I have visited many Orthodox churches and monasteries all around Europe. They were often drenched in gold-leaf and full of precious icons, but none of them could match the beautiful icons and frescoes in the church of Ardenica.
The monastery of Ardenica is standing on the highest hilltop overlooking the plains of Myzeqe, in the center of Albania. It is an important center of the orthodox church in Albania, dedicated to the birth of St. Mary, and it dates back to the 10th century.
On our trip from Fier to Durrës we decided to visit this monastery once more, as we consider it a very special place. We left the main highway and took the narrow road uphill. After the chaotic traffic, it was very quiet and peaceful up here. Although Ardenica is a kind of holy place for the Albanians, as their national hero Skenderbeg married here, most tourists are not informed about the beauties of this hidden treasure.
We were welcomed by an old custodian who explained us some facts about the history of the monastery. He told us that the icons and the icon screen of St. Mary’s were embellished by the most renown of Albanian artists, Konstandin Shpataraku of Voskopoja, Konstandin and Thanas Zografi. The wooden icon screen is one of the best preserved in Albania and it is believed to have been engraved by the wood carvers of Voskopoja. The magnificent pulpit gives the illusion of gold leaf, but is made of polished wood.
Although it is officially prohibited to take photographs within the church, we were allowed to take some photos without using flash. We also got two candles and we were really touched to burn them in the same church where Skenderbeg joined his beloved Andronike in wedlock in 1451.
After having used the monastery as army barracks, which resulted in significant damage, the monastery was declared “monument of culture” and protected by the state. From 1988, Ardenica has been a popular resort, far removed from a place of God. The “cells” (small rooms), living quarters of the monks today, had been turned into motel rooms of a primitive style for the entertainment of the elite of the then regime. In the court yard of the Monastery was a restaurant at which it was a special pleasure to dine because of the widow trees around the monastery and the lingering mysticism of the location that none of the decisions prohibiting religion in Albania had managed to stifle. In the mid-nineties, the Monastery was restored and in Easter of 1996 the first monks moved in.
There is a story about a curse of the Monastery of Ardenica. Some years ago, a successful local businessman began to build an old style restaurant on land that was property of the monastery, without the approval of the priest or of the Orthodox church. It so happened that the businessman died suddenly from a heart attack. Two other owners of the restaurant also suffered the same fate. Finally, their families decided that this property be returned to the monastery.
After having visited the church, we got the possibility to see the courtyard and the old chapel of the Holy Trinity that dates back to the 14th or 15th century. In the wall we found a magnificent stone relief of Skenderbeg and several ancient inscriptions. We left the monastery with very special feelings of peacefulness and tranquility. And we promised: we will be back!