Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kruje Redux, Again & Again

Kruje was both our first and last day trip here in Albania.  Because of this, here's a repost of a popular blog posting from two years ago:


We had been in Albania less than a month before we discovering the town of Kruje.  Located less than an hour driving time outside of Tirana (which is nothing given the road conditions in the country and the time it takes to drive the shortest of distances), this small mountainside town is historic, touristy, and breathtaking all at the same time.  It has become our go-to location to take our out of town visitors- both official and unofficial.

View of the castle ruins
During the 15th Century Kruje was an important part of Albania's resistance movement against the invading Ottoman Empire.  Under the leadership of Albania's national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, its castle was a part of Albania's inter-connected communication system that ran the length of the country warning citizens of impending invaders.  Its strategic location is still apparent.  On a clear day, you can see the Adriatic Sea to the west, Montenegro to the north, and the snow covered peaks of southeastern Albania to the south. On one visit we were fortunate enough to see all three at sunset (we even saw the green flash of the sun sinking into the horizon- something we had only previously seen in Hawaii).  During all of our visits, with the sheer mountains serving as a backdrop, we've seen the rolling hills filled with olive groves giving way to the flatter coastal plains.  Sometimes the mountains are shrouded in low lying clouds but it is always beautiful.

By far, the main historical attraction of Kruje is its castle ruins and the Skenderbeg Museum.  While the walls remain, the castle itself is mostly in ruins.  It is possible to see the remains of some of the original buildings, including a mostly deteriorated monastery.  A small ethnographic museum depicting early life in Albania is located in one corner of the grounds.  And this being Albania, several cafes have been erected on spots that were once strategically placed lookout spots along the castle's exterior walls. 

In 1982, the Skenderbeg Museum, designed by Pranvera Hoxha, the architecture daughter of the later dictator, opened.  We've toured this museum on several occasions both by ourselves and under the guidance of English speaking docents.  As you wind through the warren of small rooms filled with ancient artifacts, maps, and historical reproductions, you are treated to a thorough retelling of Albania's ancient history.  The crowning jewel of the museum, however, is the panoramic views from the building's rooftop terrace.  From here you can see to the Adriatic and beyond.  (Sidney, of course, is partial to the spring fed water fountain that is built into the side of the museum's exterior walls).

The old Ottoman Bazaar; many a gift
has been purchased here
A well preserved stone lined Ottoman Bazaar serves as the heart of the tourist district.  Here aggressive merchants invite you into their shops to view their wares. Some of the goods are tacky- coffee mugs and magnets sporting the faces of Enver Hoxha, the late dictator, and Sali Berisha, the former long time Prime Minister. Soviet era military memorabilia (a helmet with a bullet hole??) shares shelf space with hand carved olive wood bowls and old rusted irons.  Other items are uniquely Albanian.Where else can you get a hand woven rug that sports both the Albanian and American flags and stone ashtrays shaped like the ubiquitous Albanian bunkers? Whatever your fancy; whether it be traditional wedding costumes, felted wool slippers and hats, hand embroidered tablecloths, antique dowry chests, or silver filigree jewelry, you can buy it here. Haggling is welcome as are Euros or even American dollars. You will be promised a deal because you are a "special friend".  If you have money to spend and want to shop, the Ottoman Bazaar is the place to go.

This would not be an Albanian town if it wasn't filled with smoke filled cafes and restaurants.  You don't go to Kruje because you want fine dining.  Whether tucked into nooks in the bazaar or perched a top the castle ruins, Kruje has its share of restaurants with menus boasting "traditional Albanian cuisines".  Roasted lamb and village chicken (whole roasted chicken served over heavily salted rice) accompany whatever grilled vegetable is in season.  As is the case in all restaurants in this country, pizza is always an option (and one usually taken by the Brown boys). Harsh tasting red wine and raki are the drinks of choice.  The often mediocre quality of the food is quickly forgotten since the scenic views are the real reason for your visit.

Kruje seems to have a little something for everyone and that is why we keep going back.  And as any one who has visited us can attest to, if you visited us in Albania, we took you to Kruje.

Clouds looming over the mountains

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