Days: 512 (19 November 2015)
Total distance travelled: 131,227.8 kilometres (81,507.96 miles)
It was early in the day, and we were stood at a service station on the verge of the main highway at the edge of Gjirokastër.
After negotiating our way aboard a furgon, and a couple of hours on the road, we were in Sarandë, a beautiful seaside town on the Albanian riviera.
We were deposited in the heart of this sun soaked town that abuts the Ionian Sea, but it did still take us a few minutes to get oriented, before finding the right direction to head towards a hostel we’d read about.
We wandered our way through an iron gate, ascended a series of chipped concrete stairs and ultimately, as the main door clattered open, appeared to wake some young guy who was dozing on a couch inside the foyer.
Negotiations were short, after all travellers were few at this time of year, and just like that, we’d sorted out our beds for the evening (it was in fact a young American who checked us in).
He was also able to point us in the right direction (it turns out the right direction in this case was in fact back where we’d come from) for a bus right out of town.
That’s right, our first move after getting here, was to simply board a bus to head immediately away from it.
This isn’t as crazy as it first sounds.
To begin with, once we were able to peer beyond the random, haphazard over-development along the roadside, we were able to enjoy some stunning views along this section of coast.
We were on a journey back in time, headed for a surprisingly little known Greek, Roman and Byzantine city, Butrint.
The reality was, we had no idea where it was, but fortunately for us, the female conductor on board made an educated guess where we were headed and made sure we didn’t get off at the wrong place.
It turns out our stop was also the end of the line, so it’s very possible we would have figured it out anyway!
So we now found ourselves standing in dusty, gravel expanse, a calm body of water gently lapping to our left and a copse of trees directly ahead.
We could spy across the blue divide what appeared to be a castle like structure.
Was that Butrint?
Totally unsure where the fuck we were going, we hopped aboard the ferry, and had ourselves winched across.
Turns out this was Kalaja Trekendore Veneciane, a Venetian Triangle Castle, but not in any way Butrint!
We were unable to actually enter its confines, so we completed a circuit of its walls, peered within and eventually realised our folly as what we sought must surely be back on the other side of this wet divide.
Having wandered our way back to where the road meets this narrow strip of water which itself was fed (or perhaps flowed into) by the Straits of Corfu, we were faced with a conundrum.
The ferry presently sat on the other side of the water.
It would not cross until it had vehicular (read paying) passengers.
There was presently (nor would there prove to be for some time) not one vehicle sitting in wait…
We peered inside the doorway of a dimly lit hut where a lone attendant sat surrounded by old greasy engine parts (he was also sporting a lot of grease on his well soiled clothing) and showed not a skerrick of interest in us.
Mindful of the time we could be exploring, but were now wasting in waiting, there was little we could do, but wait for that car that did finally appear, only to impatiently realise that a car on our side was not sufficient…
They wouldn’t head back until they’d collected a fare on the opposite shore!
Eventually, we did get back across without getting our feet wet, and into the ruins we went.
It wasn’t long that we were readily aware of the apparent reason that the city was ultimately abandoned, as the first section we explored, at least beyond the impressive, but obviously restored Phoenician tower was a rather wet, muddy affair.
The unavoidable legacy of building atop, or at least on the fringes of a swamp!
Still, it presented us with the surprise opportunity to lock eyes with an unexpected bunch of locals, their long necks and large eyes following our movements rather intently.
Somewhat surprisingly, right beside this marshy area, sat a well preserved amphitheatre, apparently to this day still used for local performances… although I’m fairly certain the wooden floor/stage raised above the rising damp is a modern addition.
There was no entertainment in progress when we arrived, so it was up to us make our own fun.
This we achieved simply through our explorations, an affair that at times felt a little bit adventurous (or perhaps more risky for the cleanliness of our attire).
Exploring an old church saw us tiptoeing over some rather slick and muddied ground, a feat that presented enough of a risk that one wrong step almost saw us sprawling face first into the quagmire.
Still, we managed it without incident and our reward: a trio of aged mosaics still sporting a touch of colour.
Each area of the ruins was linked by a rough gravel path, at many points seemingly losing a battle against the encroaching weeds. A path that in many other parts of the world (that receive a larger amount of tourist traffic) would be well worn thanks to the volume of feet that trod its ground.
Instead, here we were at this incredibly impressive location, sharing it with barely a handful of others.
The remains of a circular building were later revealed to be a fifth century baptistry, its columned interior now covered by a loose gravel floor.
Adjacent signage indicated that beneath this unassuming coverage, lies a most stunning mosaic.
Unfortunately this gem remains hidden, the floor covering only removed every few years to allow archaeologists to perform restorative works, the covering actually serving to protect it from the encroaching waters which regularly cover the area.
Our onward explorations saw us take in the weathered and time worn cathedral, before the path took us along the waters edge, waters almost mirror like in their stillness, the only activity to be noted the many small vessels filled with local men with fishing lines cast in all directions.
Their general chatter, a gentle lapping of the water and our crunching of gravel underfoot were the only sounds that punctured the scene.
We re-entered the ruins through an arched entrance known as the ‘Lions Gate’, although to our two sets of eyes we actually thought the ancient carving in the stonework looked far more like a horned bull!
Clambering up ancient stairs, we could be forgiven for thinking ourselves intrepid archaeologists (well, it really did feel we were the only ones here) as opposed to a pair of grotty Australian tourists.
Eventually we hit the highest point amidst the ruins, also one of the more contemporary structures, briefly took in the view before realising we had a bus to catch in the not too distant future.
Back in Sarandë, the evening gave us a glimpse of how stunning a location this must be in the summer months, whilst we devoted ourselves to finding a pizza place which proved somewhat elusive.
Eventually it (or possibly another) was indeed found, its wood fired fare and the accompanying beer providing us with a far tastier than expected dinner.
A breakfast of milk and pastries along the same waterfront on yet another sunny day heralded our farewell to this beautiful stretch of coast, one final local treat revealed in the form of a local gent immaculately attired in brown, double corduroy (think double denim, but classier).
Before long we were back aboard a rattling furgon, headed back towards Gjirokastër, but with one additional stop along the way…
* Our furgon from Gjirokastër to Sarandë cost us 300.00 Lek per person.
* A local bus from Sarandë to Butrint will cost 100.00 per person, in each direction.
* True it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, but Butrint’s 700.00 Lek per person entrance fee is quite steep. Nevertheless, probably worth paying.