Visiting Krujë Castle: The Heart of Skanderbeg’s Rebellion

Last Updated on: 13th March 2022, 12:08 am

An easy day trip from Tirana, Krujë Castle was the base of operations for Albanian national hero Skanderbeg. As fantastical as it may sound, the military commander went undefeated against the Ottomans throughout his entire life. In fact, the Ottomans managed to breach the legendary walls of Constantinople before they succeeded in taking Krujë’! And they were only able to do so after Skanderbeg’s death.

Today, Krujë Castle is home to both the Skanderbeg Museum and the impressive National Ethnographic Museum. Once finished with the castle, adventurous travelers can then take a moderate hike up Krujë Mountain, home to a mysterious Bektashi cave shrine.

The Old Bazaar

Walking up to the castle, you’ll pass through the Old Bazaar, established during the Ottoman era in the 17th century and restored in 2015. While now largely intended for tourists, it still maintains its original function.

Here you can find traditional handicrafts and souvenirs, while restaurants serving local cuisine and pizza can be found a little further uphill.

Krujë Castle Old Bazaar
Krujë Castle Old Bazaar
Krujë Castle Old Bazaar

Krujë Castle

Continuing uphill, you’ll soon find yourself walking through the walls of the legendary Krujë Castle – walls which the Ottomans were unable to breach for decades. 

This was all thanks to the military genius of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who used this castle as the headquarters of Albanian resistance against Ottoman rule.

Born into a feudal noble family, Skanderbeg was taken to the Ottoman capital of Edirne as a young hostage. This was a common practice in those times, as it guaranteed cooperation from local rulers.

Skanderbeg was let free upon his father’s death, but only given a small portion of his ancestral land. The slight further fueled his desire to liberate Albania from the Ottomans.

Fortunately for Skanderbeg, he’d already been fighting for the Ottomans in numerous military campaigns and was well aware of their tactics. He’d go on to desert the forces of Sultan Murad II during the Battle of Niš, heading to Krujë instead.

Cunningly, he presented the local governor with a fake letter from Murad II which declared Skanderbeg as the city’s new ruler. He then called over his men to take the fortress, which would remain his base for the remainder of his life.

Krujë Castle

The centerpiece of Krujë Castle today is the beautiful Skanderbeg Museum, designed by the daughter and son-in-law of Enver Hoxha (the same duo behind the Pyramid of Tirana!). Opened in 1982, it pays homage to the national hero with large mural paintings and sculpture art.

But first, you may want to explore a bit of the area surrounding it.

This hill has been occupied since at least the 3rd century AD, while a fortress was first established here a few centuries later. 

In front of the museum are the ruins of a mosque, while behind it are the ruins of an old church which dates to Skanderbeg’s time. Upon taking over this fortress, he reconverted to Christianity and commanded all others in the locality to do so as well.

While based at Krujë, Skanderbeg would go on to defeat much larger Ottoman armies throughout Albania and other parts of the Balkans. He’d often surprise them with sneak attacks, sometimes causing the Ottoman armies losses of over 10,000 men.

In 1449, the Ottomans managed to take over Berat Castle, followed by a siege of Krujë Castle the next year. Led by Sultan Murad II himself, the Ottomans arrived with 100,000 men. 

They even used cannons in their attempt to take the castle, just several years before the technique would prove successful at Constantinople. But Skanderbeg repeatedly commanded cavalry to attack the Ottomans from behind, foiling their plans.

Krujë Castle

Murad II later died and his son Mehmet the Conqueror took his place. As Mehmed had his sights set on Constantinople, he didn’t go to Albania himself but sent his lesser generals, all of whom were repelled by Skanderbeg.

In the 1460s, Skanderbeg would continue to defeat Ottoman armies throughout the Balkans, followed by a few years of peace. Later, emboldened by the expectation of Crusader support, Skanderbeg would go on to break the truce. But backup would never arrive.

Krujë Castle
Krujë Castle

Nevertheless, Skanderbeg managed to hold his own against the Ottomans in Ohrid, current-day North Macedonia.

Having successfully taken Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror could start focusing again on Albania. And the sultan himself arrived with tens of thousands of men in 1466. 

Amazingly, Skanderbeg managed to withstand the attack, and the Ottomans retreated. Krujë Castle was then besieged once again, in 1467 but Skanderbeg would remain undefeated.

As you explore the museum, you’ll find many of these battles and other scenes from Skanderbeg’s life immortalized in elaborate mural paintings.

Krujë Castle
Krujë Castle
Krujë Castle

The museum consists of multiple stories, and along the walls you’ll find depictions of Skanderbeg by various foreign artists. Not only a symbol of Albanian nationalism, Skanderbeg was also highly popular throughout the Balkans as a symbol of resistance against Ottoman rule.

According to the museum, over 1800 books have been written about Skanderbeg around the world, the first of which was written four decades after his death.

Krujë Castle

As for the end of Skanderbeg’s life, he would ultimately succumb to malaria in 1468. The Venetians helped Albania resist for the next decade, but Mehmed the Conqueror would finally take over Krujë Castle in 1478. 

And Albania would remain under Ottoman rule for centuries until 1912.

The Ethnographic Museum

Before leaving the castle, don’t miss the National Ethnographic Museum, located just a minute on foot from the Skanderbeg Museum. It’s situated in an Ottoman-era house built in 1764 and owned by the Toptani family.

Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum

The two-story structure is in excellent condition, and additional displays featuring mannequins make it easy to picture what life here was like a few hundred years ago.

You’ll start by entering a workshop on the ground floor, which the Toptanis used to produce their own leather and pottery. The family also managed to grow and process most of their own food, alcohol and olive oil.

Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum
Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum

The upper floor of the house featured a private hammam, or traditional bath, that was heated by the fireplace in the living room.

The various other rooms, meanwhile, display the traditional clothing worn by the householders, in addition to some well-preserved frescoes along the upper walls.

Much of the furniture, along with numerous other household items, are still in their original place. Walking around, it’s easy to get the sense that the family never left.

Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum
Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum
Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum

Thanks to a tip from the museum staff, I continued exploring other parts of the castle after leaving the museum. To this day, people continue to live within the fortress walls and the area is lined with cobblestone streets. 

Walking around, you’ll encounter the occasional bridge and tunnel, in addition to excellent views of modern Krujë.

Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum
Krujë Castle Ethnographic Museum

What’s more, is that the fortress is also home to an old Turkish bathhouse, a Bektashi shrine and tekke, or place of worship of the Bektashi faith (learn more below). And just next to the tekke is a 500-year-old tree said to be the olive tree of Skanderbeg himself.

According to legend, he planted it on his wedding day, giving rise to the local tradition of newly-wed couples in Albania planting olive trees.

Hiking to the Bektashi Shrine

While most visitors see the museums and Krujë Castle before heading back to Tirana, the area has one additional surprise in store.

About 15 minutes northwest on foot from the castle is the start of a hiking trail up Krujë Mountain, on top of which is one of the country’s most important Bektashi shrines. (See the Maps.me app for the exact location.)

Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine

The moderate hike takes about an hour one-way, while you’ll have to hike down the exact same way you came. For those not into hiking, the top of the mountain, which reaches up to 1176 m above sea level, is also accessible by car. 

Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine
Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine
Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine

The shrine is officially known as the Temple of Sari Salltiku. It’s the first of all Bektashi shrines situated throughout Albania, most of which contain the tombs of Bektashi missionaries.

While Albania remains majority Sunni Muslim as a result of the centuries-long Ottoman occupation, Bektashism was first introduced to the country via missionaries like Sari Salltiku, who came to Krujë in the early 1300s.

Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine
Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine

But what is Bektashism? While difficult to summarize, it’s a Sufi order that originated in Anatolia in the 15th century. Sufism itself is a complex topic, but it can be summed up as Islamic mysticism.

The sect is named after a saint named Haji Bektashi Veli, who lived from 1248-1341. He likely emigrated to Anatolia from Khorasan, Greater Iran, to escape the Mongol invasions – much like Rumi and his family.

The Bektashis revere Rumi and many other Sufi saints and also practice the sema, or Whirling Dervish ceremony.

Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine
Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine

Despite being a branch of Islam, Bektashism is a rather liberal and welcoming faith, integrating elements of other traditions with which it’s come into contact. These include some of the shamanistic practices from Central Asia along with elements of Christianity. 

Much like Christians, Bektashis regularly make pilgrimages to holy places, at which they light candles and pray to their various saints.

Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine

This shrine is located in a natural cave that’s home to a natural water source and was likely considered a holy spot since even before the Middle Ages. Visitors regularly visit the dark inner shrine and light candles, while the tomb of Sari Sadik Babai can be found in the area below.

The beautiful scenery of the hike and the mystical atmosphere of the cave combine for a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed by those visiting Krujë Castle.

Krujë Castle Bektashi Shrine

Additional Info

Krujë is situated about 30 km north of Tirana. From the city center, you will first need to take a public bus to the ‘Regional Bus Terminal – North and South Albania’. From Skanderbeg Square, it’s about a 15-minute ride.

Once at the terminal, which is really just a large parking lot filled with buses, look for a minibus (locally known as furgon) with a sign for Krujë on the window.

Note that there is a town called Fushë Krujë situated below the famous Krujë, so make sure your bus will indeed be heading to Krujë Castle. The ride should take about an hour.

In my case, the driver just dropped us off on the side of the road upon arrival, and I wasn’t quite sure where to find the return bus at the end of the day. Later that evening, seeing a furgon near the main road, I asked the driver if he was headed to Tirana, and he nodded.

However, he only ended up going to Fushë Krujë, from where I needed to transfer to another bus. All in all, it was still a pretty straightforward day trip by Albanian standards.

Tirana isn’t a huge city and most top attractions are accessible on foot as long as you’re somewhere close to Skanderbeg Square.

I stayed at a place called Villa Center, located within short walking distance of Skanderbeg Square. Even though I booked it through Booking.com, it felt more like a typical Airbnb experience.

I stayed in a private room with a private bathroom, but the kitchen and living area were shared with the other guests staying down the hall.

While the host lives out of the country, communication via WhatsApp went very smoothly and he was always quick to answer my questions. The neighbor in charge of looking after the apartments also speaks English.



Booking.com

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