It may seem a backwater now, but Albania’s importance in the ancient world is writ large in the historical sources.
The Greek historian Thucydides describes how a dispute over the city of Epidamnus (modern Durrës) helped ignite the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 bc. Nearly 400 years later, much of Rome’s civil war between Caesar and Pompey was played out along the Albanian coast. And it was in the city of Apollonia that Octavian learned of the assassination of his great-uncle Caesar – and launched a bid for power that ultimately made him emperor.
Why was Albania so important? One look at its geography will tell you. This is a country blessed with natural harbors, and a short sea crossing to the Italian port of Brindisi. It is also the start of the most direct overland route from the Adriatic to Istanbul, which in Roman times was traced by the Via Egnatia. A natural staging post between the eastern and western Mediterranean, Albania flourished under Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.
It is this rich and forgotten history that forms the backbone of our tour. We visit ancient cities that once had glittering reputations, but have since fallen into ruin and have only ever been partially excavated. Meanwhile, the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Berat and Gjirokastra shine a light onto the civilization that developed under five centuries of Ottoman rule. Berat, known as ‘the town of a thousand windows’, is home to the museum of the sixteenth-century iconographer Onufri, while Gjirokastra, the birthplace of the novelist Ismail Kadare, is believed to be the setting for his celebrated Chronicle in Stone.
Not all the sites are easy to access: but that just adds to the sense of exploration and discovery. The drive to Labova e Kryqit (Labova of the Cross), for example, involves venturing off the beaten track, to be rewarded by an exquisite Byzantine church, complete with dazzling icons and exceptional frescoes. To reach Saranda, we travel through the pristine landscapes of the Llogara National Park and along the pristine Ionic coast.
Albania wriggled free of the Ottomans on 28 November 1912, but since then has endured occupation by the Austro-Hungarians, Italians, and Germans, among others – as well as a repressive Communist regime that outlasted all others in Europe. Thankfully, the past two decades have seen great changes, and the country is now a candidate for entry to the European Union. Tirana is modernizing at breakneck speed: two visits to its bustle and optimism bookend the tour.
|DEPARTURE/RETURN LOCATION||Tirana International Airport|
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