Over the last week I fulfilled an ambition I conceived as a Cold War teenager, locating places crucial to classical literature that that lay behind the Iron Curtain. And the curtain separating isolationist Albania was the most impenetrable. By the time I arrived at university, the dictator Enver Hoxha had fallen out not only with Yugoslavia, but with the USSR and China too.
|Our Driver on Via Egnatia|
|Theatre of Buthrotum|
Buthrotum/Butrint is breathtaking, fed by rich rivers flowing through verdant valleys to a turquoise lake that meets the sea. Cicero’s loaded friend Atticus lived on a great estate here, than which Cicero wrote in 56 BCE, ‘nothing could be quieter or fresher or prettier’. Here Augustus settled the veterans of Actium so Virgil knew he had to laud Buthrotum in his Aeneid. Rome’s future relations with not only Epirus but all Greece are defined forever by the friendly meeting between Aeneas and two other Trojan refugees, Helenus and Andromache.
I read this part of Book III for ‘O’-Level Latin in 1976, and remember my frustration that my teacher could not even find Buthrotum on a map. Last week, at last, I found a shady spot beside the temples of the forum, where I imagine Andromache making her sacrifices to Hector’s shade before loading Aeneas' son with gifts because he reminds her of her dead child Astyanax, and Helenus' prophetic description of the future dangers facing the Trojan wanderers.
|Dyrrachium Christian Mosaics|
|Pot within a Dionysus Pot|
My favourite finds in the Durres Museum were the gravestone of a tailor called Lucius Domitius Sarcinator and an exquisite vase depicting a sacrifice to Dionysus, complete with a vase-painting of dancing satyrs within the frame vase-painting.
Albanians are friendly, funny (a specialism is dark humour about politics) and excellent cooks. They have fine indigenous wine and beer. Many of the seriously inexpensive restaurants are called ‘Antigone’, not after Sophocles’ tragic heroine but the wife of Pyrrhus, Plutarch's ‘last of the Greeks’, who so bravely opposed Roman imperialism. I am still buzzing with excitement with all that I have seen, and would urge you to consider an Albanian adventure at the first opportunity.
|Apollonia Council House|