Our first stop was Apollonia, one of the most famous places in Albania. We got out of the car at the walls of an orthodox monastery from the 1200’s. The thick wooden gates opened into a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by old walls lined with Greek statues and other ancient relics. Inside the monastery was an empty, antique chapel painted with frescoes of the saints, as well as another chapel that is still used for services. After exploring the monastery, we walked up a hill to see the ruins of Apollonia, an ancient Greek city dating back to the 5th century BC. The remains of Apollonia consist of the stately columns of an old senate building, an impressive amphitheater, and stones that marked the boundaries of a promenade. We hiked further up to the peak of the hill to explore a maze of underground bunkers, built during Albania’s communist era. On this hill, we found pieces of pottery that may have been from the ancient Greek city. It is incredible to think about what other ruins could lay buried under the communist bunkers!
That night we stayed at a hotel in Orikum, a beach-side town that overlooks the Adriatic Sea. As we were driving to the hotel, we stopped on the side of the road in Vlora to watch the sun sink over the Adriatic in one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen.
The next day, we drove through the mountains on a winding road called Llegora Pass. From the top of a mountain we had a stunning view of the Adriatic. The way the light played on the water made it look as though the sky and sea blended together seamlessly. We stopped in the seaside village of Dhermi, where my uncle found an Albanian man named Ashir to take us to a pirate's cave. We all climbed into Ashir's tiny boat, and we rode to the cave, an opening on the face of a cliff. It was small, as a rockslide had closed off the deeper recesses of the cave. The water inside was turquoise, and the sun shone through a hole in the high ceiling. We were all in awe of the beauty. After we had a good look around the cave, the man took us further down the shore to a small, secluded beach. The pebbly shore was surrounded on three sides by cliffs and opened to the clear, blue water. We played there for an hour or two before Ashir took us back to Dhermi.
In the evening, we went to the castle of Ali Pasha Tepelena, a tyrannical muslim warlord from the 1700’s. He built the castle in the early 19th century for his Christian wife – a mysterious story which we can't seem to figure out. The castle was incredible. It was on an island, built in the shape of a triangle with three turrets. The walls were over 5 feet thick. It was almost dusk, and we explored the dark recesses of the castle by the golden light that came through the small windows. The castle was a maze of halls and arched doorways, and was exactly how I would have pictured a medieval castle. We climbed a stone staircase and emerged on a rooftop courtyard. There, we sat on the thick walls and watched an incredible sunset.
We spent the night in Saranda, a charming city by the sea that is popular for tourists. The view from our balcony overlooked a bay, and across the water we could see the Greek island of Corfu.
On Thursday we took another beautiful drive through the mountains, this time to the historical city of Butrint. Butrint is an island that contains the incredible ruins of a Roman city that become prominent in the 4th century BC, but was built several hundred years before then. We wandered through the incredible ruins of an amphitheater, public baths, a private villa, insulae, and a temple complex to the god Asklepius. Then we walked further up the path to a baptistery from the Byzantine period. The circular-shaped building was full of columns, and the floor was covered with gravel that had been laid down to preserve a beautiful mosaic beneath. Next was a Byzantine basilica, a large, majestic building with arched walls. Another thing I enjoyed seeing was a small gate in the city wall, which is commonly associated with the Scaean Gate mentioned in the Aenied. At the end of the path was a castle, which has been rebuilt and converted into a museum that held beautiful Greek statues and pottery.
On Friday, the last day of our trip, we went to Syri i Kalter (Blue Eye) natural spring, a pool of water fed by an underground spring that is shaped like an eye. In the evening, we went to the historic town of Gjirokastra. I loved Gjirokastra, a picturesque little town with cobblestone streets and old-fashioned buildings. While there, we went to Gjirokastra castle, a massive fortress that we loved exploring. From the walls we had a wonderful view of the town, and we watched the sun set over the mountains.
We had such a wonderful time on the trip, and I learned so much from it. One thing I really enjoyed was getting to see more of the country. Tirana may hold one-third of Albania’s population, but it is not a good representation of the rest of the country because it is much more modern in comparison. We drove through many villages and small towns that were so different from the capitol, and I feel as though I now have a better understanding of what Albania is like.
Another thing that impacted me on our trip was seeing my uncle evangelize. He struck up a conversation and presented the gospel to almost everyone we came in contact with. It made me wish I could understand more Albanian! The people he spoke with were very receptive and seemed interested in what he had to say.
After seeing the incredible things that we saw, I am completely in awe of God’s creativity. As we watched so many sunrises and sunsets over the Albanian mountains and the Ionian sea, I was frequently reminded of Psalm 19:1 "The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship!" There are no words to describe the greatness of our God!
**Pray for: Bajram, Veka, Ashir, Kosta, and the others that my uncle witnessed to. Pray that their eyes would be opened and that they would receive the Gospel.