Albania: Lost and Found
Published: May 2009
By John McLaughlin
The archaeological wonders of Butrint are all but unknown to the outside world. But developers are taking note. Will these remnants of 3,000 years of Mediterranean history survive the 21st century?
Get the Facts.
"What do you think of my wall?" demands Ani Tare, fairly bursting with pride. To be honest, there is nothing very imposing about his low ledge of gray stone: I could vault it almost without breaking stride. Yet it has its own power as a marker laid down, an admonition to those who might approach with trespass in their hearts.
Tare needs his line in the sand. South of the wall is Albania's recently created Butrint National Park, of which he is the director. Spread over 11 square miles of southern Albania, just north of the Greek border, it is a honeyed landscape of rolling hills and small lakes, ringed by mountains and opening onto the bright blue waters of the Corfu Straits and the Ionian Sea beyond.
More to the point, it is also a startlingly well preserved open-air museum of 3,000 years of human civilization, from Bronze Age to classical to Ottoman. At its core is the ancient city of Butrint, with its Hellenistic Greek theater, Roman baths, Byzantine baptistery, and Venetian fortresses. The site is romantic in a very 19th-century way, half submerged in oak woods and a riot of vines and creepers.
The feel of a lost valley is no illusion, for not only is Butrint a microcosm of Mediterranean history, but it's also one of Europe's least-known cultural treasures. Albania's 40-year isolation under Communism, which ended in 1992, left it unsullied by the development that has blighted many other classical sites. This alone makes Butrint a nearly priceless asset for one of the continent's poorest countries. But it also presents challenges that a democratic Albania is now facing up to for the first time.
From the wall, Tare and I drive a few hundred yards north, where the rocky ground drops away. Suddenly, half-built houses of concrete and cinder block rise to meet us, inching inexorably up the hill. This is the town of Ksamili, expanding relentlessly as speculators build for profit and economic refugees arrive from the north. Soon, Ksamili will be pressing up against the park, with only the wall between them. Albania's poverty is more dire than that of other former Eastern-bloc countries still struggling to emerge from a Communist past, making it vulnerable to political corruption and organized crime. Butrint, though still a minor way station on the classical tourism route, is one source of light in this murky landscape. Handled with care, it could become the region's economic engine.
We have driven south out of Sarandë, a cheerfully unkempt seaside town on Albania's southern coast, on a bright December morning. Just across the straits from this rocky shore, we can see the luxury villas of Corfu almost purring amid that island's greenery. As our four-wheel-drive threads the hills high above Lake Butrint, the water's pewter sheen broken only by the dark ribs of mussel beds, we pass another wall, this one massive and menacing. It was built by Greek colonists some 2,500 years ago to fend off attacks on Corfu from the north. Curving uphill from the lakeshore and arching down again to the sea, it cuts Butrint off from the north, making this promontory defensible.
The city crops up in the Aeneid, where it's described by Virgil's errant hero as "a miniature Troy." More reliable records trace it to the late seventh century B.C., and everyone who has passed through since then seems to have left a mark. The Romans came in the second century B.C., building new suburbs, an aqueduct, and bathhouses. The Venetians, in residence from about 1386, left a hilltop castle, a defensive tower, and a stout three-cornered fortress. The Ottomans, enthusiastic tax collectors, bequeathed a customhouse at the mouth of the channel. Yet another stronghold is thought to have been built by Ali, pasha of Ioánnina, who displaced Napoleon in 1798, though there are suspicions that it too might be Venetian and its gated courtyard once a tiny harbor. Such confusions seem inevitable, so rich are the layers of history here.
The main aesthetic contributions of the 20th century are the gunners' pillboxes dug into every hillside, a measure of the paranoia of longtime dictator Enver Hoxha. Thousands of them still litter the ground all over Albania like poisonous mushrooms, a grim reminder of a very grim time. Yet Albania's insularity probably saved Butrint. "What sets it apart from other sites in the Mediterranean is that the twentieth century left it alone," says archaeologist Sally Martin, project manager for the London-based Butrint Foundation. "It's not a tourist mill like Ephesus or Pompeii."
Maintaining Butrint's pristine landscape, promoting sustainable tourism, and undertaking active research are the foundation's core missions. It was set up in 1993 by two English peers, Lord Rothschild and Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover. Rothschild, summering at his villa in Corfu, had become enthralled by the ancient, inaccessible city on the far shore. The foundation has been a major factor in securing Butrint's future. At its prodding, the government created the national park in 2000. Excavations, which still cover only a tiny portion of the site, have been expanded. The foundation has corralled assistance from other groups—including the World Bank and the California-based Packard Humanities Institute—and persuaded UNESCO to declare the whole area a World Heritage Site.
Wandering Butrint today, accompanied by only the twittering of birds and the occasional clonking of a sheep's bell in the distance, it is easy to see what captivated Lord Rothschild. This is a setting that Homer might have recognized, or Julius Caesar, who duked it out with Pompey nearby before settling his soldiers in Butrint, to the chagrin of the local grandees. Much of the old Greek city remains, from the towering walls, to a monumental gate that might have been kissed by the grateful Aeneas, to the lovely theater nestled against the hill, with room for 2,500 spectators. There are marvels from later periods too, most stunningly a sixth-century Byzantine baptistery, the largest east of the Adriatic after Hagia Sophia.
Tare and I take the antique pontoon ferry across the channel and then drive out onto the plain, skirting small ponds and low hills, making for Lake Butrint. We pass shepherds with their flocks and stir up flights of gray and white herons. After half an hour of bumping across farmyards and sloshing through streams, we emerge on the lake's eastern shore. There are two houses here, each in a similar state of disrepair: one is a modern villa begun illegally by a Greek investor, halted in mid-construction; the other, a more palatial ruin of ancient Roman vintage. It is hard to blame the Greek for his effrontery. The site of his unfinished villa, looking out over the still lake to old Butrint, is magical. But for Tare, it is just more evidence of the outside forces encroaching on the park.
Until about five years ago, he says, "foreign corporations were our big enemy." The government had granted half a dozen concessions to build major hotels and casinos around Butrint, including one in the area that is now the park. In 1997, however, the collapse of a string of pyramid banking schemes plunged southern Albania into anarchy; that and the war in nearby Kosovo scared off the foreign investors. But local developers have emerged in their stead, eager to construct everything from bars and restaurants to hotels and private houses in the park. "They have money and they want to build," Tare says. "They have no perception of what we are doing for this area over the long term. They see quick money."
As a result, Tare and his six rangers are as much cops as they are park managers. A law that would give him the authority to shut down illegal development is under consideration in Albania's parliament. Until it passes, his only power is that of persuasion, though as a huge bear of a figure in a country of small men, he is more persuasive than most. He has stopped builders in their tracks, talked hunters into seeking their quarry elsewhere, and kept fishermen from dynamiting the waters. He has even extracted a looted marble head of Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus, from the clutches of a New York antiques dealer and brought it home.
Tare concedes that Butrint is still a tough sell locally. This is a country, after all, with a weak central government, a dreadful economy, and young people risking their lives to escape on midnight motorboats to Italy in search of a better life. Understandably, many citizens are impatient for jobs and development now. But Butrint needs time. "If Albanians can see that conservation is in their own economic interest, they'll nurture the golden goose instead of concreting it over," says Sir Patrick Fairweather, the former British ambassador to Albania, who runs the foundation. He believes acceptance is coming, as does Tare. The number of visitors dwindled during the Kosovo war, but climbed again to 28,000 last year, including 8,000 foreign tourists, the bulk of them British day-trippers from Corfu. The park has also put on special events like opera nights and a flute festival for shepherds from all over Albania that filled the ancient theater once again.
There is more to come. Tare speaks hopefully of organizing boat trips around the park; of nature tours and trekking and riding excursions; of the professional divers now scouring the depths for Roman galleys and Venetian warships. More tellingly, plans are afoot to turn Ksamili and the little village of Vrina to the south into entry points for the park, with souvenir stands, bars, and restaurants—and the jobs that come with them.
With luck, the example of a successful, sensitively handled Butrint could reverberate beyond its own hinterland. The south of Albania has a huge potential for tourists, if not yet the roads or the hotels to handle them. On the other side of the muscular mountains to the east of Sarand, via a hair-raising road littered with memorials to drivers past, is the lovely Ottoman city of Gjirokastr, an old haunt of Byron's and a sight worth the effort required to reach it. To Sarandë's north, running 60 miles to the city of Vlorë, is one of Europe's last great unspoiled coastlines, with ancient villages high over lush hills that run down to nearly empty golden beaches.
Sooner or later, Albania will have to decide how to manage these riches. If its politicians and planners want to know the impact of the wrong choice, they need only take a glance at the giant parking lot that is Spain's Costa del Sol. Butrint could represent an altogether happier model for the future. Going that route would draw a smile of gratitude from Aeneas himself.
John McLaughlin covers travel and international affairs from his base in New York.
The simplest route to Butrint, if you're not willing to brave the six-hour road trip from the capital, Tiranë, is the hour-long ferry ride from Corfu.
Southern Albania is still short on good hotels, but there are some interesting options. Try the Dea (Butrinti Rd., Km. 2, Sarandë; 355-30/9462-22110; doubles from $50), on the coast road, or the Livia (Qyteti Antik, Butrint; 355-30/9467-55858; doubles from $25), right outside the ancient city.
The Butrint Foundation (www.butrintfound.dial.pipex.com) is a good source of information on the national park.
At press time, the U.S. State Department was revising its travel warning for Albania, issued in June 2000, to reflect recent reductions in the country's crime rate. Check travel.state.gov for updates. Visitors, of course, should take the usual precautions.