Apollonia: Ancient Jewel of the Illyrian Coast


With such a large number of wonders to be explored in the consistently surprising little Adriatic marvel of Albania, a person might wonder why Apollonia stands as one of the highlights in a recent tour of the country. Well… because it truly is amazing.

The location is epic, the weather was perfect the day we visited, and, in typically friendly Albanian fashion, one of the attendants at the monastery happily volunteered to show us around without us even asking him to. He saw we could use some direction and invited us to explore Saint Mary’s Church and another building containing mosaic floors that were under excavation.

Everywhere we went in Albania we were warmly received and treated like royalty. Apollonia was no exception.

Perhaps our visit was so extraordinary because we’re from Canada, where next to no traces of ancient civilizations exist. Or perhaps they simply haven’t been discovered yet. Regardless of the reasons why it was special to us, our few hours spent exploring the ancient ruins remains one of the high points of my travels. There’s a bit of magic at Apollonia.

We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.

~ Bill Bryson

Situated on a hilltop just outside the village of Pojan, in Fier county, the beginnings of civilization in this amazing place are not exactly known, but it is generally agreed that ancient Greek colonists from Corinth, and possibly Corcyra, started a trading settlement there around 600 BC, at the invitation of the local Illyrians. It flourished over the next few centuries under both Greek and Roman rule as a city of major importance, home to 60,000 inhabitants at its peak, before its decline and eventual abandonment in the fourth century.

On the warm January afternoon we chose to visit Apollonia, the sun lazily drifted across the sky, twinkling warmly off the Adriatic Sea to the west, and a robust but pleasant breeze blew over the grass and through the trees. It was a Sunday, which we didn’t plan, but which meant we didn’t have to pay for the visit. I don’t think the cost is at all prohibitive, and, regardless of what they ask, it’s worth it (I discovered afterwards that it’s only 300 Lek or €2.45 to see it all).

It’s not one thing or another, in particular, that makes Apollonia so enjoyable, it’s the combination of so many things, each lovely or amazing or enjoyable in its own right. The “Monument to Agonothetes” (only the front of the building remains mostly intact), is impressive to this day and stands as a testament to a level of professional expertise not exceeded even in our technologically advanced era.

It stirred something inside me, indeed, and while sitting on the upper stone benches of the nearby Odeon, I was perfectly content to simply look down at what was left of the ancient monumental building and imagine what then was like compared to now. Most likely very similar. Although their architecture was far more beautiful.

The Monument to Agonothetes and area

South of the Odeon and the monument, across a beautiful, grassy meadow, sits a monastery, built some time after the abandonment of the city. Though unoccupied for some time now, its inhabitants at one time comprised the only communities to live on the site after its fourth-century demise. Inside the walls of the monastery is a gallery of first to fourth-century statues, busts, pottery, and other artifacts from the city ruins outside, some, surprisingly well-preserved, as well as the Saint Mary Church and the museum of Apollonia (which wasn’t open at the time of our visit).

Inside the monastery at Apollonia

A grove of cypress and orange trees makes the tranquil grounds inside the monastery even more lovely than they would otherwise be.

At the very top of the hill where Apollonia is situated, there’s a seemingly well-reviewed cafe nestled among a grove of olive trees. Though, because we were somewhat pressed for time, we didn’t dine at it. Pity. Guessing by everywhere else a person can find food in Albania, one could almost certainly be sure it’s good.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a tour from Tirane to Apollonia that includes an on-site archaeologist for more in-depth look at the history of the ruins. It also includes lunch at the aforementioned hilltop restaurant. You can check that out here.

Up the Hill

Because we were pressed for time that Sunday, we didn’t manage to explore the entire site. And I’m in no way upset about that. It only means that we have to return soon to discover what didn’t get explored the first time. I’ve been looking forward to the prospect since we left. We’ll be taking that tour for sure!

Our short time at Apollonia seemed to fly by. Three hours passed like thirty minutes as we contentedly took our time soaking in the magic of past empires and present pleasantness. And because Apollonia is exactly our kind of place, I imagine six hours or more could easily be wiled away while wandering about this once-renowned ancient jewel of the Illyrian coast.

You can follow us on our next leg of the journey here.

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