Sunday, March 25, 2012


Albania is a country filled with ancient sites in various states of ruin and neglect.  We've seen castles and fortresses that were mere piles of rubble and others that have been better preserved.  This past weekend we ventured south to Apollonia Archaeological Park, a 750 hectare preserve west of Fier.  I had seen a picture or two of some of the ruins and had been promised that there was now a "new and improved" road providing access to the site but beyond this, I didn't know what to expect.  I was pleasantly surprised by what we found.

Bouleuterion (Monument of the Agnostics)
According to the Albanian Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth, and Sports, Apollonia was first established in the 7th century BC, by Greek settlers from Corinth and Corcyra in the territories of Illyrian Taulantis.  Of the thirty cities in the ancient world that were named in honor of the God Apollo, this Apollonia was the largest and most historically significant.  Archaeological excavations have revealed that Apollonia achieved its height in the 4th - 3rd centuries BC. During the 1st century BC, Octavian Augustus studied philosophy there until he heard the news of Caesar's murder.  The City of Apollonia was developed in stages with a total of 60,000 inhabitants living inside its 4 km of walls at its height.  During the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, Apollonia was damaged by a series of destructive earthquakes, the most powerful of which shifted the flow of the nearby Vjosa River.  Cutoff from the river and previous easy access to the nearby Adriatic Sea, Apollonia fell into rapid decline.

So what did we find?  At best, the "new and improved" road was paved and passable.  The approach to the park was through rolling hills filled with grazing herds of sheep.  We were granted complementary admission to the park because we were "American diplomats".  We would have gladly paid the 700 Lek admission fee but the gate attendant refused to accept our money.

The park itself was impressive with well marked ruins.  It many respects, it was very "un-Albanian".  Paths were well marked, trash receptacles were plentiful, and litter was at a minimum.   Apparently less than ten percent of the ruins have been discovered.  We were provided with a map that laid out the ruins that had been uncovered, and more importantly, the guide was in English, thus allowing us to really understand what we were seeing.  Unlike many ancient sites where you are kept at arms length from the artifacts, no such barriers existed at Apollonia.  This may someday work against its preservation but in the meantime, Sidney thoroughly enjoyed running, climbing, and playing within the numerous ruins.  We spent several hours exploring the site of the library, various temples, theaters, storehouses, and cisterns before settling in for a traditional Albanian lunch.

The main monastery building
The site also includes a museum and an ancient monastery which was perhaps the most impressive site in the park.  The well preserved chapel and grounds were hidden within the walls of a non-descript  compound.  The small chapel is still in use as was witnessed by the priests strolling through the grounds.

We know we only explored a mere fraction of what the park has to offer.  Apollonia is certainly not Rome nor is it Athens but it gives me hope for what Albania could be.  Since the park was established in 2006, the number of annual visitors has continued to increase.  According to the Ministry of Tourism, 35,000 visitors explored the park in 2010.  If our visit on a Saturday in late March was any indication, visitors- both foreigners and Albanians alike, are visiting the site.  In addition to the elderly Albanians we saw sitting on benches throughout the grounds we saw large groups of youth and a surprisingly high number of Chinese tourists exploring the ruins.  Apollonia is one of Albania's remaining wonders that could serve as an anchor in their ongoing attempt to become a tourist destination.  I think it is probably one of the coolest places we've been in Albania to date and we will definitely be going back.

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