Tirana, Albania — I was sipping an espresso at the Piazza bookstore, a trendy Tirana cafe where artists, writers and politicians hang out, listening to Neritan Ceka, Albania's leading archeological scholar. He was talking about a "spectacular" site under excavation in central Albania. "Byllis," Ceka said. "You must go to Byllis."
The Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine site, he said, is one of the most impressive recent discoveries, with a 20-row Greco-Roman amphitheater dating from the 2nd century, and 6th century Byzantine churches with mosaics rivaling any found in Greece or Turkey.
I had asked Ceka to help plan my visits to archeological sites, and his list blew me away. I'd had no clue of the scope and richness of the sites. Greek and Roman ruins in Apollonia. Modern Durres, built on top of Greek, Roman and Byzantine cities. Tombs belonging to (3rd and 4th century BC) Illyrian kings. Even in Tirana, a bustling modern metropolis, I saw a 4th century Roman house, uncovered recently at a construction site, its mosaic floors still intact.
Who knew Albania was such a treasure-trove? The Albanians I knew told me about the Balkan nation's mild Mediterranean climate, majestic Alps, pristine forests, untouched rivers and lakes, its magnificent vistas and miles of sandy beaches along the Adriatic. But archeological sites? No mention.
Albania, in the southeastern corner of Europe, was settled by the Illyrians, ancestors of present-day Albanians, in Paleolithic times. Situated where it is and surrounded by powerful, warring empires, Albania has seen a lot of violence throughout its history. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans swept through, leaving their mark and their ruins.
For decades, the country's archeological treasures were virtually lost to the world. Communists took over in 1944, and dictator Enver Hoxha's iron grip kept the country isolated until the end of communism in the early 1990s.
That's when Albanian archeology captured the attention of experts around the world. The fledgling Albanian parliamentary democracy began a systematic program of excavation and conservation, in partnership with the Butrint Foundation, a British charitable trust, and other foreign organizations and colleges.
I came to Albania's capital last January to teach journalism at the University of Tirana under a Fulbright grant. After the semester's end in May -- a good time to travel in Albania -- I would have time to explore some sites around the country.
In the 15 years since the end of communism, Tirana has grown from a sleepy town of a few hundred thousand to a hopping metropolis, close to 1 million. The place, with garishly painted buildings, is crawling with cheerful sidewalk cafes overflowing with young people, Internet cafes, fitness centers, restaurants and clubs blaring rock and rap through the night. There's plenty to see and do here, if you can put up with the fumes and dust kicked up by the frenzied construction everywhere.
The capital was a great launch pad for most of my day trips to archeological sites. Albania is a tiny country, with a land area of 11,100 square miles and about 3 million people.
On Ceka's recommendation, I put Byllis on my list and planned my trip, leaving plenty of time for travel because, except for an 80-mile superhighway from Tirana to Lushnje, Albanian roads are a challenge, particularly at night.
(I advise traveling with a tour group or a guide, unless you are an adventurous, seasoned traveler. I made it a point to travel with an Albanian-speaking guide who could deal with unexpected police checkpoints, plus street vendors, beggars and hotel and restaurant staff. Although the country is safe for the most part, it's also wise to check with the State Department for travel advisories, www.travel.state.gov, before you visit.)
In May, the weather was balmy, the spring rains had finally stopped, and roads were clear to travel south, where most of the Greco-Roman sites are: Durres, Apollonia and extraordinary Butrint, which has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. I'd leave Byllis for last.
I started with Durres and Apollonia, because I could get there and return to Tirana in time for an "American Idol"-type songfest that Albanians love to watch on "telly" almost nightly.
Durres and Apollonia
THE city, only 24 miles from Tirana, was the ideal place to combine a bit of archeology with a nice seaside supper before heading back to the capital.
Albanians regard the dreary, industrial seaport as a hot spot because of its white sandy beaches, resorts and great fish restaurants. If you close your eyes to the mad, untamed construction on the coastline and the rubbish on the beach, Durres is an amazing repository of ruins from various historical eras, one layered over another.
You can see the marks left by Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans simply by driving around town.