During the last two years, Albania has made substantial steps forward in all the fields of political, economic and social life, let alone in public order, and nowadays it is no more dangerous to travel most of the country (at least, not more than in other poor countries let alone in most western metropolises). Anyway, in this wonderful Mediterranean country there are still apocalyptical problems as far as conservation of nature is concerned, and I firmly believe that the growth of eco-tourism is the only way to convince local populations to preserve their unique natural and cultural heritage.
Since September 1998 I work as a diplomat, together with my wife Gabriella, in the Italian Embassy in Tirana (Albania). Anyway, before being a diplomat I'm a keen "old" (I'm 32) bird-watcher, and during the last two years (actually not so much, but every time I could) I visited some Albanian sites in order to look for birds. Although it's a European country, ornithologically speaking Albania is still relatively unexplored, because of its 40-year isolation during Enver Hoxha's dictatorship. Without boring you with an encyclopedia of Albanian birds - yet I cannot abstain from saying
To go to the southernmost tip of Albania is not yet the easiest thing. If you choose to get there by car, you have a long drive ahead: 6 hours from the capital Tirana (you have flights from Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Turkey, etc.), 5 hours from the port of Durres (connected to Italy and Greece by daily ferries). The drive is a bit tiring (Albanian roads aren't modern highways, although the general situation is quickly improving), but you'll be allowed to enjoy a breathtaking landscape of ancient agriculture, rugged Mediterranean mountains and wild Ionian beaches. If you have time to spend in the south of Albania, you can also stop in some beautiful small towns such as Berat and Gjirokaster in the interior or Dhermi and Himare along the coast. Otherwise there is another interesting possibility: the famous Greek island of Corfú is literally in front of Butrint N.P., and is connected by ferry on a daily basis (less than two hours cruise) to the nearby Albanian coastal town of Sarande.
Sarande is the place where to accomodate, because it's only a 25 minutes drive from the National Park, and there you can find its headquarter office (according to the pamphlet of the Park: tel./fax 00355 (0)732 4600; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). In Sarande we had booked Hotel Dea, which is clean and costs about 35 US$ per a two-bed room (prices are likely to be higher in spring and summer), and ate very good seafood in a couple of restaurants nearby.
Butrint National Park is a really magical place. First of all, it aims at preserving a unique historical heritage. Furthermore, the archaeological sites are literally immersed in an extaordinary natural landscape, made of Mediterranean hill and lowland woods, olive groves, a lake, salt marshes, channels and flooded meadows: I saw few other places in which culture and nature are so deeply merged, and in which you do feel so far from the third millennium.
As far as the ruins are concerned, quoting the Park pamphlet "the intramural area of Butrint covers a small bluff of land laying just out of the Vivari Channel and Lake of Butrint. This area covers 16 hectares and contains monuments dating from the 8th century BC to the 16th century AD. There are two main parts of the site: the acropolis and the lower city. On the acropolis area monuments from the Bronze Age to the Venetian period can be found. The lower city of Butrint contains monuments dating from the 4th century BC onwards, including a fine theatre, associated temples, bathhouses, palaces, a baptistery and a basilica. The current visitor trail runs through the major monuments of the lower city, leading round to the acropolis castle. All the intramural area is wooded." Inside the boundaries of the Park, you can also find a "triangular fortress" (dating to between 1490 and 1540), the "Ali Pasha's castle", the "Kalivo fortification" (Late Bronze Age) and the "Diapor site" (a Roman villa complex, said to be owned by Cicero's friend Pompus Atticus), while on a one-hour-drive to the interior you can visit the fascinating ancient ruins of the Illyrian city of "Phonike".
During my working weekend stay, I had the chance to bird the Park for only about two hours and a half, in the middle of the mornings of the 10th (sunny) and 11th (cloudy) of February. In particular, I birded the said trail leading to the ruins (inside a wood), with some stops where it approaches the Vivari Channel and the Lake of Butrint. Furthermore, I walked half an hour along the bank opposite the entrance of the intramural area, surrounded by flooded meadows. Such a brief stay was enough to convince myself of a really impressive (winter) birdlife, as quoted in the Park pamphlet: "246 bird species (75% of species found in Albania), 13 of which are considered as endangered".
To be sincere, I missed "the species of the trip" (Rock Nuthatch - Sitta neumaier), which I was told to be common in the Park. Anyway, I was more than repaid by close stunning views of a wonderful adult of the globally threatened White-tailed Sea-Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), pursued by some calling gulls. I think I've been very lucky, since I was told there is only one pair breeding in the Park (and in the whole Albania). For me, other highlights were a female Northern Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) passing through an opening in the wood, dozens of the tamest Crested Larks (Galerida cristata) I've ever seen, huge flocks of Western Curlews (Numenius arquata) and plentiful (as throughout Albania) Common Ravens (Corvus corax). Adding that I couldn't identify (due to the distance and the lack of time) hundreds of ducks and waders far in the marshes, and that I do not "consider" the birds only heard (at least ten more species of small songsters in the woods), I could spot in the Park and its surroundings the following 27 species:
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