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New Europe

Day Twenty-three: Durrës

Bunkers on the beach at Durrės 
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Looking like giant jellyfish washed ashore, a few of the 400,000 concrete bunkers put up to guard Albania during the Hoxha regime dot the beach at Durrės.
Michael Palin - New EuropeParanoid about invasion, he not only ordered the construction of the bunkers, but made it illegal for Albanians to own maps of the country, or to listen to the BBC World Service, a crime punishable by eight years in jail.

This had a cryogenic effect on Albania. Past and future didn't exist, and for forty years or so it was left in self-imposed isolation.

One effect of the rehabilitation of Albania since the hardliners left is that its history has been rediscovered, and found to be long and rich. A city called Epidamnus was founded here seven centuries before Christ. Changing its name to Dyrrachium, and later Durrės, it became one of the main supply ports for the Romans' eastern empire, and, interestingly, a hotbed of Venus worship.

There's little evidence of any hotbeds but Durrės does have the remains of Roman baths and an amphitheatre, which is the largest of its kind in the Balkans. It's not far up the hill from the harbour and though one side has had houses grafted onto it, enough is preserved to help the imagination fill the terraces with a 15,000 full house baying for blood. The tunnel from which the gladiators emerged is still there and my guidebook tells me that during excavation they unearthed forty skeletons with their necks broken.

Today the area around the floor of the amphitheatre is green and swampy and all that emerges from the tunnel is the sound of hundreds of frogs croaking.

Outside the amphitheatre is another layer of history, a city wall 6 feet thick and 25 feet high, built of brick and rubble with antique capitals embedded in it. It dates from roughly 1,500 years ago, when the Roman empire had split and this area was ruled from Constantinople. From this time onwards Albania was effectively a part of Eastern Europe and remains even now one of those countries least influenced by Western thought and ideas.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-three: Durrës
  • Country/sea: Albania
  • Place: Durrės
  • Book page no: 57

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