Even though it was after midnight before we got to bed we, well I should say I, was up with the roosters bright and early at 6:20 am on our first full day in Albania. Even though I was still soooo tired I couldn’t resist getting up and heading out to the balcony to see the castle that we’d only seen lit up the night before. But was I ever in for a treat! Not only could I see the castle and the watchtower up on the hill, but there behind our hotel was a mountain rising up behind us. And then we could look down on to the town below with the bazaar, the mosque, and all kinds of houses that went down the side of the mountain. It was stunning. Take a look for yourself….
So very worth being awake at such an early hour. Definitely one of those “pinch me” moments that I’ll remember forever as I stood out on the balcony taking it all in, with the sun rising and giving everything a beautiful glow. Just that quiet time of the day before the town started bustling with people. I’m so glad the roosters woke me up so I didn’t miss it.
After going back to bed for a couple more hours sleep it was time for all of us to get up and get the day started. We had lots of exploring to do so we headed off walking in the direction of the castle on the hill through the Ottoman bazaar that was right behind our hotel. Made up of quaint wooden market buildings along slick cobblestone street (be very careful walking on the stones even when they are dry), this is Albania’s prime souvenir shopping area. The buildings and streets are only abut 50 years old but with cobblestone streets, complete with a drainage system down the center, and then the red tiled roofs, it seems to have a much older feeling.
In the bazaar are all kinds of local crafts, along with the typical souvenirs found everywhere else, all geared to cater to the tourists. We aren’t much into shopping so we didn’t linger too long in the bazaar although one thing did catch our eye-
This little shop was selling woven mats and there was one for each of us all hanging together on display! They must have known we were coming. :-) We only stopped long enough for this quick photo and then we continued on our way up the hill to the citadel of Kruja.
Citadel and Watch Tower
Set on a rocky outcrop with a wall of mountains as the backdrop, the citadel of Kruja is considered to be great alternative if you don’t have time to visit the towns of Berat and Gjirokastra. Lucky for us though all three towns were on our tour and this was just our first stop. Once inside the main gate of the citadel you’ll find a sloping field with some ruins, low buildings, the watch tower, and the Skanderbeg Museum (which is in the castle we’d seen from our hotel). The Skanderbeg Museum is dedicated to Albania’s greatest national hero, Gjergi Kastrioti, who was born here and successfully defended the town many times. As this was on our itinerary for our tour we didn’t go in just yet but instead wandered the rest of the way up to the watch tower to check it out.
The watch tower was part of a chain of communication used by Skanderbeg, in the 15th century, whereby fire beacons lit at Kruja could be seen by the towns of Petrela in the south and Lezhe in the north. Artifacts dating back to the 3rd century BC have been excavated at Kruja suggesting the site was fortified since ancient times, long before Skanderbeg led Albania’s resistance to Ottoman rule.
Not wanting to get too far from the hotel, or see too many things that we knew we were going to see on our tour, we decided to head back down the hill in to town to check on whether our guide had arrived with the rest of the people on our tour. We found they were all still a while out yet so we set back off in the other direction for a little stroll around the town and our first of many gelatos and other sweet treats on this trip. :-)
After our little sweet treat to cool us down, and taking some funny photos of the kiddo that I am still trying to convince him to let me post (I’ve even offered him $5 and he still said no!), and a little rest back in our room (we were still trying to get over a 16 hour flight and jet lag), it was time to meet up with our guide and the rest of the folks on the tour and really get out and see the sights!
Our first visit was the humble and charming Ethnographic Museum back up in the citadel and if you’re like me you might not know exactly what an Ethnographic Museum is. In a nutshell ethnography is the study of people and cultures- so the museum gave us insight into how the people of Albania have lived for the past few hundred years.
The museum is in a traditional home from 1764 and we were given a guided tour through many rooms, including those sections that kept the menfolk and their guests strictly apart from the family rooms. What was really neat were the little lofts above these rooms with decorative partitions so the women could listen in on the conversations! There is also a children’s room, Turkish bath, a kitchen with all its equipment, olive oil processing tools, and information about how to make their traditional and characteristic felt hats and shoes.
Most of the items in the museum are original and vary in age from 60 to 500 years old. Items included ceramics, wood, stone, wool, and embroidery pieces exhibited throughout the home, along with traditional clothing of both Muslim and Christian inhabitants of Kruja. The guide for the museum was enthusiastic and made the tour quite interesting with his stories and jokes along the way.
Our next stop was in to the castle (which I was dying to get a peek at) but once inside I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. As humble as the Ethnographic Museum was the Skanderbeg Museum is very grand and formal. For being a museum everything just seemed too new and not so much the artifacts from the times. Although this was likely my least favourite part of the whole tour, it is worth a visit for those that would like to learn all about Albania’s national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, who was born in Kruja in 1405.
Kastrioti fought bravely for the Ottomans, after he was taken from his family, and earned himself the title of Iskender Bey (or Skanderbeg in English) which refers to Alexander the Great. He later deserted the army of his captors and eventually made it back to Albania where he took control of Kruja. He then successfully fended off the Ottoman army from his homeland for over 30 years, although in 1467 the Ottomans were able to regain control in Albania after a massive campaign. Skanderbeg died of malaria the following year. You’ll find tributes and reminders of Skanderbeg all through Albania in other museums, statues, and even buildings that were saved from destruction simply due to a connection with Skanderbeg.
There was one thing about the museum I did love….the view from its terrace out over Kruja, to the mountains behind it, and on a clear day, all the way to the Adriatic Sea.
The next four photos are basically the 180°+ degree view from the terrace from left to right.
Yep, Kruja is really that beautiful.
After this we were given a little free time to shop in the bazaar on the way back to the hotel, or to rest and freshen up a little before dinner. On this tour all of our dinners were included and we were eager to try out some local dishes. We were not disappointed over the course of the week and tried many things that elicited comments like “oh my goodness that’s SO good”. I’ve even tried to recreate the Greek salads we had every day, now that we’re back home, but so far I’m not quite getting that Albanian awesomeness with mine.
This particular evening we dined with the group in the restaurant at our hotel, and while delicious, the one thing that will forever be in my memories about this dinner was the view. The dining room was open with views of the castle and watch tower, the same one that I woke up to oh so many hours earlier, but this time we were treated to a breathtaking sunset.
Are you thinking of visiting Kruja? Here are a few helpful tips and sites to help with your planning:
- Kruja is about 50 km (30 miles) from Tirana so it makes for an easy day trip if you are based there (although I would highly recommend staying in Kruja at the Panorama Hotel which I’ll be doing a review of in my next post about Albania).
- It can be reached via taxi, furgon bus, or car (if you have rented one). Just follow the hairpin roads up, up, up the mountain past the stone quarries and you’ll find this charming little town.
- For supplies, like bottled water and even sunscreen, there is a little shop on the street that runs behind the Panorama Hotel just up the street a little from the bazaar, called ‘Pengili Market’.
- Find out what others have to say on TripAdvisor about Kruja Castle, the Ethnographic Museum, the Bazaar, and the Skanderbeg Museum.
To read more about our adventures on our tour around Albania, please feel free to check out these posts:
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