The past is always an adventure and when you combine travel to exotic places and the past it becomes a thrilling adventure. Barbara Pinke has created an adventure for younger travellers. Our heroes Oliva and Simon relieve the boredom of a house move by discovering a book and a key which wafts them away to adventures in time and space. I first took this journey myself twenty-two years ago when as an archaeologist I went to Albania to work at an extraordinary place to which I have continually returned to both excavate and guide visitors to its past.
Olivia and Simons first stop is appropriately the same as mine was. Butrint, in southern Albania, is the location of the national park of the title, created around the ruins of one of the most striking archeological sites in the Mediterranean. Butrint really is a magical place, and as one walks through its tree shrouded ruins, surrounded on either side by the broad mirror expanse of Lake Butrint and the other by the deep blue Ionian Sea it is easy for the modern visitor to be transported into other realms. This is one of the gateways to the beyond, where classical myths clashed with historical reality. The great god Pan, Aeneas the refugee Trojan, Julius Caesar, Norman conqueror Robert the Weasel, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and Napoleon’s generals all passed through this portal. It was even beloved by Edward Lear, the landscape artist and poet, who appropriately wrote some of the first children’s literature. Butrint would fit well into the ‘Owl and the Pussycat’. Its forest is full of mysterious creatures, huge beetles, golden birds, tortoises and giant terrapins; all the creepy crawlies which a good children’s story needs.
Barbara Pinke has created both a breathless visit to the main places of the site, the castle, the Lion Gate, the theatre, but done it in a way in which the reader is shown the nuts and bolts of Butrint providing a sense of how of how one venue flows into another. Her protagonists arrive on a tropical looking beach and quickly make friends. They are introduced to the moreish filo pastry pies known locally as Byrek (and a full recipe is given to these delicious snacks at the end of the story for readers to try, with some supervision). New friends whisk them off to Butrint and the adventure begins!
It is indeed an adventure as the enticing visit to Butrint is capped by the children surprising a bunch of pirates trying to make off with the famous statue of of the ‘Dea’, an ancient portrait of the god Apollo, which is the city’s symbol. Found by Italian archaeologists it was indeed taken from Butrint for some years, sitting for a while in Mussolini’s office in Rome. Our intrepid explorers have to concoct a cunning. And successful, plan to sneak out to the pirate’s ship and steal it back. The actual statue head is back in Tirana, in the National Museum, but copies of it are everywhere to be in the region of Saranda.
The narrative is clever, as it introduces not only a wonderful place, worthy of discovery, but brings in a whole series of serious themes and ideas which are important to introduce at an impressionable age. For example, Butrint has suffered its share of robbing and looting over the centuries, one of the banes of the great historical sites of the world. Thwarting the pirates is a responsible and noble thing to have done, protecting the past for the future. A discourse on the meaning of a World Heritage Site (and Butrint is one of three in Albania) introduces the idea of international management of our common heritage.
The children use their magic key to return safely home to find that the first pages of their book now mysteriously find that its first pages contain photos of their exploits in Butrint. The other pages remain blank, to be filled with further journeys which we look forward to following! If you have young adventurers in your family, this is an excellent place to let them start their own odyssey.
Oliver J. Gilkes
Andante Travels/The Butrint Foundation