I'm sure you've heard the old saying: "So much to see, so little time..." Do you know who said it first? We think it was Samuel Butler, although we're still discussing it. In any case, this quote describes our time in Albania very well. With so little time at our disposal, we wanted to see as much as possible. At 8.45 on the morning after our arrival, we walked up the hill to Agim and Gerti's office, where we would rendezvous with a guide and driver, as well as Carl and Mary Beth from Hatty Lee, who were joining us on our adventure. By 9 o'clock, we were on the road (a well-maintained modern highway) and less than half an hour later we arrived at Butrint.
This UNESCO World Heritage site has been inhabited for millennia, and was at various times a home to Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Venetians and the Ottomans. Ali Pasha had one of his many castles here. Butrint is located in a marshy area, and since much of the site was covered by mud for centuries it is very well preserved. Archeologists have deliberately left some of the ruins buried, in order to protect them. The fact that we had the peaceful wooded site almost entirely to ourselves made the experience almost surreal. However, we met two Serbian woman, (?Ana and Elena) as we entered the site, and our guide Alma kindly allowed them to join us for our tour. Alma, an extremely knowledgeable guide, has spent a great deal of time conversing with the archeologists who work on the site. We can't explain everything as well as she did, so we will let our photos tell the story:
Below is the Greek Theatre
Carvings in the theatre show the names of slaves who had been freed
The Roman forum
Alma explains that this was the site of a private residence, the Triconch palace.
Here we found the remains of a Byzantine basilica, with a beautiful piece of mosaic on display. The rest has been left underground to protect it from the elements.
The thick city walls have stood the test of time.
Here is Alma beside the Lion's Gate (but I still think the carving looks more like a pig than a lion).
On the well of the Nymphs, the inscription reads "Junia Rufina, friend of nymphs". How charming! I wouldn't mind having something like that on my tombstone.
Our tour of Butrint ended at a reconstructed Ottoman castle. We walked through the small museum, but spent most of our time enjoying the view.
After saying goodbye to Elena and Ana, we piled back into the van for the long but scenic drive through the mountains to Gjirokastra, a stone city that was the home of President Hoxha and therefore has been very well preserved. The grey stone roofs give the city a unique character. Our first stop is at the restaurant Kujtimi, where our lunch is excellent and inexpensive. Alma teaches us the word for thank you: Falaminderit. Unfortunately, since Albanian seems to have no similarity to other Indo-European languages, this will be the only word we master.
Gjirokastra is a university town, and Alma attended university here. How could anyone manage to study with a distracting view like this? I would spend all my time gazing out the window.
Wandering through some the shops, we stopped to speak with the woman in a local cooperative, who were painstakingly embroidering traditional Albanian costumes.
Ali Pasha certainly got around, and the castle at Gjirokastra was another of his acquisitions. Lord Byron (who, come to think of it, also pops up in an awful lot of places) visited him here. The setting can only be described as spectacular.
Inside the castle, a row of German tanks face off against a row of Italian tanks.
On the ramparts is an abandoned American plane, which was forced to land by the Albanians in 1957. It looks incongruous, like something from a movie set.
Alma also shows us a small shrine to the leader of a Muslim sect. This was the religion of her family, she tells us, but fewer people practice their religions now because it was considered unacceptable during Hoxha's regime.
The day is slipping away, and we wonder if we should give the museum a miss, but the staff person seems so anxious for us to visit that we decide to have a quick look. Inside, we see many interesting artifacts and photographs, and learn more about Albania's history. Much of the display is dedicated to the Albanian partisans, who fought against the occupying Nazis and Fascists. Another section explains that the most of the Jews of Albania survived during WWII, because they were hidden by local citizens. I suppose it may have been an idealized version of history, but we learned a lot.
On our way back, we stopped to get a closer look at a bunker.
The last stop on our itinerary would be the "Blue Eye" , a unique blue-coloured spring near Sarande. We had lingered too long at the castle, and Alma began to worry that the sun would go down before we arrived. We arrived in the nick of time, and were rewarded by the sight of the gorgeous blue spring as well as the sun setting over the hills. The water in the spring comes out of the ground at a very high rate and within 5 feet of the spring it becomes a raging river. Alma explained that the intense blue colour is a result of the limestone rock under the water. Whatever the reason, it was an enchanting place.
That night, we walked along the waterfront in Sarande and had an inexpensive and delicious dinner in the Garden restaurant. Arriving back at the dock, we met a fellow North American and his crew, whom we will leave nameless to protect their identities. This group was facing a dilemma: their lovely boat was aground on a rock beside the dock. There was a bit of tide, so hopefully it would float again in a few hours, but this was just the latest of a long litany of woes. No one was looking very happy. Through a series of mishaps, their Greek cruising permit had been left behind in Athens when their boat was taken to the Ionian. For some inexplicable reason, the Greek authorities refused to provide them with either a new permit or a copy of the old one, insisting that they either return to Athens to get their permit or make arrangements to have it sent to them. Having finally decided to make a run for it without the permit, they tried to rendezvous with friends in Corfu, but arrived too late for the party. To make matters worse, their dinghy had disappeared in an anchorage along the way. They had sailed to Albania without checking out of Greece, and now they were contemplating their next move: should they slip back into Greece and try to meet their friends in Ithaca? This would mean sailing under the radar of the Greek authorities, with neither a cruising permit nor a dinghy. Or should they try to straighten out the bureaucratic mess and forget about cruising with their friends? They were still pondering their options, but in any case, they would visit Butrint before leaving the next day.
The following morning, as we were preparing to leave, they sailed passed us in the anchorage. The skipper was at the helm, exuberant. "To hell with it, we're off to Ithaca!" he called. And then, "Butrint rocks!" As we watched the graceful boat sail off into a perfect summer day, we hoped it would all work out for the best.