hidden europe 51

The Place by the Bay: the Butrint Story

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Fine Roman mosaics at Butrint, Albania (photo © Klemenr / dreamstime.com).


One of the least frequented great classical sites in the entire Mediterranean basin is at Butrint in south-west Albania. Its roll call of illustrious visitors includes Lord Byron and Nikita Krushchev. Take care to avoid the snakes as we explore Butrint.

Nikita turned to one of his aides and commented harshly: “The old things here should be dug up and thrown into the sea.” Tact was never Nikita’s strong point.

Enver was not amused at his guest’s remark. For Enver, Butrint was far more than a heap of ruins where the tangled roots of shrubs and bushes clutched at every crack and crevice. In Enver’s view of the world, Butrint was the cradle of Albanian history, an archaeological complex evidencing a continuity of settlement linking modern Albania with the ancient Illyrians.

For Enver’s Russian guests, Butrint was replete with opportunity. Nikita looked out over the saltwater lake connected to the sea by the Vivari Channel ( Kanali i Butrintit in Albanian). The waters decant into Butrint Bay. Closer to hand, a snake lay listless on the grass.

“This will make an ideal base for our submarines,” said one of the visitors.

Nikita nodded. “We shall have the most secure base in the Mediterranean,” he said.

From the summit of Mount Mile, there is a fine view west over the lagoons, inlets and low hills which provide such a distinctive setting for the classical ruins at Butrint in Albania. One can survey the Epirote coast from the port of Sarandë down to the frontier with Greece and beyond. On clear days, the bare slopes of Pantokrator seem so very close — just a stone’s throw away on the far side of the Corfu Channel. Those with a keen eye can pick out the clutter of aerials and communication dishes on the summit of Pantokrator.

Well can one understand why Russian leader Nikita Krushchev immediately appreciated the military potential tucked away in this remote corner of southern Albania. Greece had joined NATO in 1952, and a Soviet submarine base on the east side of the Corfu Channel would shift the geopolitical balance of the entire Mediterranean region in Moscow’s favour.

The Russian visitors to Butrint were not deterred by the hundreds of dead snakes which were draped over the ruins. Enver Hoxha had decreed that the snakes which infested the site should be poisoned well before the Russian leader and his entourage arrived. Everything had been made ready. A new road had been constructed down the coast from Sarandë to Butrint, merely to ensure that the Soviet guests could easily reach the archaeological site.

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