. Meanwhile, the Byzantine citadel above shelters the Church of St Mary – home to the dazzling Onufri Icon Museum where 16th- and 17th-century Christian art and a beautiful iconostasis are displayed. Overnight in Berat.
Once the largest city in southern Illyria, Byllis is a vast and atmospheric archaeological site, perched on a hilltop and commanding spectacular views. In Late Antiquity Byllis became an important Christian centre, and several basilicas were built. Vlora is the country’s second port; the first parliament convened here following the declaration of independence in 1912. Here, we see the Muradie Mosque; built in 1537 by the greatest of Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan. Overnight in Vlora.
The day is spent travelling through Llogara National Park and along the breathtaking Ionic coast. The Llogara Pass is always a high point (literally) on any tour of Albania. We’ll drive down to sea level from an altitude of 1,000 meters in about 20 minutes, enjoying magnificent views of the coast along the way (yes, we’ll stop for a photo.)
Continue travelling through Albanian Riviera, along the breathtaking Ionic coast. The journey is broken in the bay of Porto Palermo, a few kilometres from the small town of Himara, where we visit a Venetian fort and castle. After walking tour and lunch call at Qeparo Old Village, arrive in Saranda for a panoramic view of the bay before continuing to the hotel for a one-night stay.
Situated by a lake close to the Greek border, Butrint (Buthrotum) was settled by Greeks from nearby Corfu in the 6th century BC. It became an important Roman colony, declined in Late Antiquity and was abandoned in the Middle Ages. Lords Sainsbury and Rothschild set up the Butrint Foundation in 1991 to protect and examine the site. Excavation has revealed substantial elements of the late Roman and Byzantine town including a basilica, baptistery and a palace. First of two nights in Gjirokastra.
The steep cobbled streets and stone-roofed Ottoman houses of Gjirokastra are best appreciated from the castle. We visit the Old Bazaar, a traditional Ottoman house and the former home of dictator Enver Hoxha, now an ethnographic museum. In the afternoon, the remote village of Labova e Kryqit (Labova of the Cross) is our destination – to see one of the oldest Byzantine churches in Albania, dating back to the 6th century. Overnight in Gjirokastra.
Drive north to the Monastery of Ardenica, built in 1282 by Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II Palaiologos and famous as the site of the wedding in 1451 of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg. Next stop is Kruja, Albania’s medieval capital, clustered around its restored bazaar, above which sits a ruined citadel and castle. It is also home to an excellent Ethnographic Museum and a modern museum dedicated to the life of Gjergj Kastrioti (aka Skanderbeg). Overnight in Kruja.
Shkodra is one of the oldest and most populated cities in Albania’s north. It’s citadel, Rozafa Castle, is one of the oldest of the Balkans. Drive to Lezha to see the Skanderbeg memorial, built on the site of the ruined cathedral where the hero is buried and the Citadel up in the hill. Lezha Citadel dates back to Hellenic era and has a magnificent view over the Adriatic sea. Overnight in Tirana.
Depending on your departure time, morning tour of Tirana includes some of the city’s grand central boulevards, lined with relics of its Ottoman, Italian and Communist past. There is also a visit to the National Art Gallery. Transfer to Tirana International Airport.