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Jacob Spon:

Voyage down the Coast of Albania

Jacob Spon (1647-1685) was a French Calvinist physician and archaeologist from Lyon. In 1675-1676, together with the British clergyman Sir George Wheler (1650-1723), he undertook a trip to Greece, Constantinople and the Levant to visit the ruins of the ancient world. The journey was documented in his much-read volume “Voyage d’Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce, et du Levant, fait aux années 1675 et 1676” (Voyage to Italy, Dalmatia, Greece and the Levant in the Years 1675 and 1676), Lyon 1678, reprinted in The Hague in 1724. In it, he reports on what he saw while sailing down the coast of Albania. The next day, we sailed to within sight of Ragusa [Dubrovnik] which is having difficulty recovering from the terrible earthquake that almost entirely destroyed it. Twelve miles further on is a village called Ragusa Vecchia [Old Ragusa] which was the former Epidaurus. Beyond it is the mouth of Cattaro [Kotor] which we entered. From there we set sail to cross the Gulf of Lodrin [the Drin] which is no less than 180 miles in length. This is the famed Gulf of Apollonia where Caesar almost lost his life. We left the little fort of Budua [Budva], the last holding of the Venetians in Albania. Then, as we sailed along the coast, as we did on our return, we saw Dulcegno, formerly called Ulcinium [Ulqin/Ulcinj], a Muslim town that had about seven to eight thousand souls and provided a good moorage, or let us say in the language of the Levant, it was a good town to do business in. The Francs have a consul here. The uninhabited island of Sazan off the coast of Vlora, Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, March 2008). Durazzo [Durrës], which was Dyrrachium under the Romans, is nothing but a village with the ruins of a fortress. Then comes the Gulf of the Boyana [Buna], with a river of the same name that flows into it and that was once called the Drilo. Further along the same coast, one encounters the river Pollona [Pojana], which got its name from its proximity to Apollonia. But the water is still there and the city can no longer be seen. Then comes Aulon [Vlora] which has been corrupted to Valona, as we call it. Thirty miles onwards, on terra firma there is a mountain with a fountain of pitch, mentioned by ancient writers. Here vessels are made watertight because it is mixed with tar. The reef of Saseno [Sazan] which is six miles from Vlora marks the southeastern border of the Lodrin [Gulf of the Drin]. While we were crossing this gulf, we noticed a brig on the southern horizon that sought to flee when it caught sight of us. This made us think that they were pirates, in particular when we noticed that they turned the bow in the direction of the coast of Vlora. We followed them hot on heels and our galley did so well that we were within firing distance of them in one hour. We saluted them with three or four shots which forced them to lower their sails. As it turned out, however, it was nothing more than a boat from Cephalonia that was carrying oil and cheese to Venice. They had thought that we were the pirates. Each of us then went his way – the Cephalonians, relieved that it was only fear they had to fear, and we, disappointed at having only a glimpse of the profit that we had hoped for. The wind was favourable and we did not drop anchor at Sazan. The captain of our galley told us something strange that had happened several years ago. At that time, he was the captain of another galley and had dropped anchor there. Two galley slaves from his ship and one from a second escort ship escaped and hid in the bushes until the ships set sail. But what do you think these poor creatures did? After spending two or three days on a desert island with nothing to eat, the two men of our galley conspired with one another on how to keep alive until another ship arrived, and they decided to kill the fellow from the other ship in order to eat him. They carried this plan out and fed for several days on the poor man’s body until a foreign vessel happened to arrive. They boarded it and got to Venice. Near Sazan we could see the Acroceraunian Mountains that are now called the mountains of Chimera [Himara]. Along the outer coast, they are populated by five or six villages that resist the Turks and refuse to pay haraç, the head tax. The foremost of these villages is Himara, situated on a rocky promontory to which the whole population can retire in case of need. What is more, if anyone wanted to attack them from the sea, they could withdraw into their mountains that are virtually inaccessible and could take their flocks with them. If they were to be attacked by land, there are passages that are so narrow that they could drive off an army by pelting it with stones. They make good soldiers and follow the Greek faith, and like the Mainots, they are very good at pillaging. They stem from the Macedonians, as the Mainots stem from the Lacedaemonians, two equally warlike peoples. They have a good port called Porto Panormo but few ships dare to stop there because it is said that they sell Muslims to the Christians and Christians to the Muslims. As to their religion, they are subjects of the Metropolitan of Janina which is a large city two days away. From here, we began to enter Greece which gave us as much pleasure as it had once given Aeneas pain when he passed through this region, as he considered the Greeks the destroyers of his country. [Excerpt from: Jacob Spon & George Wheler, Voyage d’Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce, et du Levant, fait aux années 1675 et 1676 (The Hague: Rutgert Alberts 1724), vol. 1, p. 69-71. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
Jacob Spon (1647-1685).
Part of the Albanian section of the narrative of Jacob Spon’s voyage.
The village of Dhërmi in Himara, Albania (photo: Giuseppe Massani, 1940).