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The Ancient City of Butrint, Albania

The Ancient City of Butrint, Albania

Enticed by the chance to wander the old empires of the Mediterranean, I took a daytrip from Corfu to the ancient city of Butrint in the Albanian highlands. Butrint was occupied by Greeks and Romans, Byzantines and Venetians. By 4 BC it was one of the commercial centres of the world, and sites like its grand amphitheatre display the ancient city’s prosperity.

Butrint National Park, Albania

Butrint National Park, Albania
Image Credits:Ksenija Putilin

Found submerged under marshland by Mussolini’s archaeologists in 1928, up until then Butrint had been abandoned since the late Middle Ages due to flooding. The Italians were also forced to abandon the site, by ruthless communist leader Enver Hoxha in 1944.

Democracy came to Albania in 1992, and Butrint was included as a World Heritage site the same year. But when the government’s pyramid schemes failed in 1997, looting became rife and UNESCO was forced to list Butrint as a ‘site in danger’ until 2005. The label could have applied to the whole country.

As for Butrint, its marshy past actually preserved its acropolis, fountains and baths and it has become a nurtured national park. Visiting in August, I left the Norwegian girls I met on the bus admiring the stonework of the castle at the top of the hill, and wandered towards a canopy for shade. Under the Eucalyptus trees, I realised that despite its past Albania is a beautiful country.

I looked out to a huge lagoon peppered with mussel catchers, like there was a convention of old men playing backgammon under the teal water, holding their walking sticks up to keep them dry. Grand hills followed the lake to a gentle plateau of farmland, where distant churches and castles sprinkled some knolls in the fields. Croppy marshes carried the hills past the Vivari canal out to sea. The hills dropped into cliffs which the surf nudged against in great white wisps. In other spots, the sea tumbled across beautifully deserted white sands.

As philosopher Cicero wrote to Julius Caesar’s political rival Atticus in 56 BC, Butrint is the ‘quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.’

But the blues and greens were starting to bleach in the midday sun, so I left the girls to it and took a ‘taxi’ back to Seranda, the town where I could catch the ferry back to Corfu. I only started to care that Joy was not a real taxi driver, when he ignored my protests and hurtled towards a desolate beach. Turns out he just wanted to buy me a coke at a hidden bar. So I left my stereotypes along with my day-return ticket, and stayed in Seranda a week. Because these days, Albania is a joy.

Getting There

  • Easyjet flies from London Gatwick to Corfu airport March – October
  • Ionian Cruises runs organised day trips from Corfu Town to Butrint for €64
  • If you want to travel independently, take the 9am hydrofoil from Corfu Town with Ionian Cruises for €38 return. The journey takes 25 minutes, and the skipper will hold onto your passport for the trip’s duration.
  • In Seranda, walk from port customs to the bottom of the hill (about 100 metres). Turn left at the junction, you will see a bus stop. It is for Butrint, and there are buses every hour in the mornings (about €0.60 return). 14km away, the journey will take an hour, the road being a cliff top ribbon of rubble. Otherwise take a (registered) taxi to Butrint for about €2.
  • Entrance to Butrint costs 700 Leke (about €5) for non-Albanians, or 500 Leke each (about €3.60) for groups over ten. There were three of us but we paid the discounted fee, so the price might depend on how friendly the person at the ticket office is feeling.

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