Durres, first discovered by the adventurous southern neighbours the Greeks in 627 BC, is Albania's largest city along the coast and it's no.1 port. The Illyrians (ancestors of what are now Albanians) moved in in around 312 BC but were soon forced away and the town changed hands between the Romans and the Greeks followed by the Bulgarians and then it became part of the Venetians large empire. The Turks got hold of it in 1501 and the Albanians and Durres finally got independence in 1912, unfortunately it only lasted for 3 days (is that the shortest ever?), this time Albania fell to the Serbs and it was until the following year when they raised the flag again and crowned Durres the capital.
But 1913 wasn't a great time to start a nation as WW1 was just around the corner, poor old Durres once again became occupied by Italy and later by the Austrian-Hungarians and had to wait until 1918 to get itself together once again! Durres remained the temporary capital of Albania until 1920. Notoriously decrepit during the 19th century, Durres suffered an earthquake in 1926 and the rebuilding which then took place gave the city it's current appearance. Having had good investment from the Italians and a new harbour built, Durres was just starting to look promising when the World War II came around, it was annexed to fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany. Originally used as a location for an Italian attempt to invade the Greeks, it was then heavily bombed by Allied Forces and the port was blown up by the Germans who by 1944 were backing out at this time (cowards!). A rather quiet period of communism followed for the next 35 years and when it collapsed Durres became the no.1 point of mass emmigration. The close distance to Italy is ever so apparent and boats would race across throughout the 90's and early 2000's (following an influx of refugees from Kosovo), if nearly intercepted by the Italian police, the gangs would throw passengers into the water, so that the boats had to stop. When purchasing a "ticket to freedom", it was said that people were given two chances if they didn't make it the first time. Boats from the port were also forced to Italy at gunpoint. All in all making for lively sea traditions!
Getting to Durres
I've been informed that the roads are now considerably better than they were when I visited and that the coastal road down to the south is finally completed. I arrived by train from Tirana (20p/1 hour), an interesting journey in itself, the train had no windows and went at a slow pace whilst kids walked up and down saying the names of the products they had for sale in a sing-song. Onlookers from the nearby fields would also stare at the train but we were fortunate enough not to get any stones thrown through the windows by kids (which is known to happen). There are also daily ferry boats to Bari, Italy (and probably Brindisi, Italy and Koper, Slovenia)
Staying in Durres
I stayed in a hotel room for about 5 euros, approached by someone with a room at the station (a regular occurance in the Balkans), who spoke good English (a first during the trip in Albania), he agreed to show it. Quite a nice place actually and had the all important a/c, very important as it was 42 degrees celsius ;)!.
Durres in general
Italian is widely spoken throughout Durres and German is probably the 2nd most used language. Plenty of richer Albanians in Durres, those who have worked abroad and are now living it up on the coast or have returned for a holiday.
There are several interesting buildings in Durres such as the Estrada theatre, the philharmonic orchestra, the library and the Museum of History. The harbour is a nice place to go and there are also numerous beaches but I would choose somewhere else if you want a beach holiday, the beach is scruffy, busy, broken glass, parts of boats.. all kinds of rubbish there. Worst beach I've ever seen, no idea how people can sunbath amongst litter! When I asked locals why it was so untidy, they said "All the shit comes from Italy" (which I found quite entertaining, they're not keen on the Italians due to their incredible racism towards Albanians!). Durres has a relaxed atmosphere, people are friendly and helpful and I had some excellent pizzas there. It's not worth visiting for longer than a day though, there are much more interesting places like Gjirokaster to go to.