Porto Palermo’s century-old mystery seems to be the magnetism drawing travelers to its shores…
Local oral histories regard it as Ali Pashe Tepelena’s work of art for his mistress Kyra Vassiliki (Albanian: Vasiliqia); others believe it built much earlier by the Venetians. Set only a few kilometers south of the Himara beach town in southern Albania, Porto Palermo is an island connected to the mainland through a narrow strip of land. The castle holds within stories of all walks of life…
Passing forlorn buildings of the communist era we walk up to the castle, eager to witness its clandestine spirit. Architectural remnants reveal that the castle was inhabited during Ali Pashe Tepelena’s life. Its magnificence leads the visitor to imagine how life in this resting abode for the royalty might have been. These castle walls have been the eyewitness of laughter as cries alike.
Beneath the royalty rooms, tunnels leading to underground dungeons tell of dark prisoner stories. From the era of Ali Pashe Tepelena and to the rule of King Zog and dictator Enver Hoxha, the castle served as an infamous prisoner for those daring to disobey the regime.
Serving as an internment structure for decades under communism, many saw their demise in this castle. Some prisoners, as writings reveal, ended up in the sea or flung onto the castle-bottom rocks. Little is known of what exactly happened within its dungeons and the island was not publicly accessible for decades until its opening in 1990.
As you walk up to the roof of the castle, the sunlight leads you out into a mesmerizing scenery of aquamarine waters and emerald green forests of oak and agave trees. Reminiscent of their sunny home in Italy, it is thought that Venetian conquerors named the island Porto Palermo.
The castle’s history is intertwined with a little church found on the island. Thought to have been built by Ali Pashe Tepelena as a joint gift for his love Vassiliki, the story of the church is captivating. Even though Ali Pasha allegedly had 300 women in his harem and 300 boys in his seraglio, his favorite mistress was Vassiliki, whom he kidnapped at the age of 15 from the Greek village of Plessio.
Obsessed with the safety of his love, Ali Pasha ordered a team of architect masters, among them a famous Italian architect, to build a safe-haven shrine for Vassiliki within an extremely short period of time. The legend says that to ensure nothing would happen to Vassiliki while praying in the church, Ali Pasha locked the architects within its walls and for several hours attacked the church with cannon balls.
As there was little damage to the outside structure of the church, he decided to finally reward the Italian architect and pay his remuneration. Nevertheless, Vassiliki’s love for her home in Greece was far greater than her loyalty to Ali Pasha. She eventually learned of Ali Pasha’s plans to burn Greek villages and betrayed him by letting Ottoman assassins to behead him.
Ali Pasha was a strategic relationship builder. Some say that Ali Pasha’s decision to build the church also pleased the locals. In exchange for building the church on the island, he agreed to let the Himara boat captains to use the port and ensuring he would develop sound relationships with the locals to his advantage.
To this day, the structure of the church has held quite well. As time passed, the church was seen as a symbol of prosperity and the locals turned Vassiliki into a saint. Many people in the villages prayed to her and named their children in gender variations of Vasilikki’s name until Enver Hoxha’s rule, when he declared Albania an atheist state.
During Enver Hoxha’s communist reign, a submarine bunker tunnel was built on the northern part of the bay of Porto Palermo. It was built for more than 20 years by soldiers from Vlora and Himara. The tunnel housed coastal defense vessels that were ready for quick response.
The church along with parts of the castle was transformed into warehouses for army ammunition. Two additional decrepit buildings, which also served as storage, stand near the entrance of the castle quarters.
Porto Palermo’s strategic location served rulers well for centuries, yet what else this island hides within it remains to be explored.
(Photos by R. Latifi)