Albania is heavenly for history buffs

David Aaronovitch

Albania is heavenly for history buffs
An hour across the water from Corfu lies a country that will surprise, enchant and educate says David Aaronovitch
Amphitheatre at Butrint, Albania
David Aaronovitch

“ALBANIA” or “Albanian” is usually coupled to some unflattering word, such as “gangster”, “pimp” or “people trafficker”. The Italians are supposed to fear the Albanesi and the Greeks to hate them. So to allow oneself to be carried by hydrofoil from the safety of Corfu town the one hour it takes to reach the Albanian port of Saranda seems, in prospect, like an act of mild recklessness. In fact, it is one of the best things you could do.

My main reason for wanting to make the journey was the existence, not far south of Saranda, of the archaeological site of Butrint. When Albanian communism collapsed in 1990, the state ironically and disastrously withered away and Albania's archaeology ceased to have any protector.

Lord Rothschild, a long-term holidayer on nearby Corfu, and his friend Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover came together to form the Butrint Foundation, aimed at preserving the site and the area around it. I was being met by Rupert Smith, the departing director of the foundation and being shown what the foundation had achieved.

From Corfu, Albania is all bare-looking mountains and emptiness - the Communists, fearing invasion and sabotage, would not allow their citizens to live by the sea - save the shallow crescent of Saranda and a low-lying green area soon giving way to more mountains, behind which is Butrint.

The ancient town is on a lumpy, testicle-shaped peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the waters of Lake Butrint and the Vivari River, not far from the sea. The foundation myth of the city involves another fleeing Trojan, this time Priam's son, Helenus, and the first major contributors were Greeks of the Hellenistic era (post-Alexander), who built wonderfully cut stone walls and gates, a theatre, a sanctuary for Aesculapius, the medical god, and a few other bits and pieces.

The town continued in a low-key way, until the fleets of Augustus destroyed the ships of Mark Antony and Cleopatra's navy, not far south. By way of marking the occasion, Augustus ordered the building of Buthrotum, and over the next four centuries the Romans put up baths, a huge aqueduct, a forum and a palace or two. When Rome fell, Butrint came under the Byzantine Empire and received churches, a cathedral and a baptistery.

The Venetians bought the place in 1386, along with Corfu, building towers and, finally, under the Ottomans, Ali Pasha put up a castle not far away, to confront the British who were, by now, ensconced on Corfu.

Sorry about all that history if it's not your thing, but what is remarkable about Butrint as a site is that all these periods co-exist, alongside or on top of one another, in a way I had never seen before.

You walk through the snow-gum eucalyptus trees, or along the river path, from ruin to ruin (some of them three storeys high), and can read the story of the city in the stones. The buildings are well labelled, the museum in the castle at the low summit is excellent and, at the site's entrance there is a large, shady café in which you can recover after a morning's wander.

After Butrint we left the archaeology behind as Rupert drove north and then inland. Between Saranda and Butrint, on a hilly isthmus, is Ksamil, which looks like the first town ever built entirely by anarchists. Cows amble along unmade roads lined with the beginnings and middles of apartment blocks and houses.

People are drawn here by the local beaches, unspoilt, and - sitting below the cliffs - very lovely. At a place called Pulbardha we had lunch on a rickety structure overlooking the bay. The food was basic, very fresh and very good. Albanians make far better coffee than the Greeks, a strangely positive reminder of when Mussolini invaded and occupied Albania.

Rupert took us over a beautiful hilly plain dotted with small ridge-top villages, along a good road through the low mountains, to a north-south valley. Right took you towards the Greek border, left to the hillside city of Gjirokaster. We went left.

Gjirokaster is an impossibly steep city of stone roofs and old Ottoman houses. Its famous children include the novelist Ismail Kadare and the Stalin of Albania, the long-lived Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Here the Packard Humanities Institute of California has been working hard to preserve and rebuild the extraordinary architecture of the town, and our guides were Elenita and Sadi, senior Albanian members of the Packard team. But on the rooftop of the Hotel Cayupi, over goat's cheese and watermelon, we talked about the Hoxha era.

Sadi had worked for Radio Tirana; Elenita had been a schoolgirl and a student under Hoxha's eccentric brand of ultra-isolated Socialism. Their stories were funny, sad and unique. As they told them I began to conceive a liking for Albanians, one which Rupert, after several years in the country, said he shared.

Under the citadel we explored the network of tunnels from the Hoxha era, in it we walked through the Communist-era museum of weaponry, and in town we climbed the impossible streets. When we were exhausted we slept in the Hotel Kalemi, an Ottoman-era marvel of ornate wooden panels and ceilings.

The next day we returned to Saranda, which most visitors use simply as an entry and exit point from Albania. But that is a big mistake. In the evening the pleasant promenade becomes the scene for the Albanian passegiatta. Stalls open along the length of the prom, selling fresh popcorn, sunflower seeds, ice-cream, drinks, books and souvenirs. The families and couples drift along, meet friends, or stop to drink coffee and eat, and there are carousels for the children.

The hotels (we stayed at the Porto Eda) are clean and air-conditioned. Rupert had told me that the Albanian language includes a unique tense, the “admirative”, for when you want to express pleasant surprise. That's how I would talk about Saranda.

Many British people stay for two weeks on Corfu. If that's what you're planning then you should consider one or two nights in Albania, staying in Saranda and Gjirokaster, and travelling between them, or to Butrint, by taxi or bus. Who needs more than ten days sunbathing? No one. Not when surprise and beauty lie an hour away across the water.