From The Romans to the Ottomans: Butrint, Albania

Just about 10 miles south of Sarande is Butrint, some of the most incredible ancient ruins in Albania and the Balkans. So with most of my gear unpacked and safe in my hotel room, I follow the coast south to Butrint.

I’m told that to explore and experience the ancient site, I’d need to plan at least ninety minutes. So I explore the site in the late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler, and the lighting better for photography.

Butrint sits on top of a hill on the Ksamil peninsula on the coast of Albania north of Greece and just miles from the Greek Island of Corfu and overlooking the Straits of Corfu—a strategic location that allowed the various inhabitants of Butrint over the years to control the passage of ships in the Adriatic.

The site dates back to prehistoric times, and as I wander the place, I find evidence of its time as a Greek colony, a Roman city, and Catholic bishopric, a Byzantine fortress, and a Venetian occupation, and ultimately it served as another of despot Ali Pasha’s Ottoman fortresses. In fact, the Ottoman’s were the last to occupy the city before it flooded and was overrun by marshland.

I’ve visited archaeological sites all over the world, but what impresses me so much about Butrint is the layers of history so well preserved in a single location.

Greek built amphitheater in the Roman style


The Baptistry at Butrint, Albania.

The impressive Basilica at Butrint, Albania

The impressive walls of the Butrint Fortress tower above me.

It was Julius Caesar who in 44 BC that first developed Butrint, recognizing its potential and strategic location. With funding from family and sponsors, the Romans built an aqueduct and a bridge across the Vivari Channel.

A natural forested path with plenty of shade connects the important sites within Butrint. I first come to a Greek sanctuary and theater, and next to this are ancient Roman baths. During the Greek period, it was a sanctuary to Asklepios the god of medicine, this dates back to the 3rd century BC as evidenced by an inscription on the first row of seats in the theatre that states the theater was built from the sacred money of the god Asklepios.

As the Roman empire weakened, during the 6th century AD, they further fortified the city with a new wall. Still, the inhabitants gained access into the fortress by earlier built Lake and Water Gates.
Perhaps most impressive are the Great Basilica and Baptistry, also built in the 6th century AD. The extensive mosaics from the baptistry are covered to protect them from the elements, and while some are displayed in the museum on site, but by the time I got to the museum it was closed—I wandered the expansive site for about four hours.

The walls of Butrint are solid and constructed with precision, reminds me of the Mayan ruins outside Cusco in Peru

At the top of the hill at Butrint, there’s a citadel and views of the wetlands, channel, and Adriatic. Across the channel, there’s another castle. It’s the Triangular Fortress of Butrint,  built on this channel by the Venetians, so they could better control the dominant commercial trading route to the Orient.

While the museum is closed, the small cafe at the top is open, and I am dehydrated. The waiters invite me to sit down, but the sun is setting, and I want to get back to Sarande before dark. So I took a large bottle of water and marched down the steps toward the exit. That’s when I notice the magic lighting reflecting off the Venetian Triangle Fortress, and that I don’t have my camera. Shit.

To get in and out of the fortress, inhabitants passed through one of many gates like this, the Water Gate.


Gnarly trees and brush have taken over much of Butrint over the centuries.

I set my camera down to pay for the water and with water in hand and forgot to pick it up before I blasted down the hill. Panicked and yet not worried, I waste no haste and run all the way to the top. My heart is racing, and I’m short of breath when I notice a security guard coming toward me. He holds up his hands and mocks taking a photo, then points to the cafe. Relief. People look out for me—and you.

The guys at the cafe have many questions. How much does the camera cost? Where am I from? Where am I going? They want to see the quality of photos taken with my camera. So I take a picture of, then zoom in on the eye of one of them. The laugh and make a joke about his eyes. I thank them and head back down the steps, this time with my camera and yet kicking myself for being stupid and absent-minded.

The ride back to Sarande is quick—I get to the south end of town in 15 minutes. But it takes 30 minutes to ride two miles back to the Aloha Hotel. That’s when I realized I should have found accommodations at the south side of town.

Nice guys kept my camera safe

The Triangular Fortress of Butrint was built by the Venetians.

I have an excellent meal later at #Hashtag Restaurant. It’s a stupid name, but fantastic food, particularly the sea bass crudo—so fresh and served with local olive oil and pomegranate seeds. But here, once again, they offer only Italian wines by the bottle. The manager serves me “open wine” — wine poured from a reused 3-liter water bottle. She explains that they make the wine from grapes on the property of the hotel owner. “This is Albanian wine,” she insists.

Once again I learn that Albanians don’t believe they make good wine. Plus, there’s still an attitude and perception it is ridiculous to pay more than a few Euros for 550ml of local wine. Yet, they are perfectly happy selling Italians and other tourists who ferry to and from Corfu Island, expensive Italian wine.

Things will change in Albania. I know this.

The road to Albania’s future will be rough, but there are hope and faith in many of the young people.

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