Ancient Ruins of Butrint

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October, 2019

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Having been told that the ancient city of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of Albania’s must-see sights, we set off from “Saranda”: with mixed thoughts. Other sites had either disappointed, or like “Blue Eye Springs”:, were totally overwhelmed with day-trip tourists from Corfu. In addition, the weather threatened, and our driver was trying to time our arrival to beat the crowds and avoid the rain. Raincoats were packed and hiking boots were worn to cope with the sodden ground.

On arrival, we took a small, four car-ferry across a short stretch of water: it took around 5 minutes and was hauled by steel ropes. On landing, we read the first board showing the various stages of development from the Hellenistic period, through the Roman, New Roman and Medieval periods to the Venetians: over 2,500 years. Pictures showed how the site had expanded under the Romans and then contracted and how originally it had been an island until the Roman’s built a bridge. We were told that the ferry has to be used now, as the ground is too soft. Although 30% of the site has been excavated, scanning has been undertaken so they know what is still buried.

The entrance fee at 700 Lek was quite expensive by Albanian standards. It came with a leaflet, available in various languages, showing the numbered main sights. Whilst there were information boards, in English and Albanian, during our two-hour tour, Alma conveyed so much information and brought the site alive for us, demonstrating the value of a good guide.

Having seen an impressive Venetian Tower, a tree-lined avenue took us to our first stopping point. This included a chapel dedicated to the God of Asclepius, ancient theatre and Roman baths, fed by an aqueduct, and said to be the equivalent of a modern-day coffee shop i.e. everyone met to chat. Because of the rich history many buildings showed evidence of how they had been rebuilt or added to through the centuries. Here also was the Roman Forum, the civic and commercial epicentre of the city, which contained three shrines. The remains were only discovered in 2005 and most of it still lies below 2m of soil.

We then passed the Gymnasium, a place of learning rather than a fitness centre, before arriving at the Roman civic house, which was transformed into a palace with a triangular dining room (Trikonk Palace). This covered 3,000 square metres with a central feature being the large square room with buildings leading from it.

The 6th century baptistery had a mosaic floor. Unfortunately, this was under sand and plastic sheeting to protect it from the elements and the rise and fall of the water level in the surrounding lagoon. However, we were told that every few years it is exposed for a short time. A photo showed the scene and the two rounds of eight columns.

Skirting round the fountain dedicated to Nymphea, we arrived at The Great Basilica. This was a cult establishment of the early Christian period, with tall walls and a larger central structure, full of arches. Here there was a small fraction of preserved, but not restored, mosaic: there are debates about how far the mosaic extends.

At the Lake Gate, Alma told tales of where Butrint got its name from and of a mini Troy. Whilst the low Lion’s Gate had what looked like a pig carved on the stone above, but was in reality a lion eating a buffalo head. But the significance is lost. This led to Nymph Spring, a well with rope marks worn into the stone by years of lowering and raising buckets.

We walked along the city wall before finally climbing up to the Acropolis dating back to the 8th century BC. Here we found a café, but we had no time to stop. At the Venetian castle, reconstructed in the 1930s, was a white bust which originally was thought to be a beautiful woman (it had been separated from the body) but was then found to be a male. Unfortunately, the Museum of the ancient city of Butrint was closed for a meeting.

Steep steps led us back down to the entrance and despite our fears about rain, the sun shone throughout our visit. It was also remarkably uncrowded and at times, we felt as though we were the only visitors: we were told that as it was the off season (early October), it was quieter but that many people go either in the morning (and they’d left) or have lunch before they visit (and they were still in the restaurant). Perfect.

Helen Jackson

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