Monday, November 9, 2015

In Albania we visit world heritage site of Butrint

Today we arrived in Albania. We had thought about visiting here a few years ago when we were close by in Greece but we couldn't take the rental car into Albania. Our morning started with a short lecture by Auron Tare, one of the founders of Butrint National Park. He talked about the park and life in Albania today. Until recently Albania was a very isolated country. Although Corfu is only a few miles offshore no one could visit. But some people on the island watched what was going on in Butrint, and when Albania opened up one of them, Lord Rothschild, became a huge donor to the archeological site.

We headed off from the port of Sarande for the short drive to Butrint. Sarande has become a holiday destination, and unattractive high rise holiday homes have been literally thrown up often without any planning permission. The countryside closer to Butrint was more pleasant with olives, vines and pine trees covering the land.

Butrint is a microcosm of Mediterranean history over a period of two thousand years from Hellenistic temple buildings of the 4th century BC to 19th century Ottoman defenses. According to mythology Buthrotum was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy. On arrival, Priam's son Helenus sacrificed an ox, which struggled ashore wounded and died on the beach. This was seen as a good omen, and the place was named Buthrotum meaning "wounded ox." Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid, recounts Aeneas visiting Butrint on his way to Italy.

Butrint was the site of a Greek colony with a substantial settlement in 4 BC. There was a healing sanctuary protected by solid fortified walls. Visitors travelled here to make offerings to the god Asclepius to seek a cure for illnesses and to visit the theatre.

With the rise of the Roman Empire, Butrint expanded to become a flourishing Mediterranean city. We passed the Roman baths and entered the Romanized theatre. Here we were treated to a short concert by a man dressed in traditional Albanian garb who played several wind instruments. It was quite magical. These were and still are used mainly by the shepherds. The acoustics were excellent. In modern times the theatre has hosted many concerts. Julius Caesar and Augustus founded a colony here and the city was extended via a bridge and aqueduct, still visible, to the plain beyond. It was very special seeing the remains of temples, fountains, baths and funerary monuments. All of these were intermingled with trees and shrubbery, which made the site even more intriguing.

In the 5th century the area suffered vandal raids. In the late 5th century to the mid 6th century numerous churches were built with the spread of Christianity. At this time Butrint became the seat of a bishopric, and the Baptistery with its mosaic and Great Basilica were built. Today the Baptistery is a ruin and when we were there we only saw a glimpse of the mosaic as most of it was covered by tarps heaped with sand in order to preserve them.

In 1081, the bay was the site of a battle between the Norman and Byzantine fleets and Butrint was seized by the Normans. In the 1300s Butrint was bought by the Venetians and for four hundred years it became a military post of Venetian Corfu. We stopped by one of the Venetian towers to visit the Butrint museum.

We took a lovely forested track back to the entrance where we watched a small hand-operated mechanical ferry cross a small river channel. I was sorry that we didn't have time to go across to the 19th century castle of Ali Pasha and the wetlands beyond.

Refreshments were on offer for us at the adjacent hotel. It seemed a little surreal sitting at one of the outside tables with three or four Canadians discussing the Canadian election results after being transported through the history of Butrint.

Back at the yacht we were enjoying the sunshine while eying the nearby beaches. That was it. We grabbed our swimming gear and headed into town along the beach. There were a couple of locals swimming and we joined them in the still warm water. We were very happy to have an Albanian swim.

Our day ended with another odd meal in the ship's restaurant. Fish covered in a rich sauce, which I scraped off as the fish was lovely without it. I had ordered chips but without the truffle oil or Parmesan cheese that they were covered in. They tasted like they had been cooked in cheap or old oil. When asked how my meal was, I gave an honest reply prompting another meeting with the chef. How can we be in the Mediterranean where wonderful fresh food is plentiful and simply cooked eating all these strange concoctions? However, I didn't let this spoil my day. I loved our Albanian visit and wished we could have stayed longer.

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