Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Browsing Albania

Text by Morelle Smith   
Morelle Smith's account of her journey to Saranda and Butrint reads like an excerpt from a diary. A diary we wish we all had.

The early morning sky in Saranda is clear blue and cloudless and full of light. I sit out on my balcony and watch the light bunch below the mountain on the east side of the town, as the sun takes its time climbing up over its crest. Before it spills over the mountain top, it paints the west side of the harbour and the grey mountain behind it, with light. It catches the island of Corfu, separated from the Albanian coast by a narrow channel of water. In the days when Albanians were forbidden to leave their country, the misty shore of Greece, clearly visible, fed many dreams of freedom.

This morning Corfu is veiled in a pinkish violet mist. It looks like an ashy blurred line the artist has made deliberately, perhaps using his thumb, to smear it delicately, this uncertain region of sea, island and shore.

For centuries this coastal town in southern Albania has rejoiced in the name of Agia Saranda (Greek) and Santi Quaranta (Italian) both meaning forty saints. In the vicinity, some built high up in the surrounding hills, there are remains of Byzantine monasteries, which may well have a connection with its long history of sanctity. But this morning, watching the bay flood with light I am not surprised that it was chosen as a monastic site for it feels truly blessed and stirs the heart with wonder.

I’d travelled from Tirana to Saranda by bus, the day before. The buses heading south left from a garage in the Rruga Artan Lojra. The garage had a high protective roof, but it was not enclosed. It was also a market, so boxes of onions, tomatoes, grapes and courgettes were all piled in front of vans. The raised voices of the vendors bounced and echoed off the metal roof. I was told that the bus to Saranda left early so I got there at 7:30 but it didn’t leave until an hour later.

The journey lasted about seven hours, with one refreshment stop. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the heat became intense but the further south we went, the landscape underwent a transformation, with mountains rearing up out of what had been flat plains.

The sides of the road were lined with trees, plane, lime and eucalyptus. And from Tepelene onwards the mountains became enormous, with bare stone at the top, some of them triple-peaked, and rippled like a curtain with folds of pinkish grey. After Gjirokaster, the road climbed out of the valley, winding up and up, one hairpin bend after another. Vegetation became sparse and the rocks were bright red and grooved as if pressed and moulded by giant fingers which left their imprints on the rock.

The road climbed down again in a series of looping bends, as we made the gradual approach to the sea. Saranda is almost entirely encircled by mountains except for a small gap on its south eastern side and so that is the way the road approaches it. So you do not see it from a distance, you come upon it suddenly, you are a stone’s throw away from the sea and the bay opens up in front of you, with tiers of houses built up on the mountainside.

As soon as I get off the bus a burly man threads his way past various people who are standing around, and comes up to me. He asks if I need somewhere to stay. I have a very nice place he insists, it’s not expensive. Does it have a view over the bay? I ask. Yes of course, he nods vigorously. As we drive up several hairpin bends to his house, perched high on the mountain, he tells me his name is Gjon, he used to be a schoolteacher, he and his wife have two children. He shows me into a huge room with three beds and a magnificent panoramic view out over the Ionian Sea.

After hours in a hot, dusty and uncomfortable bus, I want to be in movement, so I go out for a walk, along by the harbour. The promenade beside the sea is paved, and illuminated with round pink globes which give off a soft light. There are also several new buildings, some flashy restaurants and huge hotels. Darkness falls quickly. Saranda is built on a hillside and is layered like a cake, with thin strips of road bordered by a row of buildings, piling on top of each other, tier after tier of sprinkled lights, with black felt darkness pasted in between. I realise I’m not at all sure at which level of the cake edifice my hotel is situated. Once I've left the paved road behind there are no lights at all and I grope my way up the steep and twisting paths. There are of course no street signs and the paths all look the same in the pitch black, but they are suffused with flower scents drifting in the darkness.

After one or two false turns, I find the track that leads to Gjon’s house. As I approach it someone waves and calls out and I discover that Gjon is waiting for me on his balcony. I wave back and go inside. About three seconds later there’s a tap on my door and when I open it there is Gjon holding out a huge bowl of grapes. When I thank him, he becomes exuberant, saying it's nothing at all and in his excitement he hugs and kisses me. When I’ve managed to extricate myself he then asks if I'm not afraid to sleep alone. Because if I am, he says, he can sleep in the room too (it is large after all and there are three beds in it). I assure him that I'm not frightened and there is absolutely no need for that, but I did wonder how his wife would have reacted if Gjon had told her that his duties as hotel manager included sharing the guest room with a woman who was too frightened to sleep on her own!

When Gjon has left, I go out onto the balcony. Mars has risen in the night sky, a bright yellowish point of light. The plough is also visible, and a host of other stars. The harbour lights ripple and shiver across the water and Corfu’s pinprick patchwork of lights dance and flicker.


My plan this morning is to visit Butrint, the National Heritage site of Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, which lies a few kilometres south of Saranda. First of all I go to the highrise, palatial Hotel Butrint, to try to find out if there is a bus that goes there. I’m told there is not, I will need to take a taxi. Where the road sweeps round a corner, towards the sea, I find a taxi driver, who agrees to take me there.

Butrint is mentioned in the Aeneid (as Buthrotum), where, according to Virgil's story, it was founded by settlers from Troy and was visited by Aeneas himself. The archaeologist Richard Hodges, who helped to set up the Butrint Foundation to protect the site, describes the landscape as 'Homeric'. He mentions the fourth-century BC Greek amphitheatre and sanctuary of Asklepios, as well as other Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian monuments. During the centuries of Ottoman occupation, the site was largely abandoned and covered over, and serious excavations only began in the 1930s, led by an Italian team of archaeologists. This work was halted by the Second World War and never really got going again until the mid 1990s after the fall of the Albanian dictatorship.

The site is deserted when I arrive. The ruins lie on a peninsula of land jutting out into Lake Butrint, and the promontory seems to catch all the heat in its hollow, reluctant to relinquish it, as it gazes out over the water. I walk round it in a clockwise direction, beginning at the acropolis and the Venetian fortress on its northern shore. The path then slopes steeply down almost to the water’s edge. Before it reaches it, several large stone steps, between man-made walls, dating from Illyrian times, lead down to the Lion Gate, Porta e Luanit, which is a massive square portal of huge slabs of stone. It is cool and completely shaded here. It is possible, because of the elevation of rock just beside it, that the sun never penetrates this secluded place. Though the midday sun was burning my shoulders before I went down the steps, the stone threshold of the Lion Gate is in deep shade and no breath of wind disturbs its cool tranquillity.

The carved lion on the overhead stone is quite clear, but there is also a bull's head, next to the lion's. A legend quoted in James Pettifer's Blue Guide: Albania and Kosovo, suggests that soldiers landed here after fighting at Troy and sacrificed an ox, apparently to ensure their safe arrival. Buthrotes means wounded ox and so that, according to the legend, is how Butrint got its name.

After emerging from the Porta e Luanit, the path skirts the shore, still in shade, and comes out at the ruins of an old sixth century church. Further on there is a circular baptistry, which the guidebook calls the jewel of Butrint. It is composed of three circles of columns with the baptismal font in the centre. Beautiful mosaics of birds, animals and plants have recently been uncovered on the baptistry floor.

I walk on, the path widens out, and there in front of me is the huge Greek amphitheatre.

There is silence in this place, apart from the buzzing of flies, the calling of roosters and birds and the rasping of crickets. Not even the leaves, stirring slightly in a breeze, make any sound. The silent, colourful movement of large butterflies adds to the dream-like atmosphere.

I walk up through the tiered rows of stone seats, sit down and view the arches and the stage area. The air is so still and soaked with light and I imagine how voices would carry here, when the sounds of birds and insects are so resonant.

I spend hours wandering around Butrint but my mind keeps going back to the enigmatic carving of the body of a lion and the head of a bull. What does it symbolize, what is its meaning? I ask the taxi driver on the way back, as he is also a tour guide. He claims that the lion is eating the bull’s head.
What do you think that means? I ask him.

He shrugs.

It could be that the lion represents the Romans, and the bull, the people there before the Romans. Or the lion could represent disease that devours the people - we don’t really know, he says.

It’s also possible, I think, that the bull or ox is the sacrifice mentioned in the legend whereby Butrint supposedly got its name.

Yet the idea that the carving represents a lion eating a bull does not ring true for me at all. I have my own ideas about these ancient carvings.

Remains of a temple of Asklepios have been found in Butrint and inscriptions indicate that Asklepios was the protective god of the city. If the god of healing dreams protected this site, then the imagery of two creatures, such as the lion and the bull, would have to have, I felt, a more profound symbolic meaning.

The walls, stone steps, portal and carving date from Illyrian, that is pre-Roman and pre-Christian times. A flight of steps, going down into the earth is typical of caves or temples dedicated to Mithras the sun god, known as sol invictus. This religious cult could have been a form of worship in Illyrian times; it certainly continued to be popular among the Romans. A central motif in this religion, which also appears as their symbolic creation myth, shows Mithras sacrificing a bull, from whose body spring the fruits and harvests of the earth.

The purpose of going underground symbolized a return to the ‘womb of the earth’ from which one would emerge, reborn. The huge stone slabs, the steps leading down into the earth, and the lion bull motif above the doorway seemed to me to be clear indicators that this spot marked the entrance to one of those ancient temples of initiation.

Whether the Lion Gate was a portal for ancient mystery rites or not, the atmosphere of Butrint is steeped in a profound sense of timelessness and mystery. It’s possible that this has to do with the land itself, soaked through and through with sunlight, for centuries. This potent combination of stone and light seems to give birth to a different kind of vision.

As I leave Butrint, I draw level with someone. Apart from a group of half a dozen people clustered around a tour guide, he is the only other visitor to this site I've seen. He says hello, and starts a conversation. He’s an Englishman called Hugo. He tells me he lived for twenty years in San Francisco, working with computers, but is now retired. He’s on his way to see the tomb of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander's father. It’s his first time in Albania and he likes it, he looks around him and his eyes gleam with interest. I like him immediately because of his interest and appreciation.

We share a taxi back to Saranda which is when the tour guide shares his ideas about the Lion Gate. Back in Saranda Hugo and I drink coffee in a restaurant beside the pellucid sea which slaps against the concrete pier. When I say I’m going to Berat the next day, Hugo tells me that he’s already been there, and recommends the Tomori Hotel.

It’s just across the road from where the bus stops, you can’t miss it he says. And just behind it is the steep cobbled road up to the old citadel. It takes a while to walk up, but it’s definitely worth it.

I go back up to Gjon's Guest House, where his wife has prepared a meal of fish, spinach and salad. I go to bed early but find it difficult to sleep because the mosquitoes of Butrint have left me with fiery red lumps on my arms.

Read more about Albania on
Life is a Promise in Durres by Morelle Smith
Towns of Note: Berat by Morelle Smith
Monastery at Mesopotam, photographed by Massimiliano Fusari
Gjirokastër: Albania’s Town of the Stones by Bruce Macphail
Byllis: Ancient City in the Sky by Bruce Macphail
Albania: Four Reasons to Visit Europe's Least Known Country by Heather Cowper




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