Butrint was part of all phases of the Mediterranean’s development. Its 3,000-year-old history spans from the Bronze Age to the Ottoman Empire. It was first settled by the Greeks. They built a fortified city with an acropolis and a theater. The Romans followed. They added an aqueduct, a bathhouse, and a nymphaeum. The Byzantines turned it into an ecclesiastical center after an earthquake and a long decline. The Venetians and the Ottomans eventually took over to control the strategic spot along the Ionian Sea. But if Butrint was so important, why was it forgotten?
It’s because Butrint is in Albania. The Southeastern European country was established in 1912 when the Ottomans were defeated in the Balkan Wars. The young nation was then invaded by Italy and Nazi Germany before declaring itself a socialist republic after World War II. The Eastern Bloc wasn’t dissolved until 1991. Albania is still on the road to obtaining European Union membership.
So one of the best archaeological sites in Albania remained hidden for years. Though Butrint was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and a national park in 2000, its ruins remained half-submerged in water, woodlands, and vines. Its freshwater lakes, steep rivers, and salt marshes overtook more of the islands and the open plains. While beech martens, striped dolphins, flathead grey mullets, golden eagles, and fire salamanders ruled the lost city.
Butrint National Park lies along the southern tip of Albania. It sits 11 miles south of Sarandë, a popular resort town, and a short ferry ride from Corfu, the second-largest of Greece’s Ionian Islands. The national park, which was expanded in 2005, now covers 36 square miles that extend from the Ionian Sea, over the Vivari Channel, onto the Ksamil Islands, and into Lake Butrint. Its hiking trails are, largely, deserted. Clearings along them offer mountain and water views. Then they open up to expose the ancient buildings.
The open-air theater, built by the Greeks and enlarged by the Romans, is one of the best-preserved parts of Butrint. It sits on a natural slope and faces the Vivari Channel, the sandbar that separates Lake Butrint from the Ionian Sea. The Byzantine baptistery was the Eastern Roman Empire’s second-largest baptism site (the largest was Hagia Sophia in Istanbul). Its circular mosaic floor features peacocks, a vase, and grapes, which symbolize paradise, the Eucharist, and the blood of Christ, respectively. The hilltop Acropolis Castle, largely rebuilt in the 1930s, offers gorgeous views from its tower. Another castle, Ali Pasha Castle, sits on a small island at the mouth of the Vivari Channel. Its five cannons protected the city. While one of the entrances to the city, the Lion Gate, depicts a lion (the city’s inhabitants) about to eat a bull (the invading enemies).
Luckily, Butrint’s enemies are long gone. It’s now just a captivating national park that you need to add to your growing Albania wish list.