For all of Albania’s history and landmarks, there are few places that surpass Tirana as an area of interest.
From bunkers and old communist buildings to art and national museums, it has something for everyone. However, just a few miles outside the capital is the small town of Kruja, which sits at the heart of most of the country’s history over the last thousand years.
Kruja is a small town, but what sits above its old, cobbled streets is a large castle complex, dating back as early as the 5th Century, which overshadows the buildings below. Within is a multitude of historical sites, ranging from museums to ruins, with the occasional restaurant mixed in for good measure.
Kruja Castle courtyard from above
The courtyard itself is what you would expect of a many-centuries old fortress, with the majority in ruins or reduced to foundations. However, among these are partial structures, including the walls and the old church, still containing the same bell which rang the day Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, died over 500 years ago.
Sadly, the church was damaged by the earthquakes in 2019, so access is currently restricted. Unfortunate for any would-be visitors at present, but given the number of attackers and conquerors, as well as the impact of mother nature over the hundreds of years this incredible and robust piece of architecture has stood, one can confidently hope it will be back open the public in the future.
Regardless of the state of these ruins, their lack of access is compensated for by the modern amendments that have turned two main aspects of this impressive fortress into a history buff’s dream.
The Tower and Walls of Kruja Castle
The National Museum on site is a much more modern construction, but one which blends into the style of the castle remains. Designed by the same architect who envisaged the Pyramid of Tirana, the National Museum, also known as Skanderbeg Museum, it is a collection of relics, artwork and tales of the life and times of Gjergj Skanderbeg. Skanderbeg is Albania’s national hero and the symbol and embodiment of the country’s strength, having been an Albanian commander from the 15th Century who helped defend Albania’s independence against multiple invasions from the Ottoman empire in the 1400s.
Containing items including Skanderbeg’s sword and a replica of his helmet (the real one being in a museum in Vienna), this museum provides a fantastic timeline of this period of Albanian history, and fantastically compliments the consistently celebrated Skanderbeg, who is celebrated in museums and monuments across Albania, including in the main square (Skanderbeg Square) in Tirana.
The National Museum “Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu” among the castle ruins and walls
As with most towns and cities in the Balkans which have a claim to history, Kruje also has its own ethnographic museum, which is located within the castle grounds.
This old Ottoman-style, wooden house sits on one of the back streets, and contains items, clothing, photographs and stories of Albania’s past and how those in this region would have lived during not-so-recent times.
Kruja’s Ethnographic Museum
A day could easily be spent in the castle alone, especially if enjoying local cuisines at one of the fantastic restaurants in the compound. However, Kruja has so much to offer, and time must be made to also appreciate the old town just a stone’s throw from the castle, as well as the Sarisalltik pilgrimage site and accompanying views from Mount Kruje just a short drive uphill.
Kruje, much like Albania as a whole, is truly a treasure trove waiting to be fully unearthed and appreciated.
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 Castle?
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.