Albania's ancient history surfaces

Special to The Times

I was sipping an espresso at the Piazza bookstore, a trendy Tirana cafe where artists, writers and politicians hang out, listening to Neritan Ceka, Albania's leading archeological scholar. He was talking about a "spectacular" site under excavation in central Albania. "Byllis," Ceka said. "You must go to Byllis."

The Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine site, he said, is one of the most impressive recent discoveries, with a 20-row Greco-Roman amphitheater dating from the 2nd century, and 6th century Byzantine churches with mosaics rivaling any found in Greece or Turkey.

I had asked Ceka to help plan my visits to archeological sites, and his list blew me away. I'd had no clue of the scope and richness of the sites. Greek and Roman ruins in Apollonia. Modern Durres, built on top of Greek, Roman and Byzantine cities. Tombs belonging to (3rd and 4th century BC) Illyrian kings. Even in Tirana, a bustling modern metropolis, I saw a 4th century Roman house, uncovered recently at a construction site, its mosaic floors still intact.

Who knew Albania was such a treasure-trove? The Albanians I knew told me about the Balkan nation's mild Mediterranean climate, majestic Alps, pristine forests, untouched rivers and lakes, its magnificent vistas and miles of sandy beaches along the Adriatic. But archeological sites? No mention.

Albania, in the southeastern corner of Europe, was settled by the Illyrians, ancestors of present-day Albanians, in Paleolithic times. Situated where it is and surrounded by powerful, warring empires, Albania has seen a lot of violence throughout its history. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans swept through, leaving their mark and their ruins.

For decades, the country's archeological treasures were virtually lost to the world. Communists took over in 1944, and dictator Enver Hoxha's iron grip kept the country isolated until the end of communism in the early 1990s.

That's when Albanian archeology captured the attention of experts around the world. The fledgling Albanian parliamentary democracy began a systematic program of excavation and conservation, in partnership with the Butrint Foundation, a British charitable trust, and other foreign organizations and colleges.

I came to Albania's capital last January to teach journalism at the University of Tirana under a Fulbright grant. After the semester's end in May -- a good time to travel in Albania -- I would have time to explore some sites around the country.

In the 15 years since the end of communism, Tirana has grown from a sleepy town of a few hundred thousand to a hopping metropolis, close to 1 million. The place, with garishly painted buildings, is crawling with cheerful sidewalk cafes overflowing with young people, Internet cafes, fitness centers, restaurants and clubs blaring rock and rap through the night. There's plenty to see and do here, if you can put up with the fumes and dust kicked up by the frenzied construction everywhere.

The capital was a great launch pad for most of my day trips to archeological sites. Albania is a tiny country, with a land area of 11,100 square miles and about 3 million people.

On Ceka's recommendation, I put Byllis on my list and planned my trip, leaving plenty of time for travel because, except for an 80-mile superhighway from Tirana to Lushnje, Albanian roads are a challenge, particularly at night.

(I advise traveling with a tour group or a guide, unless you are an adventurous, seasoned traveler. I made it a point to travel with an Albanian-speaking guide who could deal with unexpected police checkpoints, plus street vendors, beggars and hotel and restaurant staff. Although the country is safe for the most part, it's also wise to check with the State Department for travel advisories, www.travel.state.gov, before you visit.)

In May, the weather was balmy, the spring rains had finally stopped, and roads were clear to travel south, where most of the Greco-Roman sites are: Durres, Apollonia and extraordinary Butrint, which has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. I'd leave Byllis for last.

I started with Durres and Apollonia, because I could get there and return to Tirana in time for an "American Idol"-type songfest that Albanians love to watch on "telly" almost nightly.

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Durres and Apollonia

THE city, only 24 miles from Tirana, was the ideal place to combine a bit of archeology with a nice seaside supper before heading back to the capital.

Albanians regard the dreary, industrial seaport as a hot spot because of its white sandy beaches, resorts and great fish restaurants. If you close your eyes to the mad, untamed construction on the coastline and the rubbish on the beach, Durres is an amazing repository of ruins from various historical eras, one layered over another.

You can see the marks left by Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans simply by driving around town.

A 14th century Venetian rotunda looks out to the harbor. Roman baths are behind the Aleksander Moisiu Theater in the central square. A 15th century mosque is built onto a former church from the Byzantine era. In the center of town, a Roman, 2nd century amphitheater, the largest in the Balkans, was discovered when a man dug into his backyard in 1966. It stands neglected and only partially excavated.

We approached the entrance. Soon, an old attendant hobbled to the rickety gate and opened the lock with a huge key. Inside, the amphitheater became oddly magical. Here, gladiators felled starved lions, and chariots rushed through the tunnel to an open arena as thousands of spectators roared with excitement. Here too is an early Christian chapel with broken mosaic images of St. Stephen, St. Mary and the archangels Gabriel and Michael.

On the way to the amphitheater, I had spotted the Archaeological Museum, where most of the artifacts found during excavations are exhibited, and had planned to stop there on my return. But it was closed, and this served as a good warning: Don't expect hours and schedules to be precise. Telephone numbers are also risky -- many change without notice or disconnect altogether. And often you won't find street names posted, so rely on your taxi driver for directions.

About that time, dinner sounded good, so I headed to the tavernas along the Durres seaside, which are renowned for their grilled fish -- the best in Albania. I ended the day among locals, feasting on a plate of fish and crisp potatoes fried in olive oil, accompanied by an icy Albanian Pilsener.

In contrast to Durres, Apollonia was everything a tourist expects of the perfect Hellenic-Roman archeological site. The Greeks settled themselves in the midst of an Illyrian city in 588 BC.

Apollonia's breathtaking location -- on a promontory overlooking the shimmering Adriatic and aquamarine Vjosa River -- is worth the 77-mile drive from Tirana.

The open plan makes it easy to stroll about the grassy knolls, imagining Julius Caesar planning his campaign against Pompey in the magnificent six-columned Monument of Agonothetes. Or by the Odeon, built when Apollonia was a center of learning and the future Roman Emperor Augustus was a student there.

I sat on an overturned column along the path listening to the sudden burst of what sounded like a Mozart concerto echoing from the beautiful 14th century Church of St. Mary -- a rehearsal, I later learned, for an afternoon performance at the amphitheater. I gazed at the ruins of a small temple to the Greek goddess Artemis (to the Romans, Diana) and a triumphal arch and wandered past the 2nd century outlines of what were once homes of wealthy Apollonians. Beyond were the Roman baths and finally, a small, 2nd century amphitheater facing the Adriatic.

Back in Tirana that evening, I remembered Ceka's words. "You won't forget Byllis, will you?" But Byllis would have to wait. My next stop was Butrint.

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Butrint

AFTER driving 170 miles in a torrential rain, my driver and I arrived in Saranda in early evening, too late for a visit to Butrint, a few miles down the road.

Although there are hotels and restaurants around the site, most tourists make the resort city of Saranda their headquarters because it is filled with hopping seaside cafes, bars and luxury hotels and restaurants along the palm-fringed seaside promenade.

Saranda is an archeological city in its own right. It was fortified with walls in the 4th century by Romans. An early Christian basilica is decorated with exquisite mosaics. The Monastery of the 40 Saints (from which Saranda derives its name) is also a tourist stop.

It drizzled the following day too.

"What can you see in the rain? No one will be there," said my driver, Robert, who picked me up under an umbrella outside my hotel. But I insisted we drive to Butrint.

Robert was right. No one was around, except for a few archeologists from the Butrint Foundation making their way to the excavations, which include a palace and the foundations of a Roman villa thought to have belonged to Cicero's correspondent, Atticus.

Butrint is magically situated on Lake Butrint, where such writers as Virgil, Racine and Baudelaire found inspiration.

I breathed in the fragrant, moist air along the woodsy glades and muddy paths. I passed ancient baths, thick mossy walls, an amphitheater and fallen columns. I almost expected Lord Byron to rise from the ruins; it has that languorous quality of the 19th century grand tour about it.

The rediscovered city of Butrint is probably more significant today than it was when Caesar used it as a provisions depot for his troops during his campaigns in the 1st century BC. It was considered an unimportant outpost, Ceka said, overshadowed by the likes of Apollonia and Durres. I felt transported to another time and space.

In 2000, the Albanian government established Butrint National Park, which draws about 50,000 visitors annually. Cultural performances are held in the huge amphitheater.

Next on my tour was Byllis, Ceka's favorite site, about halfway between Butrint and Tirana.

But I never did get there. Robert thought the muddy roads would be dangerous. "The rain could be a problem," he said again.

So I threw up my hands and called it a day. We headed toward Vlora via the Logora Pass to pick up the coastal road back to Tirana. We climbed limestone cliffs overlooking the aquamarine waters where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. We passed quaint villages, plush pine forests, groves of oranges and olives and medieval churches.

For dinner, we munched on spit-roasted lamb at a roadside restaurant, mesmerized by the beauty of the forest against the blue sea miles away. It's a good thing, I thought, that the construction barons had not yet tapped into this beautiful segment of Albania. I hope they never will.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Past is ever-present

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, British Airways, Delta, US Airways, Lufthansa and Air France have connecting service (changes of planes) to Tirana. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,507 until Oct. 31.

TELEPHONES:

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international dialing code); 355 (country code for Albania); and the number.

WHERE TO STAY:

In Tirana:

Sheraton Tirana Hotel & Towers, Sheshi Italia; 42-74707, www.sheraton.com. This modern, concrete and glass multi-complex hotel offers the works. Doubles from $263, with breakfast.

Tirana International, Sheshi Skenderbej; 42-34185. One of the few hotels with handicap access. Doubles from $156 with breakfast.

In Saranda:

Hotel Butrinti, Rruga Butrinti; 852-5592, www.butrintihotel.com. One of the best hotels in Albania. Has a roof garden, pool and parking. Doubles $122 with breakfast and dinner.

Grand Hotel, Rruga Butrinti; 852-5574, www.grandhotel.com. A comfortable seaside hotel with swimming pool, restaurant. Doubles $61.

WHERE TO EAT:

In Tirana:

Piazza, Rruga Ded Gjo Luli; www.kompaniabardha.com. Continental cuisine for lunch and supper, plus light Albanian specialties, desserts and beverages on the garden patio. Entrees $12-$18.

Casa di Pasta, 122, at Taiwan Shpk, Rruga Deshmoret e 4 Shkurtiti, Parku Rinia. The Italian-Albanian grill overlooking a park has great pasta and grilled lamb and veal. Entrees $8-$17.

In Saranda:

Castle of Lekurs, a mile from Saranda. Built by Ottoman Sultan Suleymani in the 16th century. The lower floors have a restaurant serving Albanian specialties. Entrees $8-$15.

Mediterrane Hotel Restorant, Rruga Butrinti. Dine on seafood and Albanian specialties. Entrees $6-$12.

TO LEARN MORE:

National Tourism Organization of the Albanian Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sports, www.albaniantourism.com.

-- Rose Dosti

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