As we continued heading south from Himara we were treated to more beautiful scenery out the windows the coach and then we reached Palermo. Porto Palermo to be precise with its castle that has a highly debated and intriguing history.
The castle is situated in the bay of Porto Palermo, just a few kilometers south of Himara along the Albanian Riviera. The land the castle is on almost forms an island as it is connected to the mainland by only a thin strip of land surrounded by crystal clear water. The closer you get the more vibrant the vegetation becomes in fiery reds, yellows, and oranges.
The castle is quite well preserved, but there aren’t any guided tours there. I’ve read there is a custodian that will give you the key for a minimal fee so you can wander in and around the structure. We were fortunate to have our guide there to show us around, give us a little bit of the history, and point out some of the interesting bits we might have missed.
The debated part of the castle’s history is exactly when and who built it. Many guides, books, and websites assert that it was built in the 19th century by Ali Pasha Tepelena. Born near Tepelena during the height of the Ottoman period in the Balkans, Ali Pasha rose to be the leader of southern Albania and part of what is now Greece. He played a big part in building the local empire and left his mark in the architecture all over the region, with more than one castle along the coast said to have been built by him.
Other scholars, however, say this is untrue and believe it was most likely built by the Venetians prior to the evolution of the “star fort” design as it has the same triangular plan with round towers that is found at the Venetian fort at Butrint. It is also said that as recently as 1921 the castle was called Venetian and had a plaque above the entrance that had the carving of the lion of St. Mark on it, however this plaque is now missing. The weathering of the stones shows that it hasn’t been missing for too long though.
Historians also believe it was built earlier than Ali Pasha’s days because it would have been too vulnerable to cannon fire from the hill above so it must have been built before the time that cannons would have had the range to hit it. In more recent history the fort served as a Soviet submarine base during the communist regime in Albania with many tunnels and barracks within. There are also reminders on the walls of the chemicals and munitions stored there as seen from the marking “Benzine” on the wall in the photo below.
Despite its contested history one thing that can’t be argued is how picturesque the area is- both the castle itself and the area surrounding it. We really enjoyed wandering in and around and up to the top to check out all the nooks and crannies and then take in the incredible views. If you are ever in the area you should definitely make this a stop. Be sure to bring your camera for all the great photo opportunities, and also your flashlight so you can see to get around inside.
After wandering around for about an hour it was time for us to get back on the road to continue our journey to Saranda. Once on the bus our guide asked us if we’d like to stop for a coffee. They LOVE their coffee breaks in Albania but most of the people on the bus thought “Nah, let’s keep going. It’s really too hot for a coffee anyway” so that was our vote. Our guide however decided we’d stop anyway and we’re glad he did! Check out the place where we stopped -that we thought was just going to be some hum-drum coffee shop. There were waterfalls from a spring and there was ice cream! He didn’t mention the ice cream! If he had I’m sure our vote would have been different. Well at least L, the kiddo, and I would have voted differently. :-)
It wasn’t a long stop but it was refreshing just standing in the shade by the water as it cascaded over the rocks around us. Lesson from the story- let your guide take you wherever he wants for coffee as it might just be a wonderful surprise!
My next post as we continue on our journey through Albania will take us to the port city of Saranda where I’ll show you around town, and then give you a suggestion for a place to stay if you visit.
What did you think? Is Palermo picture perfect or what?
To read more about our adventures on our tour around Albania, please feel free to check out these posts:
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Next Post: An Evening Stroll Around Saranda