by Roderick Conway Morris

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Butrint National Park

Lost Horizon

By Roderick Conway Morris
BUTRINT, Albania 23 February 1996


One of the most tantalizing views of the Cold War era was across the narrow strait that divides the olive-clad slopes of the north of the Greek island of Corfu and the wilder scenery of southern Albania, then a mysterious forbidden land, most of which remained closed to visitors until after the death of the country's Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, and the eventual collapse of the regime.

From the Greek shore one could discern opposite a broad plain ringed with mountains, across which a river meandered down to the sea, guarded at its mouth by an old Ottoman fort. On the banks of the river, further inland, rose a steep hill, crowned with what looked like a medieval castle. This rise, according to the Greek maps, was the site of ancient Bouthrotos, or, in Albanian, Butrint.

Travelers can now go and see for themselves that not only is Butrint indeed one of the most dramatically situated (and until now, at least, unspoiled) major archaeological sites on the Mediterranean, but also that its remains are among the most atmospheric and evocative. The trip to Butrint from Corfu Town and back (via the Albanian port of Sarande) can by done in a day - though the more adventurous (facilities here are still fairly minimal) will find a longer stay in this unfrequented corner of Europe a memorable and rewarding experience.

The route between Corfu Town and Sarande is served by two small ferries - the Kamelia and the Harikla. The former, favored by frequent travelers along this route, leaves Corfu daily at 10 A.M. and returns at 4.30 P.M. in summer and 2 P.M. in winter.The journey takes about an hour and a half to Sarande, which derives its name from the ruined Greek Orthodox monastery nearby, Saranda Ayi, meaning Forty Saints. Despite its picturesque backdrop, the portside area of Sarande is a slightly depressing conglomeration of poorly built state apartment houses - though the more attractive southern waterfront is lined with palm and plane trees, standing among which is Hoxha's summer villa.

This is now the home of an Australianphotographer, Wilma Goudappel, and Albanian historian and former sportsman Auron Tare, generally known as Ani, who also offer the most comfortable bed-and-breakfast accommodation in these parts, at about 4,000 lek ($45) a night for a double room.

They can also arrange trekking excursions into the mountainous interior and other trips (Auron Expeditions, Villa Kaoni, c/o Sarande Post Office, Sarande, Albania; tel.(30) 94348921, fax (30) 66137967). If you are traveling independently you can find a taxi to Butrint at Sarande for about $5,or hitch a paying ride at the same rate if there happens to be a tourist bus leaving the harbor when you arrive.

The distance to Butrint is only 19 kilometers (12 miles), but being along a narrow winding road pitted with potholes it takes about 40 minutes. Soon after leaving Sarande, the road crosses a small bridge spanning a torrent rushing through a man-made gorge, carved out of the rock by Hoxha to divert into the sea some of the waters of the Bistrica River that flow into the upper end of Lake Butrint, in order to increase the salinity of the lake to culture mussels, the canning plant for which has stood forlornly empty and idle on the lake's northern shore since the disintegration of the country's ramshackle Communist economy.

As the road climbs above the lake to a fertile plateau - passing a dismal concrete hotel, once the 'playground' of Albania's political elite - a strange spectacle comes into view:Hoxha's model commune to which young Albanians were sent to savor the joys of cooperative farm labor. The cultivated landscape has now gone to ruin, many of the olive and fruit trees having been chopped down to their stumps - the work of 'gangsters' from northern Albania, according to the locals.

At last the road descends to Butrint, where it ends abruptly at the gates of the site on the bank of the river that flows out of the southern end of the lake - the plain and villages of Vrina and Zara on the other side being reached by a cable-towed ferry, consisting of four large rusty tanks with wooden boards on top. During the (not infrequent) power cuts this perilous-looking contraption is replaced by a battered old rowboat. (Very basic lodgings withvillagers can be found in Vrina by contacting the local baker Bardhyl Musai, who speaks English.)

Two years ago the archaeologist Richard Hodges launched a joint Albanian-British project to conserve and research Butrint, financed by a £500,000 (about $750,000) donation from Lord Rothschild, the banker, and the foodstore magnate Lord Sainsbury.

Taking time off directing his team of diggers, Hodges explained that most of what can be seen of the ancient city today was excavated by the Italian, fascist-era archaeologist Luigi Ugolini between 1928 and 1936 (when he died of malaria), but that at least three quarters of the site remained to be investigated. Ugolini was also responsible for the small Tuscan-style castle on top of the acropolis, which he built as his headquarters.

There is already plenty to see, however, since Butrint was an important Greek, Roman and Byzantine city, revived after the Dark Ages as a medieval, Venetian and then Ottoman port. Wandering along Butrint's deserted wooded paths, glimpsing views of river, lake and mountain at every turn, and suddenly coming upon clearing filled with ancient buildings, onefeels like an explorer coming upon a lost city for the first time.

Among the finest monuments is a very well-preserved Greco-Roman theater, adorned with numerous inscriptions. The theater's floor is currentlyflooded and emerald-green turtles paddle among the water-lilies, rainbow-hued dragonflies skim its mirror-like surface and bright-blue kingfishers dive from ruined arches to catch darting, silver fish.

Quietly interrupting the silence of the scene, Hodges said: 'The conservation issues here are absolutely alarming. Your first instinct is to get rid of the water, but then you think: what do we do about the wildlife? Because this is one of the things that makes the site so special. So, what we need to do is to find some way of preserving the archaeology, without destroying this wonderful flora and fauna.'

Another delight, and conservation headache, is the nearby 6th-century baptistry, which contains probably the most significant single artistic treasure to come to light so far: a beautiful circular floor-mosaic of peacocks and other birds, trailing vines, bunches of grapes, urns and intricately entwined geometrical patterns.

The baptistry, said Hodges, was almost certainly originally the private baths of a substantial Roman townhouse, which was rebuilt for its new purpose in the Christian era. One of its most interesting features is a wood-fired hot-water tank lined with cement in a side chamber of the circular main hall, linked by a subterranean pipe to the large central font used for baptisms, suggesting that converts to the new faith were not expected to endure a cold plunge.

Beyond the baptistry are the remains of a substantial Byzantine basilica, an aqueduct and a gate that seems once to have been the main entrance to the town and later led to a Roman bridge spanning the river, on the other side of which was the port (that like much else has yet to be excavated). Further on, a lovely lake-side walk along the still impressive ancient city walls, enlivened by a splendid archaic Greek sculpture of a lion killing a bull, eventually brings you to a pretty path leading up to the acropolis, which commands a stunning view over the countryside for miles around.

The World Bank is considering financing a plan to make Butrint and an extensive surrounding area into a national park. The $50 million project would involve the building of a new road skirting the western shore of the lake to prevent the overdevelopment of the coastline, still dotted with untrammeled sandy coves.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023