We hadn’t intended to tick another country off the list on this trip. We were staying on Corfu, but Albania was just a loud shout across the water, and the ferries were reasonably priced. And, they’re reasonably modern craft; I was expecting a dilapidated, fish-stenched kaiki, skippered by a taciturn, pipe-smoking Anthony Quinn clone. But, such a vessel or person doesn’t exist any more …. and might never have done, outside imagination and Hollywood.
On the short trip across to Sarandë, I mentally reviewed what I knew about Albania, which wasn’t much. The capital is Tirana, they once had a king called Zog and, for some reason, they are great fans of the English comedian Norman Wisdom … and that’s about it, really.
Sarandë is Albania’s second city. It’s a pleasant place; fairly quiet, with few people around. I wondered if that was because it was Sunday, or was it like that all the time?
When the Eastern Bloc collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s, Albania came out from under an oppressive Communist regime that didn’t really encourage visitors. So, they’re still trying to get their tourist industry in place, and I think they’re getting there, for we did see one or two things which are still below most people’s radar. It’s relatively untouched at the moment, but the potential is there. The guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and spoke good English, and the bus was comfortable.
We found a tour which would take us to a World Heritage Site, and another attraction popular with local people.
I am surprised that, although it’s a National Park, and has been inscribed as a World Heritage Site, I’d never heard of Butrint before. It’s a ruined city, about 15 km. south of Sarandë, which was abandoned at some time in the Middle Ages, because of earthquakes and flooding.
Mythology says the city was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy, and it’s mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid … it was called Buthrothum in those days.
Archaeologists have found evidence of a defensive wall around the city dating from about 500 BC, and it was described as an important port on the Adriatic Sea. The city came into Roman control in 228 BC, and a good part of the ruins we see today are of Roman origin. But, since then, it’s been ruled by Byzantines and Venetians, who also made their contribution.
In the 16th Century, the Venetians, at war with the Ottoman Empire, shifted the centre of their interest from Butrint, possession of which alternated between the Ottomans and the Venetians for several years, which left the city in a ruinous state, the earthquake probably being the final nail in the coffin. It deteriorated into a small fishing community until the early 19th Century, when the Ottomans, fearing a French invasion from Corfu, established a fortification here.
The wetlands surrounding Butrint are a protected haven for wildlife; 246 species of birds, 39 species of mammals and 105 species of fish have been identified here. But, the only things we saw within the bounds of the old city were … tortoises or turtles? We couldn’t get close enough to see whether they had feet or flippers.
Topping all is the tower, built by the Venetians, and restored in the 1930s to accommodate archaeological teams. Surrounding it is a substantial piazza, where there are toilets and a souvenir shop. More importantly, as befits a former defensive work, there’s a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.
The Blue Eye Springs, which are up in the mountains; a series of springs where the water flows at a constant volume and temperature, all year round. So, they don’t freeze in Winter, or dry up in Summer. It’s an attractive, forested area in which to walk, and, it would seem, from the number of cars with Albanian plates in the car park, a favourite place for local people to spend their leisure time. And, it showed what a friendly people the Albanians are; several people offered to help an elderly lady who was having difficulty with the path.
The area gets its name from the main spring, which, from the path above, looks just like a blue eye, winking at you.
A little way downstream, there’s a little café, with a fountain, where you’re invited to fill your water bottle for free, which many did. And, I’ve got to say, that water tasted better than stuff you could pay a sometimes extortionate price for.