Sarande, Ksamil, and Butrint National Park

History Travel

We awoke to the cooing of wood pigeons (I swear they followed me from Tirana) and the sun streaming in through the window. Thank heaves (quite literally) that the forecasted thunder, rain, and near-apocalypse did not materialise as it would have put quite a dampener on our trip. Our plans for the day were to go get a coffee on the Sarande sea-front and then to head off to Ksamil to see what all of the fuss was about.

Setting off from the hotel, Sarande looks like any other European tourist town- for me, it could have been Sliema or St Julians in Malta. Full of souvenir shops, exchange centres, and ticket shops where you can purchase a ride to Corfu, whilst charming, it didn’t offer me anything special. I spied a few communist-era buildings and some traditional looking houses complete with an outdoor Greek-style oven, but that was about it. We strolled down to the seafront and sat watching some fishermen mend their nets. I was delighted to see everyone drinking frappes- anyone who has ever lived in Greece or Cyprus knows that frappes are the drink of choice, akin to rocket fuel and the only thing that will really get you going on a hot summers day.

 

We then got in the car and started driving towards Ksamil. Passing empty hotels, open hotels, and hotels in various stages of renovation in preparation for the summer seasons, eventually, the high-rises thinned out and we could see the glorious coastline beside us. The road to Ksamil follows the curve of the coastline and then opens out onto a large highway with an incredible view to the right. What looks like a large lake full of rocky inlets and tree-laden peninsulas is actually the sea. Looking down you can see the mussel farms at the edge of the coastline and the dramatic mountains in the background. Whilst the sun was struggling to appear, a blue haze had settled over the water making it almost impossible to see where the slopes of the mountains end and the sea begins. We leave the mountains that are lost in the clouds behind us and we arrive on the top of the hill overlooking Ksamil. Surrounding us are row upon row of olive trees and the sea air hits me in the face with a welcome freshness.

Entering Ksamil, the town is sleepy and quiet. Most of the guesthouses, restaurants, and campsites are closed up for the “winter” or are in some stage of receiving a new lick of paint before the new season begins. As the sun has decided to come out, we stop to pick up some towels from a lone souvenir shop and we head down to the beach. Upon descending towards the sea, the only word that escapes my mouth is “wow”. This place is truly paradise. Almost deserted asides from a few scattered German tourists, we have the beach almost to ourselves.

The water is the most incredible bright blue with painted white jetty’s cutting through its calmness and extending into the bay beyond. The three islands sit just a stone’s throw from the shore, a swimmable distance, and I spy some bathers sitting and relaxing on their rocky shores. I find it difficult to explain the tranquillity and natural beauty of this place, but it was almost overwhelming. Another thing I noted was how clean the beaches and the water were. When I compared the immaculate white sand and the impossibly crystal clear water to some beaches in the rest of Europe, these win hands down.

My boyfriend tells me how busy this place gets in the summer, but for now, it is an oasis of peace and calm. I lie back, Pina Colada in hand and enjoy the feeling of the warm sun on my pale, English skin, whilst listening to the soft sound of the waves lapping on the shore. The water is cold and refreshing and I feel happy to have the soft sand between my toes once more. Having grown up next to the sea, and lived a stones throw from the beach in every country I have ever lived in, I miss it.

After a sufficient amount of beachside relaxing, we gather our salty and sunkissed (burnt) bodies and head up to a small lido that sits overlooking the bay. We ordered fresh mussels cooked with tomatoes, wine, and garlic, and some deliciously fresh squid that melts in the mouth. Washed down with some local wine and a coffee for energy, we decide to head off for Butrint.

Butrint was an ancient port city and gives a truly unique insight into the extensive past of this part of the Mediterranean. Restored and made a National park by Auron Tare, it is now one of the most visited parts of the country. Most of the archaeological monuments ere discovered by an Italian, Luigi Maria Ugolini who worked there for a decade between 1928 and 1939. What is on show in Butrint today takes visitors on a journey that starts as far back as 8th Century BC and comprises of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman points of interest. According to Mythology, the city of Buthrotum was founded by exiles that escaped the fall of Troy and it was even mentioned in the epic poem “Aenid” by Virgil.

The city has been fortified over the years and is home to chapels, basilicas, shrines, villas, theatres, and more- all testament to its fascinating history. There is so much to discover and as we walk around its maze of pathways, we come across Roman fountains, baths, villas, gates, city walls, and towers. The area is home to 800 types of plants including cypress trees, eucalyptus trees, oak trees and elm trees. There are also 246 species of birds, 105 species of fish, and 39 different kinds of mammals all living within Butrint. The air is thick with the smell of freshly cut foliage and damp earth, and the sound of birds singing and frogs chirping is incessant. It is a truly beautiful and peaceful place and aroud every corner is something new to discover. You can feel the history of the place and I found myself imagining whos footsteps I was walking in, or what certain parts would have looked like thousands of years before. Even for those that are not “into” history, Butrint is well worth a visit. To have so much history and fascinating structures in one place, and from so many different periods of time, is rare and I found the experience truly wonderful.

We explored the Roman amphitheatre, the baptistry, and the Roman Villa, but my favourite part was the Great Basilica- a cult establishment from the Early Christian Period of around 6th Century AD. With its impressively intact walls, its high arches, and imposing columns, I found it very impressive and enjoyed spending time there, taking it all in. My second favourite part of the experience was in the vicinity of the amphitheatre- the waters that surround it due to the rising and falling level of the lagoon, are full of  chunky, loud frogs, and inquisitive turtles. These turtles are the most wonderful colour- olive green and brown with flecks of yellow that look almost like gold. The chunter around in the murky depths, swimming to the surface from time to time to say hello- if you visit Butrint, be sure to stop to say hello!

Next up, we found ourselves at the Venetian Castle that was constructed between the 14th and 16th Century. We climbed to the top and marvelled at the incredible view across the plan beyond. The expansive flatlands, criss crossed with canals and estuary like rivers, make way for the tree-covered slopes of the mountains beyond. From here it is clear why Butrint was chosen- its location allows visibility for miles around and the importance of its strategic location becomes clear.

Then, after being besieged upon by hordes of elderly, curious German and French tourists, we made our way out of the park. It is a beautiful and interesting place with an air that is full of mystery and intrigue. You can literally feel the energy in the air at Butrint- its past is fascinating and the way it is preserved and displayed makes for the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

 

 

 

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