Butrint – City of Occupations

A 45-minute bus ride from Sarande will get you to Butrint for 100 lek (0,76EUR). Entrance fee will set you back another 700 lek (5,50 EUR), every bit of it worth it. Its history has seen all kinds from pre-historic man to Romans, Greeks, Christians, Byzantines, Venetians and finally Ottomans. It tells a tale of civilisations and how they lived but also enables you to take a walk through the National Park of Butrint on the banks of the Vivari Canal. Historical monuments, nature and landscape all make it a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Eucalyptus trees line the entrance to the ancient city of Butrint

In spite of cars and tourist buses blocking traffic to and from the entrance, it has remained remarkably untouched by development. There’s a little kiosk inside that sells some handicrafts from the area but mostly people are lining up for the cold drinks from the fridge. The restaurant close by is the only one and no one crowds the sidewalks with made-in-Taiwan trinkets for sale.

An avenue of massive eucalyptus trees provides much-needed shade as you begin your walk. It takes you through the Chapel of Asclepius, Greek god of healing whom the frail and ailing would worship in hopes of a cure. They would sleep in the area and relate their dreams to physicians and medicine men eagerly proffering interpretations and selling them herbal concoctions to make them well again. The ancient Theatre was established by the Greeks but later re-modelled according to the Roman style. Today the International Theatre Festival Butrinti2000, held in July, fills the stone seating with audiences applauding drama, orchestral and dance performances in this magical setting.

What is left of the cult of Asclepius, on display in the museum.

The Baptistry and the Great Basilica attest to the Episcopal or Christian period albeit a cult establishment from the 6th Century. A staircase through the medieval Lion Gate leads you up the hill to the crowning glory where the remains of a Venetian castle, beautifully reconstructed in the 1930s, houses the museum. If you’d been wondering what had happened to the archaeological finds dug up over the years, this is where you’ll see the intricate sculpture of the Greeks, the fine glassware of the Romans and the primitive flint tools of the ancients. It is an excellent collection with easy to read explanations of each period. In praise of the Greek period are the inscriptions alluding to manumission or the freeing of slaves and that done by women who, unlike their Greek classical counterparts, were able to own and release them at Butrint.

The Baptistry
The Great Basilica

This ‘microcosm of Mediterranean history’ as mentioned on the UNESCO website, survived occupations by the Byzantines and the House of Angevin or Anjou, English kings also known as one of the four royal houses of the Plantagenets. Who would have thought their empires in the 13th Century would extend so far east? Fortifications kept on getting bigger and stronger until Ali Pasha, the notoriously cruel Albanian Ottoman, built a new one in the 19th Century. After the decapitation of the ‘Lion of Yannina’ by the Ottomans because of his separatist attacks, Butrint was abandoned.

Fine Roman glassware

What is left is a rich legacy of a long period in time which stands as a testament to history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, science and domestic life.

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Butrint

 

Picasso’s Málaga

Cheeky, I know, using a title like this, presuming that I even come close to understanding what this city must have been like for, arguably, the most influential artist of the 20thC. One thing I do know is that he would pick up a brush, choose a colour and dab it onto the canvas without actually knowing what his subject or ultimate goal would be.

“The painting takes me where it wants to go”

With this as a starting point I wander the streets of this circa 3000 year-old city and observe. This is what I see:

It’s not just for tourists. Although tourism is way up there economically speaking, it is also well known for its construction and technology services. A campaign to promote it as a serious business city is evident in ‘Málaga: Open for Business’ with IT in the forefront. Business executives have stepped up to the plate with an initiative called ‘Málaga Valley’, a drive towards turning this city into the Silicon Valley of Europe. It has an acclaimed university and houses the biggest bank in Andalusia, Unicaja.

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View from Fort Alcazaba, established by the Moors in the 11thC

It’s not overrun by tourists. End of May, perfect days, perhaps not high-high season but nonetheless, Málaga is not heaving at the seams with tourists. You can go into the Picasso Museum or explore the Fort Alcazaba and there is a good chance that you might even find yourself alone at some point.

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The Cathedral spanning a city block

Chatter, yes, cell phones no! Plonk yourself down at a square, there are many to be found, and see the refreshing sight of young and old alike actually talking to each other and not staring into the screen of a phone. The Malagueños will explain that having fun is a real time communication thing, not swiping the faces of tinder explorers.

Smile, even when you say ‘no’. History suggests that many nations have inhabited this place from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors. The Malagueños are a mixture of all of them and are truly friendly, in the friendliest sense of the word. They’re tolerant of religions of all kinds, and it’s considered one of the best gay destinations in Europe. Even when I ask whether I can just have a glass of wine at 10 pm when dining is at its height, the negative reply comes in the best possible manner. Of course, they’d rather have diners rather than just drinkers.

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Fantastical Moslem architecture at Fort Alcazaba

“No entiendo” or “no Inglés”. English is not widely spoken and even if it is, it’s a bit broken. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. They’ll do their utmost to help you whenever they can and will absolutely go out of their way to make sure you find the right road, or get the correct change from your purchase by counting out the money.

It’s a walking street city. You might get turned around, you might slip into a side street where you never intended to go but one thing’s for sure, you’ll find your way out and cars are rarely a problem. It’s as if they make way for the pedestrians not the other way round. The cool marble on the ground and the patterned tiles ease away your sore feet and divert your attention to the care with which things are done here. They could have thrown a slab of concrete but preservation is paramount and strictly maintained in the centre.

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A feast of botany for the eyes at Paseo del Parque

The best of many worlds

Sun seekers will find what they’re looking for on the beaches that run for kilometres along the coast. My favourite is Playa de la Caleta, a little further along from the main Malagueta but a whole lot nicer with cleaner water and less people.

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Ah tapas…

Culture vultures can indulge in myriad museums, historical places, and palaces while gardeners and nature lovers can cool off in the shade and fountains of the Paseo del Parque and the Botanical Gardens.

Escape is easy. The infrastructure is good and while the buses might not always be on time, they will arrive and whip you off to exotic neighbouring towns like Nerja, where cliff-sided Burriana Beach awaits. Return bus ticket: <€10 (1 hr. 15 min one way).

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Burriana Beach in Nerja, just over 1 hour from Málaga.

Best of all, tapas, good wine and a fabulous feeling of freedom and joy abound. When the locals are happy, the tourists are too and a return visit is never far from your mind.

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