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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



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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."