On our 4th day in Albania we were up bright and early for one of the sights I was most looking forward to on our tour – the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint. And it did not disappoint.
Way back in 44 BC, Caesar arrived and recognized the potential for a town on the site, even if it did require a major building program. His adopted son, Augustus, along with other family and sponsors funded the project that paid for the public works such as a new aqueduct and bridge across the Vivari Channel. It never fails to amaze me what people were able to create and build all those centuries ago. Do you suppose people will feel the same about our inventions and architecture in another 2000 years from now?
We followed this same channel in on our way to Butrint with a brief stop to look out to an island at the mouth of the channel that connects Butrint lagoon with the Corfu channel. On the island stands a fortress said to have been built by Ali Pasha in 1814 in response to Britain’s capture of Corfu and other Ionian islands.
Like so many other locations in Albania the place we stopped also included one of the infamous bunkers.
The main archaeological site at Butrint National Park is open all year from 8 am until dusk. The admission fees are very reasonable at 700 Leke (about $5.50 USD) for nationals of all countries other than Albania. You can opt to hire a guide or do a self-guided tour using one of the books on sale at the ticket booth. We were very fortunate that our guide, Ilia, was very knowledgeable about the site and gave us tons of information as we visited the site. There are also informational panels throughout the site in Albanian and English that tell you what you are looking at and the history behind the buildings. They were the source of most of the information to come in this post.
Definitely give yourself a few hours to visit this site. There are lots of buildings, walls, etc. that have been excavated along the walking trails throughout the woods in the park. It’s a beautiful place to visit. So off we go!
The Sanctuary of Asclepius
From the 3rd century BC, the Sanctuary rises on a series of terraces from an area in front of the theatre, and includes a temple to the god Asclepius and a treasury to hold offerings made to the god. Asclepius , the god of medicine, was the son of Apollo and a marble head depicting him was found during the excavation of the theatre in 1932.
Discovered in 1928-30 by the Italian archaeologist, Luigi Maria Ugolini, the theatre was originally built in a Greek style. It was used by worshippers and priests of the Sanctuary for religious ceremonies and public discussions.
The theatre was then rebuilt and enlarged in the 2nd century AD in the Roman style and was the centerpiece of the town.
Channel-Side City Wall and Triconch Palace
A little further along the trail we veered off along a path towards the river to see some remains of the city wall along the channel and the Triconch Palace.
Because of the dwindling power of the Roman empire in the West there were substantial changes to Butrint to help protect it. In the 6th century AD this new defensive wall was built that stretched along the Vivari Channel. The access to the channel was maintained with the upkeep of earlier built gates- the Lake Gate and Water Gate.
The remains of this part of the city wall were badly overgrown and dilapidated but were conserved by local masons in 2007-11. Now the trails through the woods allow visitors to visit the length of the fortification.
The Great Basilica and Baptistry
Constructed in 6th century AD, the Basilica and Baptistry were made for Butrint’s bishop. This was my favourite stop along our tour as the Basilica is just beautiful set among the trees with the blue sky peering through its arched windows.
The original building would have had three aisles separated by colonnades of columns, some of which can still be seen. The floor was paved with mosaic however all but a little section of that is now covered with gravel to protect it. There is one little section that has been cleared off in the corner for visitors to see and I can imagine how beautiful it must have been. This photo from the Butrint Foundation website shows a similar floor design completely uncovered (let the slide show at the top of the page play through to see the photo of the floor). In the medieval period the Basilica was substantially rebuilt and a flagstone floor was placed over the mosaic pavement. I wonder why they chose not to let the beautiful floor show.
There have been eight other churches found in the town so far. The Basilica is easily the most impressive and worth a wander around.
Circuit Wall and Lion Gate
The circuit wall of Butrint dates back to the 4th century BC and is a great example of the engineering skills of this period. In one part there is a plumb line cut in the corner of the wall that may have been used to ensure the blocks were arranged straight or as a drain pipe. Either way, masterful precision for 4th century BC builders.
The Lion Gate in this wall gets its name from the relief above the entrance that depicts a lion devouring the head of a bull. It’s actually not part of the original wall but was placed there in the 5th century AD to reduce the size of the gate to make it easier to defend.
While the highlight of Butrint National Park is definitely the archaeological site, it is also a great place for nature lovers who can visit to see the lakes and wetlands, along with rare species of birds and plants.
Also close by are the beaches of Ksamil where we spent a leisurely afternoon having some lunch and watching the few brave souls from our group (the kiddo was one of them!) who went for a swim in the chilly, chilly water.
To finish off an awesome day we headed back to the hotel for some relaxing time before dinner. We played a couple of games of cards and there may have been naps had by all. :-)
From there it was up to Lekursi Castle at the top of a mountain that overlooked the city of Saranda below. The castle is now home to a restaurant too and it was delicious! We were also treated to a little show as another tour group that was there had booked some local musicians for music and dancing. It was very lively and our guide even joined in!
Although I didn’t get any photos from inside, this link will take you to a very thorough post about the castle and its restaurant with some great photos.
I don’t think it’s hard to see why this was my favourite day of our trip eh? A visit to a UNESCO site. Really cool ruins in a wooded setting. Leisurely lunch overlooking the water with the feel of the sea breezes. And then the sunset atop a mountain at an old castle. Yeah, this was pretty much a perfect day.
To read more about our adventures on our tour around Albania, please feel free to check out these posts:
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