Monday, September 22, 2008

A Day at Butrint

As I stood in line at the entry to Butrint on Saturday, the words of William Butler Yeats came to mind:

"Now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Granted, I've never actually read Yeats. I only remember this quote because it was included by Stephen King in his ultra-long novel of dark horror, The Stand. Pretty grim stuff. Why would I be thinking of this line at Butrint?

I took some friends down there to give them a chance to see some of the southern parts of Albania. One was a history buff who I had convinced to travel to Butrint. No place in this country has more history stacked layer on layer than this archeological marvel. I explained how the road south is much better than it used to be, that I could find a nice hotel to stay in, and that he would be practically alone in Butrint as the tourist season was over and the crowds had gone home.

As we left Saranda and headed south toward Ksamil, I knew I would soon be eating my words. There were buses on the road in front of us. Liberal use of the horn and some creative throttle work saw us past the buses and at Butrint in no time. As we loaded up our gear to enter the park, three buses pulled up and disgorged their cargo. British, French, and German tourists followed their guides like so many ducklings. We ended up in line behind them, queuing for tickets. That's when I had my Yeats moment.

The "rough beast" of mass tourism has awakened and is slowly slouching into Albania. I was on the verge of getting depressed until I started listening to the comments from some of the folks in line.
To a one they were enthusiastic about being in Albania. Several remarked on how different reality was compared to the image of Albania they got from the news. These were the same things I had been saying for years. How could I be critical when this is what I'd been advocating all along. This country is great! Come on over and see for yourself.

So, come visit Albania. Definitely go to Butrint. If there is a glut of tourists when you get there, don't despair. You can still have your quiet ramble through history. When you get to the fork in the path and all the tours go right to the theater, you go left and up the stairs. This clockwise circuit of the site has several advantages. One is that all the guides take people around counterclockwise so you won't have to follow them, just pass them halfway around. Second, you get to see the museum at the top first. This wonderful display puts everything in context and prepares you to better understand the ruins you will see on the rest of the walk. Finally, you finish at the theater, which is the highlight of the site.

And to cap things off, an article in the London Times was in my inbox this Monday morning which added to the chorus of positive reviews of travel in Albania. Even better, the author made it to Gjirokaster as well. Check here for the story.


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