Bunkers and Butrint

Trip Start Aug 31, 2007
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Trip End Apr 19, 2008


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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On my bus ride this morning, I got the clearest views yet of Hoxha's legacy to Albania. Paranoid about foreign invasion after snubbing every world power, Hoxha had a brilliant idea: construct military bunks across the country so each farmer can defend himself and his family from attack! On the surface, it doesn't seem that dumb, though in reality, I don't think the probability of anyone attacking Albania was particularly high. Hoxha hired a chief engineer and had him design a bunker. The engineer came up with a domed roof about 4 feet in diameter with slits in the sides, constructed of five tonnes of iron and concrete. The poor engineer then had to vouch for his creation by cowering inside while it was bombarded by a tank. He survived and 700,000 bunkers were constructed across the country, one for every four Albanians at the time. They are generally found in clusters of 3 to 20, radiating out from a larger command bunker. They line farmer's fields, crop up in people's gardens, or sit in an orderly line along the highway. They're literally everywhere and virtually impossible to remove. One man spent three months chipping away at his bunker in the evening and on weekends so he could build a garage. Crazy!

My goal for today is to visit the ruins of Butrinti in southern most Albania. Getting there requires a change of buses in the seaside town of Saranda, so I get an early start. However, getting off the bus in Saranda around ten, I see that there are only two buses a day to Gjirokastra (though it's less than two hours away) and I have already missed both of them. Uh-oh. I try not to let this worry me as I board the bus for Butrinti. No going back now.

Legend has it that Butrinti was founded by Priam's son Helenus after he fled Troy, and that Aeneas stopped here on his way to Italy, as is mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid. Regardless of its mythology, archaeological finds prover there was a settlement here in the 4th century BC: a healing sanctuary to the god Asclepius. With the rise of the Roman empire, the settlement became a successful city, complete with forum, aqueduct, and farms on the lands outside of the walls. However, with the fall of Rome, the city declined, converting to Christianity in the 6th century. It was conquered by the Normans in 1081 and then bought by the Venetians in 1386, eventually being abandoned in favor of a fort elsewhere in the bay. Today,the ruins from all these periods create a wonderful site to explore.

I think I was the only visitor to Butrinti today, but it was a gloriously sunny day, probably somewhere above 20 degrees and perfect for wandering the layered ruins. I start with a 15th century Venetian guard tower, then dive back in time to a 2300 year old theater and slightly more recent Roman bath house. I visit a 5th century Roman palace (it takes a lot of imagination), a 6th century baptistry, with impressive pillars still standing, and a similarly dated basilica, whose grand walls still reach twenty feet above my head. Finally, I reach the acropolis and reconstructed Venetian castle, with views over the surrounding channels and fishing villages.

Worried about transport back to Gjirokastra, I don't linger, and make it back to Saranda by two. A very friendly hotelier saves me a lot of stress by explaining in perfect English that the 2:30 bus to Berati will stop in Gjirokastra. I thank him and buy us both cokes to pass the time until the bus departs. My dentist, for reasons unknown to me, warned me off Gatorade while I was travelling. Well, I don't drink Gatorade at home anyway, and I'm pretty sure they don't have it over here, but if I don't lay off this coke habit I'm developing, I'm going to have some pretty rotted teeth by Christmas. I can't read my tube of Romanian tooth paste, but I'm pretty sure it just gives basic care, none of this 24-hour whitening, tartar control stuff, and my Macedonian toothbrush lacks a swivel head or special bristles to clean and massage my gums, but it cost less than a dollar. Woe is my dental hygiene!

I make it back to Gjirokastra in time for my hot date. My host at the bed and breakfast Kotoni, who is old enough to be my father, is making me dinner. At 7:30, the table is laden with clementines, grapes, bread, rice, chicken, and coke. The drink's everywhere! The food is very good and I can't finish my plate. We talk about many things, his children, my school, my family, eventually getting to Canadian winters. "How cold does it get there?" he asks, "Minus five?" I can't help laughing and try to explain the concept of minus thirty. He wants to know how we heat our houses. Clearly space heaters would not suffice. He honestly has no idea how central heating works, and I do my best to explain a furnace heating cold air and blowing it around the house. An entirely novel idea. I had figured out that they don't heat like we do, but I at least thought they knew how we managed to stay warm in such cold weather. After the meal, I drag my impossibly full stomach up to my room, switch on my personal Albanian space heater, and go to bed.
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