So Monday night was a storm for the ages in Gjirokastër. It started raining just after I got back to my room, and then all hell broke loose with a massive and I mean massive thunder storm, followed by torrential rain, another massive thunderstorm and on and on throughout the night, finally calming down around 5:00 a.m. At times the lightening was so bright it gave off better light than the bulbs in my room. Crazy.
Anyway, after the not so sound night of sleep, Gasie and I packed up the car to begin our trip to the coast. However, before we left the Gjirokastër area we made a side trip to see Hadrianopolis a few kilometers from Gjirokastër.
Now Hadrianopolis, as the name implies, was constructed by Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century on the site of former ruins dating to the 5th century B.C. in the Drin River valley. It is believed that the site was a rest stop area for merchants travelling through the area.
The Roman city only extended roughly 16 hectares (about the size of 16 football fields), but included Roman baths and a Roman Amphitheatre. The site was first uncovered after a landslide in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1984 when further excavation reveled the extent of the Amphitheatre. Very little of the site has been excavated and what has been uncovered remains in its natural state with no renovations.
We made our way down the narrow little road dodging a large herd of sheep before we reached the site. Now I don’t know what I was expecting, but the remains far exceeded my expectations. We first encountered the Roman baths before walking to the other end of the ruins to see the Amphitheatre. Now the Amphitheatre was in remarkably good condition with stone stairs and seating for hundreds of spectators. The Amphitheatre was also surrounded by small, protective walls.
I wandered around the Amphitheatre until Gasie told me we had to move it as we had two mores stops and lots of driving to do. I absolutely loved the site. First, there was no one else there. Second, the ruins had not been “put back together” so to speak so what we saw was what had been uncovered. And as far as I am concerned, there is nothing better than ruins in their natural state.
Anyway, after Gasie urged me one more time that we had to leave, I reluctantly left the site and got back in the car with a huge grin on my face. What a great way to start the day.
We retraced our drive back down the narrow road (the sheep were gone) and hit the highway. Before long, we were turning right and heading west through mountains, which were covered in clouds. I figured it was just a matter of time before we hit a storm and boy was I right. A couple drops on the windshield turned into a torrent as we zig zagged up the mountains.
The rain coupled with the narrow roads really made for slow going. And even though we were only driving about 35 km to our next stop (“Blue Eye”), the drive took over an hour as we wound our way through the very lush green mountains in the rain. Fortunately, by the time we reached Blue Eye the rain had stopped.
Now Blue Eye is a natural spring water phenomenon in Vlorë County towards the southern coast of Albania. Apparently this thing is a big deal. The water that actually bubbles from a depth of more than 50 metres is clear blue water. It is actually unknown how deep the hole is from which the water flows as the deepest divers have gone is 50 meters. To the best of folks’ knowledge, the spring has run continuously except for one interruption in 2004 following an earthquake when the spring dried up because of cracks in the earth nearby.
Anyway, we reached the entrance to Blue Eye, crossed the river being fed by the spring and drive along yet another windy narrow road. Once we parked, we had to cross a little bridge and cut through some brush to reach this very popular spot.
The water colour really was lovely as it bubbled up from below. I walked close enough to the stream to stick my hand in the river and man that was cold. Despite this, there were still some nuts who were wading around in the water. Thanks but no thanks. I did my polar plunge in Antarctica and that was enough for me.
So I took a walk around the site, walked up the little hill to get a better look and then came back. And while the bubbling water and colour were quite striking, I did not get the whole kerfuffle over the place. I thought maybe it was just me so I took a video and you can be the judge.
We left the “Blue Eye” and continued our drive west heading for the town of Sarandë, located on the Ionian Sea. Actually, we were headed 14 km south of Sarandë near the Greek border to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint.
Butrint is believed to have been inhabited as early as the prehistoric era, but it came into its own under the Greeks and was later taken over and transformed into a Roman city. The Byzantines and the Venetians also had a go at the city before an earthquake caused the water levels to rise flooding the city. The remains of Butrint are considered the best preserved ruins in Albania.
So after reaching the coastal city of Sarandë, which lies just across a narrow channel of the Ionian Sea from the island of Corfu, we turned south. As we drove, we wound our way through the tourist town that was crammed with hotels lining the beach on one side and little taverns and cafes on the other. We passed Butrint Lake before reaching the crest of the hill and then meandering down to historic site behind a parade of traffic. Fortunately, the site was big enough that it only felt crowded at the beginning of the walk through the ancient city.
Once we entered the site we took a look at the map. The city had been built on a hill surrounded by walls and water. In the middle was a variety of sites including an Amphitheatre, Roman baths, a cistern, multiple fountains, restrictive entrances, a Basilica, and Roman villas.
We started out by walking towards the 4th century Amphitheatre. Sadly, we arrived at the same time as a massive German tour group and the leader of the tour was not bashful about pushing her way through and around people. I was close to giving her an elbow to the rib cage when she barged past me as I was trying to take a picture.
Anyway, she kind of ruined the visit to the Amphitheatre for me, but by the time we reached the 2nd century Roman baths just across from the Amphitheatre, she had pushed forward and that was the last time we saw the group. Thank God.
Now the Roman baths were much bigger than other Roman baths I had seen in Albania and Kosovo (but not Macedonia). It was also unclear whether the baths were for me or for women, but my guess, based upon the size of the baths, was men. Unfortunately, there were no mosaics on the ground, but a fair bit of water at the site.
We walked past the baths, the remnants of the Roman forum and the remains of a Roman villa (also no mosaics) before stopping at what was once a Pagan shrine complete with fountains. The fountains actually had faint remains of frescos that were visible if you got close enough, which I obviously did. The fountains were in remarkably good condition and we ended up spending a little time at the site to take it all in.
Just a short walk past the fountains was the 6th century Baptistry, with magnificent columns that were partially intact. Now the Baptistry apparently has one of the most beautiful mosaics in all of Albania, but because of its location and the flooding risk in the area, the mosaic remained covered up with sand to protect and preserve the priceless work of art. And while I totally understood the need to preserve the mosaic, It seemed sad to me that it was covered up. Wasn’t there some kind of construction that could be built to ensure its integrity while allowing the public to view this apparently amazing mosaic. Oh well, I did see a picture.
Anyway, we moved on from the Baptistry to what I thought was the most beautiful ruins at the site: the 6th Century Great Basillica. The Basilica originally had three aisles separated by colonnades of columns. The floor was once paved with mosaics. At one end of the Basillica the apse has four arched windows. At the base of the wall was the remains of what must have one been the beautiful mosaic floor. At the other end of the Basillica was the massive arched doorway.
Now it was in the Basillica that we had our first encounter with a “poser”. This women was something else. Long black hair and nothing close to a model’s body. Yet, this woman pranced around and posed for pictures like she was about to be published in the Sport Illustrated swim suit edition. Every time me or one of the other tourists nearby tried to take a picture, she was standing there flipping her hair around, leaning against a pillar or blowing kisses while her boyfriend took pictures. For the love of God! Stop it you people. No one wants to see this!!!!!
Sadly, we were stuck with this bimbo for the next couple sites before we finally lost her. At one point, Gasie and I thought she might fall into the water when she climbed up on a wall to “pose”. I would have paid handsomely to see it happen. (And just for good measure, I took a picture of this nitwit so you could see what I was talking about.)
Anyway, once we left the Basilica we wandered along the outer Roman walls that bordered the Vivari Channel and Lake Butrint which surround the ancient city. We stopped at the first of two gates that were used to protect the city. The Lake Gate had a narrow opening for access and used both Hellentistic and Roman stones for fortification. (The Hellenistic stones were huge blocks of rock in comparison to the smaller chiseled stones used by the Romans.)
However, far and way the better of the two gates was the “Lions Gate” if for nothing else but the amazing bas relief carving on the gate dating to the 4th century B.C. depicting a lion chomping down on the head of a bull (Sidenote – Apologies to my friend Denice aka the Bull. No offense, but even you would love the carving….)
Anyway, we had to crouch down to enter the gate and then climb a steep stairway to a small little well that at one time had a mosaic framing the top of the well.
From the well, we climbed a series of staircases to a 14th to 16th century Venetian castle that had been reconstructed. It was nothing to write home about, but there were two pluses. First, the views from the top were magnificent. Second, the castle housed ancient artifacts found at Butrint, some of which were really quite amazing, including a number of large marble statutes.
Now, sadly, the castle was the end of the line for my visit to Butrint. And while we had been at the site for almost 2 hours, I could have carried on for more.
Anyway, once we were done at Butrint, it was time to retrace our trip back through Sarandë and then continue on up the Albanian Riviera coast to our little hotel by the sea in Qeparo Village. The drive, of course, took us through a series of switch backs up the mountain coastline, past little oceanside villages dotted with beautiful flower gardens and finally down into the little village. And once again, although the distance between Butrint and Qeparo Village was only 50 km, it took almost and hour and a half to reach our destination. The views, however, did make the trip worth while.
Once settled, I grabbed a bite to eat and watched the sun set over the Ionian Sea. It had been a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day!