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Travel: Struggling to find its place in antiquity

Butrint, Albania is possibly the least known of almost 900 UNESCO World Heritage sites



"Welcome to Albania - my ex-beloved enemies," said the tour guide as our air-conditioned coach rumbled along a narrow mountain road to the ancient city of Butrint in the southwest of this little-visited country.

It was a slip of the tongue. Vangjel Xhani - who went on to explain that Albania, bounded by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece, only recently emerged from political isolation - had intended to call us his "beloved ex-enemies."

"Twenty years ago you were aliens," said the affable former teacher. "Albania was just like North Korea or China, it taught us to see everyone foreign as an enemy. There was a lot of paranoia."

The paranoia may have eased, but Albania retains signs of the 40-year rule of Enver Hoxha, a "non-revisionist" Marxist-Leninist so idiosyncratic in his views that he severed ties with Maoist China and the Soviet Union. Today you can see some of the 750,000 mushroom-shaped bunkers or fortifications that Hoxha had built around the country, purportedly to discourage invasion and protect Albanians.

And Albania's lingering problems are obvious in the sheer number of abandoned building shells - usually a multi-storey concrete frame with rusting metal rods sticking out everywhere and unused bricks or breezeblocks stacked on the ground.

"Bad banks," said Xhani, though he may have been alluding to the spectacular ponzi or pyramid schemes that led to the collapse of the Albanian government in 1997. As for the innumerable half-built hotels, he added, without a hint of rancour: "At first they thought that all of Europe was coming here."

In fact, the city of Sarande, a 45-minute hydrofoil ride from Corfu, is a rustic if appealing resort region, with tropical vegetation, a waterfront promenade, fine beaches and inexpensive hotels. According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, Sarande "is set to become the new 'undiscovered gem' of the overcrowded Med."

But we didn't hang around Sarande. After seeing the former home of Hoxha and a nearby restaurant purposely built for a visiting Nikita Khrushchev - a leader with whom Hoxha subsequently had a falling out - we headed south.

According to Xhani, 20 years ago there were only 800 cars in all of Albania.

Today Mercedes-Benzes of every vintage are the cars of overwhelming choice. Some (though by no means all) are stolen: Albania is one of a few countries in which chassis numbers are not checked against foreign police databases before plates are issued.

Driving along a narrow mountain road, and inching past the occasional Mercedes, we overlooked a watery landscape. We were on our way to one of the least known of almost 900 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the ancient settlement of Butrint.

The earliest settlers, known to be here in the 8 th century BC, were Greek, who established a small city here. Butrint (originally called Buthrotum) was subsequently conquered and settled by Romans, Byzantines, Sicilians, Normans, Venetians (who renamed it Butrint) and Turks. Today it reveals layer upon layer of fortifications, public buildings and private dwelling, about a quarter of which has been unearthed.

We entered Butrint from the lakeshore, where mussels are farmed commercially, and a barge-like ferry runs to the far shore. Following paths through a wooded landscape, we visited a 4 th century BC sanctuary dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius, and a large amphitheatre, where musical performances are held in summer.

We saw the remains of a Roman bathhouse, including mosaics, the superstructure of a 6 th century AD basilica said to have been almost as large as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and a Roman fountain devoted to nymphs, a recurring theme at Butrint.

Most spectacular was a wall of huge sandstone blocks enclosing a detailed depiction of a lion devouring a bull's head. Beautifully intact, this carving on what's called the Lion Gate is said to date to 350 BC.

Atop the wooded hill stands a Venetian fortress, and across the lake sits the fortified castle were Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha lived briefly in the 18 th century (Lord Byron is said to have visited his court here).

Much of the rest of Butrint appears, to the casual visitor, a confusion of wells, fountains, agora and forum, baths and other half-recognizable relics. I wasn't surprised when I overheard an American teenager demand of his mother why she'd brought him to this decidedly unglamorous place.

But in fairness to Butrint (and cash-strapped Albania), the Italian archeologist who oversaw several major digs here in the mid-20 th century died of malaria at age 41, and his successor was killed in a plane crash, taking with him invaluable documents. Today archeological work continues.

As well, a number of exceptional Greek sculptures unearthed here, including a gorgeous head of the god Apollo dating to the 4 th century BC, are in the National Museum of History in the Albanian capital of Tirana.

So Butrint National Park struggles to find its place in the world of antiquity. But some day tourists will acknowledge its importance and visit in droves. Meanwhile, most of the foreign visitors are sun-seekers from Europe or tourists on a day outing from Corfu - a few of us as "ex-beloved enemies."

For more, visit www.butrint.org.