Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bulls and old stuff at Butrint, Albania

We get up early to escape the heat. Though it's mid September; though the crowds of Kosovar, Polish, German and Russian tourists are gone; though all the locals tell us that the summer is gone and the season is over; the heat is evident even at seven am. By ten, we will be dripping sweat, white rivulets of the salty liquid and sunscreen running into our eyes and pooling on our upper lips. That makes for excellent beach weather but not excellent hiking around a hill weather, so early we went. By 8:30 we were on the 5 kilometer strip of road connecting Ksamil to Butrint, and before nine we had purchased entry tickets. I was excited to see a place that is featured in Virgil's Aenid and various other paintings, novels, and poems-it feels like walking right into art. There were few other adventurers around, and for the most part I felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Immediately upon entry, I see: two Roman columns to the left, a Venetian tower in front, and a Venetian triangular fort and an Ottoman palace to the right. This mish mash of ages, origins, and styles is indicative of the site - and of this whole egion, where empires and invaders have risen and fallen like the tides of the Ionian sea on its beaches.

The story recounts that, fleeing the fall of Troy, its founders sacrificed a wounded bull that washed ashore. This was taken to be a good omen and so the place was called Buthrotum meaning wounded ox, and this also became the symbol of the city. Like on the glorified door frame which shows a lion eating an ox head. Because it's not weird at all to have a foreign animal devouring the symbol of your city placed prominently on one of its gates. Besides which, where and home that bull floated in is a mystery-but not as much of a mystery as why it dying on the shore made someone think, "Yes! The gods want me to live here with a carcass that just floated in!" This becomes even more confusing hen the museum also tells that originally, this place was all land, then the seas rose and made it an island and caused general chaos and confusion...

Whatever its origins, Butram became a major trading post in the 8th century BC and was governed by the Romans, Ottomans, and Venetians in turn.  As the brochure says, "What you see today is an amalgam of monuments representing a span of over 2000 years from the Hellenistic temple buildings of the 4th century BC to the Ottoman defenses created in the early 19th century." This little bubble of land has perhaps seen more human history than our American middle school textbooks cover.

It's a delightful place to wander, surrounded not only by the glories of the past but by the beauty of the present. Walking through some dead rich guy's dining room, I glance up to find a picturesque strait peeking between the low scrubby trees and grasses. The sun is bouncing off the water in all its golden morning radiance, an ugly bird as big as my forearm hops along the tree branch, a fish jumps in the water, a faded fishing boat floats on the far shore. A farm house stands more solidly than these flooded marble blocks, abandoned as the water table continued to rise and the Roman dude came home one too many times to a flooded foyer.

I could go back among the path and follow the prescribed tour route ("deviate at your own peril!" They warn). But instead I continue under the trees, along an old wall. I suppose it's just old and falling apart, but it is beautiful in its decay and more so against the steady water, with its glaring highlights and deep shadows, riven by massive it dead tree roots. I assume those trees were cut to prevent them from destroying these "precious" stones any further. In some places, the stone wall is being shored up by a wood plank wall. And I wonder, why do we work so hard to protect old stuff, to keep ruins in a permanent state of picturesque ruin but not too ruiny? Was it worth the death of that twisty, gnarly, beautiful old tree to keep some rocks stacked for another decade?

I round the end of the island, where the wall climbs up away from the shore and the castle tower juts brilliantly against the sky over deeply shadowed green leaves. From the other side of the inlet ringing sounds drift across, perhaps a flock of sheep wearing mismatched bells or a particularly cacophonous wind chime. With this backdrop, it's so easy to lapse into wonder at the world and the futility of our behaviors. At this archaeological sight, one of the most extensive and lovely I've seen, it seems that we are fighting against destruction by nature, combating the passage of time, prohibiting the replacement of old with new. Why? What is the purpose? Perhaps, by guaranteeing another century's immortality, we are seeking to assure our own. In the face of fleeting lives and certain death, do we seek assurance that we will not be forgotten? That our accomplishments will live on in stone, in spite of wind and sand and tide and time? In spite of humanity's wars and carelessness and ambition and destruction?

I duck under a low carved lintel (yes, the lion-eating-city-symbol one) and climb broad, lazy stairs up to the castle. Every few steps, I stop and look back to admire the water, the woods, the white stones, drinking in a view that seems only to get more beautiful with familiarity. I follow the sign to the Muze and walk back down more stairs into the oddly basement-like museum, still pondering ponderous things.

As you may or may not have experienced yourself, nothing puts an end to philosophical musings and brings you solidly back to earth quite as quickly as the smell of latrine. I think they took the old toilet pit of the castle and thought, "Ah yes, what a perfect place for a museum." Then they scattered bits of statues, old coins, and explanatory posters around and patted each other on the back for a job completed.

Needless to say, we didn't hang about too long. Nevertheless, it was still a delightful visit to Butrint. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Putting away the maps in Ohrid, Macedonia

If you want to see Ohrid before the crowds of elderly tourists come shuffling through, get up when the housewives are still drinking their first cups of coffee and the fishermen are still sitting quietly in their chairs on the sturdy stone docks. Maybe you're imagining dawn, or the early rays of sunshine - but we're in the Balkans, so I'm talking about 8 am. The world is still sleeping, the tourists haven't left their guest houses yet, the children aren't even at school yet, and the world is peaceful.

And while you're at it, leave the guide books and the maps and the seven must see lists at home. Sometimes you need to just wander, or you'll only ever find the places that everyone else has found.

With no destination in mind, I set my course for up. Up narrow cobbled paths, with creamy three story buildings framed in dark painted wood leaning in from both sides. Up broad stone stairs, made to ease the hikes of the tottering, compression-socked crowds, to the level of balconies where yesterday's laundry and beautiful scarlet peppers hang in the low morning sun to dry. Past the red tiled roofs, up through a wooded park to the level of Gorna Porta, the old wooden door in the thick stone wall, solid defenses from a time forgotten everywhere but here, this region where our 200 year history is but the blink of an eye.

Up past the castle of Samuil, a man who was also a king, whether of accomplishments magnificent or despotic or unworthy of such a label, I couldn't tell you. I see him only in what he built, still standing 12 centuries later and evoking wonder and feelings of invincibility from those who climb up to its ramparts. That wonder is somewhat diminished by the souvenir tables the friendly hawkers are just setting up out front. I muse idly if the architecture students haven't figured something out that I haven't, striving to build and in this way to leave their mark on history.

I've reached the peak, and cannot climb any higher, so I enter the woods of Palosçik and start to wander. I don't follow the way to Kaneo, though I intend to end up there, because I have already taken that direct path. Instead I turn off the stone path to gravel, off the gravel to pine needles and dirt. I revel in the tranquility, shared only with birds and one black squirrel.

What do we search for when we travel? Do we look for others who are like us or different? Do we look for some magic escape or for a chance to be someone else that we don't find in our own homes? Do we look for a life that feels more "real"? Do we look for places where God still exists? Do we look for history, or for peace?  I wish I knew the answer for myself, because if I knew what I was looking for then I might stand a chance of finding it. But as it is, I am just wandering and enjoying.

 Descending through the deep green pines and dappled sunlight, I see something that might be mistaken for a path, dropping down uncomfortably steeply. Naturally, I take it. I think, it might be safer to run than to try to go slowly - but I don't indulge that illogical impulse. One foot in front of the other, breathing in the smell of Christmas trees, listening to the fledgling birds still screaming for breakfast. Startling a tortoise back into his grayish brownish shell, I pass through some ivy and back onto a real, gray gravel path - and in front of me, through some golden grasses hinting of approaching Autumn, the cliff drops to the azure and turquoise beauty of Lake Ohrid. No tourists, no sunbathers, just seagulls and loons and placid waters stretching away to the far distant shore. Nothing can capture the color of those waters, not a camera and not paints. The water is so clear that I can watch a sleek black bird dive right to the bottom on its fish chase then bob back up without losing sight of it once.

I climb all the way down to the rocky shore to wash my face in the water, and I have a vague impression that I am performing some type of ritual ablution, though I can't explain this feeling to myself any more than I can to you. Soon I will hike back up, admire the church and peer down into the waters at Kaneo with no one but the caretaker for distraction, climb back up past the cascading red tile roofs. Soon I will again pass through the Upper Gate, dodging my way through no fewer than three tour groups with eyes for nothing but their own feet. But for this moment, I will stand on the gray stone shores of this giant, deep lake and I will absorb as much of its tranquility as I can contain in this fragile and ephemeral skin.