On the outskirts of Albania’s bustling capital Tirana, there’s an eclectic selection of places worth visiting.
These range from underground bunkers and the cable car up mount Dajti to the rural, often empty Albanian countryside. One such place is Kruja (or Kruje), a short drive from the capital. Well, a short drive of anything from 15 minutes to over an hour thanks to the seemingly never-ending traffic spilling over from the city where traffic never stops (and sometimes stops suddenly and without warning, signal or explanation).
Once the capital of Albania during the middle ages, Kruja has clung to the side of Mount Kruje since at least the 7th Century and is one of Albania’s towns that has managed to retain a number of historical landmarks and lifestyles, among the modern developments and hotels.
What awaits you here is a view into a much more traditional style of living. Archaic cobbled streets wind through the bazaar selling handicrafts such as handmade carpets and clothing, as well as the obligatory selection of trinkets and souvenirs. Here, the already relaxed pace of Balkan life is further slowed as locals and tourists alike sit in the cafes watching the world go by.
The cobbled streets of Kruja’s old market
Kruja itself is a small city, but houses an expansive castle complex which also hosts the impressive Skanderbeg and ethnographic museums, as well as enviable and affordable restaurants. The castle contains a lot of Kruja’s main attractions, but what awaits back in the old town is a call back to a simpler way of life that hasn’t sold out to the metropolitan or tourist market.
Take a step further away and a road leads sharply uphill, winding away from this tranquil, slow-paced town further into the clouds. Sharp hairpin turns cling to the edge of the mountain on a surprisingly, and frankly reassuringly, well surfaced road before reaching a car park on a plateau.
What awaits you here is a view out over Albania like no other. In fact, it’s not just Albania within this extraordinary panoramic, as the Adriatic Sea, the mountains of Montenegro to the north, and Greece to the south also frame the jaw-dropping vista of the Albanian countryside including Tirana and Kruja’s urban sprawl.
The view from the top of the Kruje mountain shows Tirana, Kruja, the Albanian countryside, as well as Greek and Montenegrin mountains and the Adriatic sea
From this viewpoint, a stairway leads down the mountainside to one of Europe’s most unusual landmarks, and possibly one of the world’s most unexpected pilgrimage sites.
Nearly 1200 metres up the mountain of Kruja, near to the very first mosque built in Albania, is the colourful site of Sarisalltik. Vibrant green and white décor leads down into an underground cavern, hosting the source of a natural spring of holy water, from which Kruja (the Albanian word for ‘fountain’) gets its name. Named after a dervish missionary of the Besktashi Order, Sarisalltik is fabled to have saved a virgin from sacrifice to a multi-headed dragon which was intent on burning the site.
For those particularly interested in committing to the full pilgrimage experience, the hiking route leads up the rocky and uneven Kruje mountainside, so be prepared for both the distance and elevation over the jagged rocks constituting the marked trails, a far cry from the smooth tarmac road behind.
Steps leading down to the Sarisalltik pilgrimage site
Kruja is without doubt one of Albania’s most interesting and beautiful places, quite a boast in a country full of wonders that often fail to get the attention and footfall they deserve.
If you have half a day spare in Tirana, be sure to put this stunning town on your to-do list. Further exploration of ethnographic and history museums, as well as the castle complex, can easily make for a truly enjoyable adventure. For those who want to experience Kruja’s charms for longer, there are plenty of hotels and facilities available for any length of stay.
To read more about our trip around Albania at Christmas in 2019, click here! Or, to see the full Kruja photo gallery, click here.
Read more about Kruja: Kruja Castle: The Heart of Albania’s National Identity
Where is Kruja?
If you are interested in learning more about Albania, our friends at Inspire Me World Travel, who organised our trip to Kruja, provide more information on their website, as well as flexible and customisable day or package tours, transfers and everything else you might need for a simple and fascinating stay in one of Europe’s hidden gems. Click here to find out more!
Article and images by Tom McBeth & Natasha Bryan
To see the full, high-quality, watermark-free images from Albania, click here to visit our Shutterstock gallery.