Emerald Azzurra, Albania: Discovering the ancient ruins of Butrint

"Would anyone here like to sing?" Our guide, Melisa, pauses and smiles as she surveys the group. "No?"

This would be the ideal place to flex some musical muscle. The venue is an open-air theatre, built almost 2500 years ago under the guidance and creative wisdom of the ancient Greeks, later renovated and extended by members of the Roman Empire, used later still by the Byzantines and Venetians, and these days given life again during regular performances by modern-day Albanians.

It's a classic ruin in a gorgeous venue surrounded by wooded hills and wildflowers, a steep semi-circle of stone steps facing a stage. The acoustics here are incredible. Speak softly from the middle of the floor and it's audible on the highest steps. Sing loudly, you think, and the whole world would be filled with music.

Today, however, no one takes Melisa up on the offer. We're on a shore excursion from our cruise aboard the Emerald Azzurra, a new superyacht that is making its way from Athens up to Dubrovnik on a seven-night itinerary, and even on a cruise with only 100 passengers, we don't know each other well enough just yet to break into song.

Yesterday we were moored on the island of Corfu; this morning we made the short crossing to Sarande, on the Albanian Riviera, and travelled by bus to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of Butrint.

This location is incredible, both for its historic importance and the fact so few people tend to know it even exists. Albania was closed to tourists up until the early 1990s, and even now the industry is in its infancy when compared with close neighbours such as Greece, Montenegro and Croatia.

This country has a huge amount to offer, however, from gorgeous coastline, to an alpine interior, to these multi-faceted heritage sites.

Butrint was once an important city to so many powerful empires. These eras are literally layered on the earth here; dig below Venetian ruins and you find traces of Byzantines; go lower and Roman heritage is revealed, and finally ancient Greek. There has actually been human settlement on this small peninsula, which is almost an island thanks to the Vivari Channel snaking around it to the Ionian Sea, for more than 50,000 years.

The theatre is the first site you come across on a standard walking tour of Butrint. It's ancient Greek, though surrounded by the excavated ruins of a Roman forum, where citizens once shopped and gossiped and bathed (those excavations, begun at the direction of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the late 1920s, revealed multiple Roman baths dating to the time of Emperor Augustus).


From there we walk through dense forest – this site is part of a wider national park, one that stretches to the Greek border – past the site of the old Roman aqueduct, which channelled water from distant springs, and on to the Baptistry.

This circular structure was once a Roman temple, complete with a mosaic floor of geometric patterns and animal figures, later converted to a Christian baptistry by the Byzantines. It's amazing, beautiful, with concentric rings of tall columns, though sadly the mosaics have been covered with layers of plastic and sand to protect them from wear.

We continue on now to the Basilica, the imposing though roofless ruins of a church built by the Byzantines during the 6th century AD, and later extended by the Venetians. It's extremely well preserved; it takes very little imagination to picture its nave, bounded by stone archways, filled with ancient worshippers.

Perhaps the best of Butrint is saved for last: the Venetian fort at the top of the hill, from which its 14th-century defenders were able to scan for enemies, and modern-day visitors can take in the splendour of this ruggedly beautiful part of Albania. The fort now houses a small museum, filled with coins and pottery and statues that date back thousands of years.

It's an amazing sight in an amazing location, one that makes the heart sing, if nothing else.



Emerald Cruises' eight-day Mediterranean Enchantment cruise, from Athens to Dubrovnik aboard the new Azzurra, has cabins available from $6088 per person. These cruises include an excursion to Butrint, with entry and a guided walking tour. Call 1300 286 110, or see the website below.




Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Emerald Cruises.