Albania 8: Apollonia

IMG_1964My determination to see Apollonia was a bit like my attraction to Përmet when I read about it in my guidebook. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but simply gazing at a single picture convinced me. A week ago Friday morning, I went to the Berat bus station with my daypack, filled with a surprise bag of snacks courtesy of my guesthouse hostess, Theodhora, whose generosity and thoughtfulness never failed to catch me off guard. I caught a minibus to Fier, a rather drab slab of urbanity that would seem to be utterly skippable; Gillian Gloyer’s Albania guidebook completely omits it except in very occasional mentions as a place from which to connect to other buses elsewhere: it’s a place you go in order to get out of it. (Part of me can’t help suspecting that guidebook authors will sometimes omit a country’s less obvious gems out of protectiveness or possessiveness, concealing them from overuse by tourists, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fier.) From Fier it’s a short ride to a village called Pojan, and from Pojan you can walk to Apollonia in less than half an hour.

I arrived in Fier and quickly found the bus stop for Pojan/Apollonia. It was at a busy street corner, with a sign listing departure and arrival times, instead of the usual gas station lot with its motley assortment of conveyances and impatient men selling tickets to them. I was glad for the forthrightness of the sign and schedule, but not for the discovery that the next bus to Pojan wasn’t due for nearly an hour and a half. Looking around, I saw no appealing options for plunking myself down for a coffee and waiting for the customary sixty-three-year-old to start talking to me and pouring me raki. Nor was I in the mood or market for that, to tell the truth, fun as it can be. I had only Apollonia in mind—and in body: I decided to walk. Keep moving! Never change!

The map app told me it was about six miles to Apollonia. If I left now, I’d get there on foot not very much later than I would by bus. Once I left Fier behind (but who ever really does?), it was a very pleasant march over dirt roads surrounded by fields, meadows, green betweenlands, and the fringes of a village or two, all over hill and dale. A bit hot—summer had arrived swiftly and fully in just 24 hours—but outfitted with plenty of water, and Theodhora’s snacks, I found it no trouble. The scenery was there to enjoy, the miles dwindled, and soon I was within a kilometer of Apollonia. I could see its largest landmark from down in the valley below: a church of much later construction, built in medieval times using stones from the original Greco-Roman city. Suddenly I wished I was already up there.

Wish granted, more or less. A large tractor was gaining on me over the rutted route, and I moved aside to let it pass. The driver waved me to the other side—so I could board his tractor from the left, as it turned out. I climbed up, stood on a rocker panel, and hung to a rollbar as he jounced us up the steep incline. We talked in Alb-Italo-English about politics, economics, corruption, immigration: all the usual things you talk about with a tractor driver whose language you can’t understand during an impromptu lift to an important archaeological site. I was very happy to dismount from a big rig of inimitable shape and size, a solo visitor amongst luxury buses disgorging tour groups. Not many people can say they got to Apollonia by tractor. I am one of them.

Ever since I saw that picture of Apollonia in the guidebook, I had a gentle, clueless vision of standing before its Bouleuterion and communing with it in hippie solitude. What I actually encountered was a very, very popular field trip destination that was TOTALLY OVERRUN WITH CHILDREN. They were taking selfies, kicking soccer balls on the grass around the site, running off to the snack bar. On my way up the path from the ticket window, I assented to a request to take pictures of a group of them.

Once I arrived at the bouleuterion (actually the beautifully reassembled frontal columns—what you see in the pictures—right where the full structure once stood), I sat on the facing amphitheater steps to take in this marvelous sight I had gazed at in pictures for months. It was a bit of a challenge, with kids bouncing up and down and all around. I finally focused my field of attention down on what I had come to see, practicing yogic single-pointedness of mind. I felt a pebble hit me in the shoulder. This I ignored—kids!—until I was hit with another one, larger, closer to my cranium. I turned myself around and, without changing my placid expression, said in very soft but plainspoken English: “Cut it out, you little fuckers.”

They may not have understood the words, but they definitely understood what I meant and scrammed. But then wave after wave of school groups kept making photo formations in front of the columns, screaming and gabbling. I know I sound cranky, but in fact I found this pandemonium funny and charming and in some way very satisfying. Aren’t civilizations built and its cities defended not just for immediate survival but for future generations? Weren’t these oblivious, smartphone-toting kids, whose biggest threat came from a tourist asking them not to throw rocks at him, proof of the Apollonians’ success?

IMG_1920In any case I decided it was time to go and find something other than class photos under the columns to look at. I walked up and around the circumnavigating footpath, which yields wonderful views of the rolling landscape around Apollonia, including a good stretch of the dirt track I’d walked in order to get here. It soon occurred to me that I was already here before I got on that tractor. I was walking on the ancient road. Those fields below me now were their fields then. The tractor was an ox. The children are their children.

The excavation of Apollonia is quite recent. A Frenchman initiated the work during the unsteady interwar period. The project was abandoned during the Second World War, resumed by Hoxha’s totalitarian regime, stopped again in the regime’s demise, and resumed again in the last twenty years. Most of Apollonia remains unearthed. As with most ancient sites, visiting is largely an act of reimagining from the suggestions of structures, the remnants of walls, and stacked and restacked stones. Down the hill from the main attractions is a half-hidden salvage yard of blocks, plinths, pedestals, etc., all tagged and numbered and waiting peacefully for someone to put them back together again, as has been done with the reconstructed columnar exterior of the bouleuterion. But the sense you get is of history in comfortable repose.

The history: Apollonia was settled by migrants from Corfu and Corinth, and the colony they established here grew prominent enough to take on its own (very beautiful) name: Illyria. Albanians today still recognize themselves in the toponym Illyria, which defines a specific and discrete original ancestry. (“Albania” refers to a later, medieval principality called Arbanon, on the eastern side of the country, near Lake Ohrid.) And it connects them to the ancient Hellenic and Roman worlds of which Apollonia was an important part. Augustus was educated in Apollonia. Cicero visited the city: “Urbis magna et gravis,” he wrote. It was a populous, powerful, cultured, and learned place.


To see that urbis magna et gravis two thousand years later requires plenty of imagination. The scattered plaques are informative, but the eye tends to rove from the ruins to the beautiful view, which is probably not terribly different from what the Apollonians beheld. At a hilltop, from which I could dimly make out the blue plane of the Adriatic, my gaze went skyward and found another sight I had wanted to see in Albania since before I arrived, but hadn’t yet: an eagle, the national symbol. The Albanian flag actually bears a double-eagle, and within a few minutes, the one I saw riding the thermals overhead was joined by another, completing the image. There are plenty of double-eagles in the history of heraldry, of course, but the bird holds a special prominence in this country, whose people today call it neither Albania nor Illyria: it’s Shqipëria, an endonym derived (Albanians will tell you, although others disagree) from the Albanian word for eagle.

After I walked the ruins, I visited the medieval church and castle. Some of the supporting stone slabs are inscribed with primitive-looking ancient Greek, so it’s easy to see the evidence of the original building materials’ reuse. (More notoriously, and later still, an Ottoman pasha raided Apollonia for parts for his own building projects in Berat.) In the courtyard around the church, a betrothed couple in their wedding costumes were having pictures made. They posed in front of the church, and also in the castle loggia where ancient artifacts were on display in the open air. The photographer’s assistant had leaned his reflector on a Roman statue and set an open can of Fanta on a Greek funerary tablet. (I moved the reflector aside, left the Fanta where it was.) For better and worse, there are places where the heirs of antiquity don’t treat its objects with the same reverence we do.

The larger treasures in the loggia were mostly what you would expect: stelae with their inscriptions; statues missing their heads, faces their noses; magistrates and gods; funeral paraphernalia, a couple of gate-guarding lions. The objects spanned the era of the Hellenes who founded Apollonia to that of the Romans who succeeded them.

The piece I kept returning to was a depiction of the descent into Hades:  a mourned man, handed down from our world toward the one below, guided by human conveyors to Charon and his ferry on the river Styx. The last image in this narrative sculpture is of this man, sharply reduced in size, seated in the bottom right corner of the tablet, confined with his chin in his hand a bit like Rodin’s Thinker. But this man isn’t pondering. Nothing is on his mind. That’s right: Hell isn’t fire and brimstone, it isn’t Dante’s tortures. Hell is boredom. Hell is reduction. Hell is when you can’t move.

Inside Apollonia’s formal museum, the lives of the ancients are on display. In my cluelessness, I find myself often admiring only the greatest creations of the Greeks and Romans—amphitheaters and the works of theater that were performed in them; Homer, of course, and Sappho, and Horace, and all the poets from whom we are still borrowing; the lives of great, history-making rulers, the politics and philosophies they and their thinkers bequeathed to humanity, which are also still the foundations of ours; all that divine and marvelous and eternal stuff, which is mostly the stuff of the mind.

But the Greeks and Romans did more than this—or rather, less. Walk around the museum at Apollonia and you surely see more evidence of greatness: busts of heroes, images of the gods, and an absolutely amazing bronze shield (in whose center is quite the Medusa) that is more amazing still when you discover—you have to peer very closely to see it—that it was reassembled from hundreds if not thousands of pieces. It took one man, working alone, twenty-seven years to complete the restoration: his life’s work—indeed, his very life: a guide walking an English couple through the room while I was in it told them that the conservator complained that the shield kept him from ever marrying.

One stands in sheer astonishment. But it is astonishment that the museum refocuses. The displays include vitrines filled with the household necessaries of early civilized life: locks and keys, nails and hooks, razors and tweezers. These are of practical interest, of course: here’s what the Illyrians used for safety, health, and handiwork. Yet their civilization produced more than useful implements and more than classical greatness—that is, they produced what lies between these extremes of existence. They produced things that were both ordinary and useless.

See how much ornament is on display: buttons, rosettes, necklaces, lacy filigree, well-contoured and carefully painted Corinthian teapots. (Somewhere in the Histories, Herodotus reports that the Corinthians were considered Hellas’ best craftspeople.) See the menageries of animal figurines and children’s toys; the assemblies not of impressive busts but of smaller heads. Who were all these unidentified people? Ordinary citizens? Or are these what ordinary citizens might keep on display in their ordinary homes: little effigies of the great, scaled for a second-century living room? Look not only at the heroic figure of the statue of the magistrate but at the lavish attention the sculptor paid to the folds in his toga: luxurious to wear—the Illyrians cared a lot about clothes—and luxurious in its rendering, the artist as deeply at work in the folds of the fabric as Lee was at work in the folds of his line from Korea to Albania; as the conservator was at work in reassembling his fourth-century shield, all of them intensive projects undertaken for no practical reason.

Look at the magistrate’s debonair crossing of one sandal over the other in the statue’s stance, the practiced and stylish social art in the pose he has assumed. Then look at the intricate bronze cast of an intricate Roman sandal in the museum. Life and representation of life; decoration, ornament, the cut of a cloth and the angle of an ankle: in other words, see how much the Apollonians did in order to keep from being bored. They succeeded in the establishment of order, ritual, and so on, and turned their attention from the necessities of survival to the art of living.

So why did they leave? I heard the English couple in the museum wondering that aloud. The answer is simple but potent: an earthquake rerouted the Vjosa river, near which Apollonia was built. After trying to adapt to its new course—and all the silt and such that piled up around them—the inhabitants finally gave up and moved nearer the coast. Centuries went by before the Byzantines built their church; and then they, too, abandoned the place, leaving it to those few hardies who were reduced to mere subsistence among its ruins, whose evidence of a higher life was eventually buried until its later excavation.

My own departure from Apollonia was a bit curious, too, an archaeology of transport. First I returned to the bouleuterion and, with all the kids now gone in the mid afternoon, had that moment of gentle-clueless-hippie quiet I wanted. I walked out of the complex and down to Pojan, content with waiting there for the return bus to Fier, even if it took a while—coffee and raki sounded good now, as a late-afternoon pick-me-up. The village was completely closed for siesta, so I had to content myself with waiting at the bus stop, where no bus was due for an hour. But before I could even park it on a bench, a man in a car leaned out of his window and said, “Fier?” In other words, a taxi. He had driven a bag-laden woman to Pojan from there. Since he was going back anyway, he might as well look for a fare, which was 100 lek—a dollar.

He dropped me off not very close to where the bus would depart for Berat, and by the time I walked there, it was after 3:00, which was the departure time I had somehow got in my head. I wasn’t sure when the next bus would come along—or if it would come—nor from where along the fairly wide rotary I would pick it up. I walked over to a cluster of people standing in what passed for shade (a scraggly tree) and asked them. A fellow with a little English told me no buses to Berat: the road was under construction.

Now I had come from Berat earlier that day, so I knew it was possible to get back—unless the road had closed after my trip out, which I supposed was possible. But come to think of it, the drive to Fier had taken quite a bit longer than Theodhora estimated it would: maybe my minibus out here had taken an alternate route?

I did not think of that possibility just then, because I didn’t have the space or time to think of anything. The fellow told me I should take a bus up to Lushnje, and from Lushnje catch another bus to Berat. I might have thought that sounded a bit dubious, because it did, but as I said there was no time to think: at that very moment, a bus for Lushnje pulled up, and the fellow all but pushed me up onto it. About forty-five minutes later, I was dropped off at another dusty rotary and pointed down the spur toward Berat. I found the first available spit of roadside gravel, as I’d seen the Albanians do for the last few weeks in my rides around the country, and turned to face traffic. Within literal seconds—I mean ten, fifteen, like that—a big cruiser of a bus with a BERAT sign in its window came thundering toward me. I flagged it down, boarded—cushioned seats! air conditioning!—and an hour later we arrived in Berat.

Not the route but the folds in the route, not the gown but the folds in the gown; not getting there but how, not standing there but in what pose. The art of living. Back in the guesthouse, I showered and rested a while, made myself some simple but (for a change) hot food for dinner, and then spent some time chatting over coffee and glikoon the patio with Theodhora about the vast differences between Albanian and American life—which are not entirely differences of money, and about which I just deleted a thousand words that aren’t necessary to say. I’m not even sure they’re true.

Afterwards, I changed into a proper pair of pants and went for a stroll in the dusk along Berat’s pedestrian way. The cafes were alive with Friday-night leisure, the promenade thronging with every kind of life, young and old, quiet and loud. I was glad to be alone in the crowd, and I was also glad it was my last night alone. I wouldn’t say that I was lonely. But a life alone is missing some of its folds.


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