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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Visit to Butrint

The season's changed. The languid heat is well departed. The sun's rising further south, over mountains beginning to emerge from the summer haze. The tourists are departing, businesses closing up, sons and daughters headed for university on the mainland. The aroma of wine making fills the air. Portable grape-presses are being shared around. We have a blanket back on our bed. Shots echo and I've seen woodsmoke. Val left last night by coach for Igoumenitsa and Athens for her long flight home to New Zealand. We saw her off at the town coach station at 8.00pm - a practical example of space shared fairly among pedestrians, coaches, cars and scooters with a chance to sip coffee as the time of departure approached. * * * Last Friday, arriving from Corfu on a day trip to Albania, we got chatting outside the Palma Café in Saranda (Greek wiki version) where, after a half-hour hydrofoil crossing from Corfu, a hundred or so were assembled for a tour of the archaeological site of Butrint. Mairéad - used to travel - was wry about the thumb-twiddling delay as different coaches – Polish, German and English - were assembled. ‘I don’t think there’s an Irish coach’.
We boarded with a polyglot group of Europeans, who’d chosen to hear Butrint described in English. Perhaps they preferred the cheerful Albanian youth in a red T-shirt who shepherded us, confidently and apologetically, from the sea wall where we were gazing at a blue vista below the coast of Corfu from Erikoussa island to hazy Lefkimmi, surrounded by the mini-tower blocks of Saranda – "like Torbay" observed our friend Fran "but with satellite dishes". You can make out the land round Butrint from our balcony in Ano Korakiana; almost all from Pantokrator - a tree covered mound on a peninsular, looking east and south over alluvial fields laid by a river running beneath the hills beyond which runs the Greek border, north east over lakes – one as broad and long as Duntelchaig; another a quarter its size – perhaps a mile long - close to the foot of the first tall mountain of a range that ascends northward to make the distant sky line. The remnants of Butrint lie scrambled across a wooded peninsular - almost an island - edged by a salt-water lake whose shore bends into a cove that creates the north side of an isthmus - a pebbled beach for rowing boats, overhung by trees – and, on its eastern and southern shores, by a broad waterway, which runs from the sea, curving round the hillock of Butrint, to the lake – grassy edged with reeds lining its low banks. The tiny Mediterranean tides assure a flow of water between sea and lake along this channel – crossed, at the entrance to the town, by a small cable ferry with a square planked platform for people and vehicles. We came to Butrint on the narrowing road from Saranda that runs between olives and Ksamil - a modern settlement of diffuse semi-completed concrete apartments whose sprawl is stopped abruptly by the clout of UNESCO’s defining boundary for Butrint National Park, and its international visitors - as promising a harvest as that from the tillage of earth-movers seeding the surrounding land with cement. The archaeology of the future – the infrastructure that means wealth and respect in the 21st century - laps Butrint. ‘We’ are different from our ancestors. Our deep diggings into earth and rock have turned the smaller remnants of our past into an unreadable melange, laced with novel chemicals - diffuse and gross.
From a document on the web: Plan of Development of the Southern Albanian Coast Public hearingsTirana February 14, 2008: ...The future of Ksamil area seems unclear; we don’t know what is foreseen for this area, as in this area the remaining values are being destroyed day after day and the government is not intervening for the development of this area. There are chaotic constructions in Ksamil, many of them closer than 100m to the waterline. How will the plan be applied in Ksamil and which will be the destiny of the illegal buildings there; will they be demolished or legalized? Mr Michael Brammah, planning consultant, emphasized that the illegal buildings are not a planning problem and that the competence for the solution of this problem resides on the government. However, as a specialist, Mr. Brammah agrees that it is really a considerable damage that is almost done in the landscape of Ksamil area, but demolition of these buildings will cause more harm then mitigate them. Ksamil can be considered an urban area now and the criteria are different for urban areas compared to non-urban areas, regarding the intensity of building and other regulations. The responsibility for further actions on these illegal buildings remains on the government but before every decision-making it should be analyzed the reason why these illegal buildings were constructed, the socio-economic influence, and the environmental influence of these building. Looking at the reality on the ground, even if it will be decided to demolish these buildings, the damage to the landscape has already been done and we cannot have a full rehabilitation of Ksamil to the previous touristic and environmental status. Thus, the demolition of these buildings would not have a positive development but it is important that new illegal buildings not to be allowed anymore... [back to the future 15/11/08: Since the collapse of the socialist economic system in ex-Yugoslavia and Albania and the war that lead to the split of Yugoslavia, a new form of urbanisation typified by extensive informal building activity has appeared on the territory. Taking advantage of sketchy legal frameworks and governments initially too weak to enforce rules and regulations, inhabitants have taken the issue of housing shortage in their own hands, they started building new dwellings from scratch and adapting existing edifice for their own purposes.]

Our remains will attest an Ozymandian yearning for domination – less over one another, as in the past, and more over the earth, against whose fractiousness we’re raising such vast defensive works - futile unless we change our ways of living on the earth. “Have you been to Herculaneum?” asked Mairéad. “A painter’s stroke smudged at the moment of destruction. I saw it on a wall.” “So long ago” I said “another world” “They are us. We’re them” she averred, not – like me - seeing the past as another country; more a mirror. One day we will be closer to them in time than those who study our ancient ways, while successors debate the causes of our demise.
We had a late lunch by the seafront in Saranda - a long buffet included in the ticket - and then a while to look around the city's nearer streets before rejoining our ferry home - this time not a hydrofoil.
We could see the north wind had risen from the white caps in the channel. Our boat had a raised platform deck. Instead of heading straight for Corfu Port, our skipper steered north of Kassiopi - right angles to his destination - to ease our passage. Somewhere near the island coast the steering hydraulics faltered. We zigzagged in the narrows between Corfu and Albania. The skipper heaved at the wooden wheel, mopping his brow with a big cloth, as we yawed in the chop funnelling into the strait. Some passengers looked a bit green for a while, but, to my delight, Lin and Val were chatting cheerfully, munching crisps; enjoying the ride. Passing the rocky islet off Kassiopi topped by a light that marks the entry to the Corfu Channel, I glimpsed - further out in the channel - waves swirling round the tip of the unmarked rock that endangers any mariner thinking they’ve only to round the light. There’s something stomach churningingly scary about an unmarked offshore rock just awash – like a shark’s fin breaking the surface. * * * Lin and Val dropped me and my bicycle off on the track that runs below the Church of St.Elias. I clambered up a green hedged path marked by a sparsely spaced whitewashed stones. This church, I was told last year by Kostas Apergis - Ano Korakiana’s historian - marks the old boundary of what we’d call the parish. It surfaces enticingly from its surrounding trees about a mile west of the village on a hill prominent in the view from Ano Korakiana towards Vido and the Kerkyra Sea. Walking around it I found the old bell at the chancel door of a church built five hundred and thirty five years ago - if I’ve understood the book - by carrying its now decaying walls stone by stone to the summit of the hill on a path that must serve, on Good Friday, as a via dolorosa. The aspect is sublime. Protective oaks, venerable olives, grass and shrubs grow around. There must be many flowers at Easter. Through gaps in this greenery I could glimpse the village - unsprawling and bounded - on the green slopes of Trompetta as the sun set. Yet as I strolled further from the church, where the hilltop is formed like a gently descending saddle for about two hundred metres, I saw, like a patch of mange on an old dog, that a bulldozer has been clearing greenery, so that secular constructions may rise on the bared and broken-rooted soil to share the ancient views. To the east of the site, opposed to my walking path up to St.Elias, a road is being cleared, so motorised vehicles can wind boldly past a church that still has the hill to itself, and the congregations that created this place. I walked gently down the same path, recovered my bike from the hedge where I’d left it, and rode home to Ano Korakiana in the dusk. * * * Val’s only bad memory of her visit to Corfu was the rubbish that lined the highway from Athens to Igoumenitsa and the ubiquitous cats wandering unowned – especially a milk kitten, on Val's last evening here, mewing plaintively on the path outside her bedroom. “They do get fed” I said, “by us when we’re here, and neighbours. If we take it in we do it no favour.” Corfu provides cats with a symbiosis of safety and risk that suits the species. Dangers include poisoners – but in our northern cities it’d be invisible removal, tidy destruction, expensive neutering. See how the rabbits thrive on Vido Island! We saw dozens pampered on the plaka of the taverna overlooking the harbour when we took the ferry there from Old Port on Saturday. “The world’s divided into people who say ‘aaaah!’ and ‘yummee!’ at the sight of these furry folk” I said. “I can be both!” said Lin. Our friend Sally asked if there was a rabbit stifado on the menu. * * * Sailing on Sunday, the top of Summer Song's foresail ripped at the head, as we were coasting back from Agni Bay, where we'd been for a picnic and swim with Val, and two friends, Jo and Gary. There were no problems getting home. The main and later the engine took us, against a rising headwind, into our berth at Ipsos. It's an excuse, now there's a halliard stuck at the masthead, to lower the mast, inspect and repair. I bought three pieces of sturdy pine to make a rest and a fulcrum for handling the tricky angle - dropping and raising again, but we'll wait until the rain stops.

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Simon Baddeley