Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania

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UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List – Apollonia

Saint Mary's Church in Apollonia is a mix of east and west both in religious leanings and architecture.
Saint Mary’s Church in Apollonia is a mix of east and west both in religious leanings and architecture.

As our trip to Albania was coming to a close we wanted to find something interesting to break up the five hour drive north from Sarandë to Tirana. We had already been to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Berat, Butrint, and Girokaster on the way south, so something else would have to be found. Looking at the UNESCO listings we found a promising entry on the tentative list.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
Apollonia was a common name for classical cities trying to curry the favor of the sun god.

The Ancient City of Apollonia lies just a little ways off the path outside of Fier about halfway along the route. The write-up sounded intriguing offering spectacular Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins to clamber around. We were set. With our destination programmed into the trusty smart phone we said goodbye to our beachfront apartment rental, stopped for provisions at the town bakery and drove off searching for Apollonia.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
The museum of Apollonia is housed in the old monastery building.

Finding anything in Albania can be a challenge, usually requiring all of our skills at map reading, data-mining, and good old, get out of the car and ask, face to face communication. Apollonia proved no different. The road north to Fier was easy enough. We had driven down most of it on the way south so some of it, at least, was back-tracking along the same “super highway.” Once we were in Fier, however, we let the phone guide us as google maps immediately took us off the main route and down an unsigned, dusty  street.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
Another view of the monastery/museum.

We passed a series of what looked like chop shops, some produce distribution points, through crowded streets with cars, bikes and motorcycles zipping left right and center, and eventually over the train tracks heading out of town. We seemed to be going in the right direction according to the tourist map we had picked up somewhere along the way so we kept on going. The problem was, neither map (paper or digital) showed any roads leading out to Apollonia, just a dot on the map in the middle of nowhere. But that was ok, because as we drove out of Fier and came parallel to the dot on the map, Albania’s burgeoning tourism industry came to life and offered a series of beat up metal signs that lead us through a neighborhood, past old communist era bunkers, over a canal and finally along a dirt track and up a hill with obvious signs of classical civilization at the top.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
Intricate carvings adorn the entrance to the Church of Saint Mary at Apollonia

We pulled into what we were sure was the parking area and climbed the last few meters up to the gate where we paid our 700 lek entrance fee, turned down the offer of a guide, grabbed an English language pamphlet and went in search of the bathrooms. Ah, sweet relief. The “facilities” were tucked away in one corner of the 13th century monastery and almost worth the five dollar price of entry. With that little bit of business out of the way we were free to explore.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
The frescoes inside the church are just beautiful.

Apollonia was originally a Greek colony that flourished and grew and was eventually taken over by the Romans. It has been mentioned throughout history as a city of importance and a gateway for Greek and Roman influence in the Balkans. It was all but abandoned shortly after a massive earthquake diverted the flow of the Aoos river and dried up any further use of the harbor. Religious interest remained strong, however, and the Church of Saint Mary and a modest monastery come down to us from later periods.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
There are some incredible artifacts housed in the small museum.

There’s enough on the grounds of the Archaeological Park to keep you busy for a few hours. The temple of Apollo stands in some reminiscent form of its former glory with the Greek theater just a short walk away being a good place to sit in the shade and contemplate the ebb and flow of civilization (and perhaps drink a bottle of water and munch on a cheese stuffed pastry). But the real gems here are the church and the museum.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
The small museum at Apollonia has a beautiful glass collection

Inside the church we discovered a series of stunning frescoes that have survived the centuries. The lighting was difficult so photographs were a challenge but the church was peaceful and quiet and enchanting. Afterwards we walked through the small museum in the converted monastery building. As it happened, a little group of expats out of Tirana was visiting the site at the same time and we were surprised by their comments about the place. It seems this small museum outshines the national museum in Tirana with many more items from antiquity on display. I have to say, we were impressed with several pieces we had never seen before and the quality of almost everything was just astounding.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
The old bell tower still stands atop the hill at Apollonia

In the end, we were glad to have found this peaceful, park like set of ruins atop a low hill overlooking the surrounding farm lands. There wasn’t much as far as ruins go, but the artifacts in the small museum and the beautiful 13th century church more than made up for it. We were glad we had taken the side track out of Fier and were looking forward to the next adventure along the road in Albania.

Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania
Caught in the act!

Practical Information

  • Apollonia is an Archaeological Park and Museum displaying artifacts and ruins from ancient Greece and Rome.
  • Plan on spending about two hours to do the site properly.
  • There’s no children’s playground but the area is grassy and easily accessible by foot.
  • There is small restaurant on the site that looked good, but a small party seemed to be taking over the place. There is no other food or drink in the area, so consider bringing your own water and snacks.
  • For more information check out the Apollonia Archaeological Park Official Website
  • You can get to Fier by bus with Gjirafa and then taxi out to Pojan
  • We recommend a rental car as the best way to get around Albania, Cheap and easy driving.

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Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania

22 thoughts on “Searching for the Past at Apollonia Archaeological Park, Albania”

  1. Perfect combination of nature and history. Definitely my kind of place. I can spend an entire day discovering those small nuances in the building.

  2. I love the frescoes and the details of the carvings. I would have never thought to find such a site in Albania, but it’s a pleasant surprise. I love learning about archaeological sites.

  3. What a great find! It’s always interesting to find out about a country’s history through visiting UNESCO sites. Albania looks like an absolutely fascinating place!

  4. Albania is on travel radar for awhile now amd seeing more of more beautiful old ruins and artifacts are definite now shot up on my list. Appollonia looks a good place to wander and great opportunity for old ruin photography.

  5. Wonderful photos. I think the entrance fee was well worth the use of the toilets (sans a guide, that could have been both amusing and awkward). I have not yet visited Albania, but it is on the list!

  6. Albania looks like an incredible place – and better still that it has not been overrun with tourists just yet. I must get there soon before the place becomes too popular and loses that eastern bloc charm!

  7. I honestly thought I was going to be reading about Greece here. How interesting to have these ruins in Eastern Europe. I have only spent some time in a few countries, not Albania, but it sounds really interesting.I’ve read quite a few books about this country in relation to the Balkans War…fascinating stuff.

  8. Wow, these ruins are gorgeous! I love the intricate details in the stone.

    We’ve been to Albania on a road trip and driving there is definitely an adventure as you said. We drove through parts where the roads didn’t exist yet or were being built, but only sections existed. So you’d just drive across the field toward the next section!

  9. I’ve just returned from Macedonia and found getting hold of tourist information and maps a challenge. I’m heading to Albania next summer. Do you have any suggestions for good resources?

  10. I’ve never been to Albania but it does look like an intriguing country. I like that there is not a well developed tourist industry; it will keep the glitz out and allow you to see the authentic gems.

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