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Via Egnatia
Via Egnatia. Photo: flickr/israelhurtado

The Via Egnatia is an ancient roman road constructed in the second century BC. It is named after Gnaeus Egnatius, a proconsul of Macedonia. The road stretched from Durres, on the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea, through the Balkans, to Constantinople. It serves as a tangible reminder of the importance which the region that now constitutes the Western Balkans enjoyed for centuries. The route which extends through present day Albania, Macedonia and Greece into Turkey was the principal connection between Greece and Rome, the capital of the empire. With the rise of the Byzantine Empire, it continued to serve as an important link between Eastern and Western Europe.

In Roman times the armies of Julius Cesar, Pompey, Mark Anthony, Octavian, Cassius and Brutus marched along the Via Egnatia. Crusader armies in the Middle Ages followed the same route on their way to Constantinople and the Holy Land.

In Albania the Via Egnatia connected the important towns of Durres and Apollonia. The port of Durres was opposite Brindisi on the Western coast of the Adriatic, a stretch that could be navigated fairly easily by ship. From Brindisi there was a direct route to Rome on the famous Via Appia. The Via Egnatia was thus a direct extension of the main road to Rome, making the port of Durres a natural gateway to both Italy and the Balkans.

In the 1990s Albania became famous for the huge number of migrants who sought to leave the country. The strait between Bari and Albania saw a steady flow of refugees from Albania, migrants from other Balkan countries and drugs. A description of the Via Egnatia in medieval times shows that this flow of people is not a new phenomenon:

"On the traces of ancient Via Egnatia one could meet chapmen or tradesmen, villagers or workers from Western Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly etc, seeking better living conditions. There were also many builders that travelled in groups, including masons and lumberjacks. In these clusters of people one could tell the seasonal workers, but also professional beggars, the infamous Cravarites."

(Egnatia Odos Project)

Recently the European Union has recognised the importance of a connection between the Adriatic and the Black Sea. Its Trans European Transport Network (TEN-T) project includes 10 'Trans-European corridors' where road and rail infrastructure are to be improved. One of these, 'Corridor 8', partly follows the route of the historic Via Egnatia. It stretches for 960 km, through Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria linking the capitals Tirana, Skopje and Sofia. The project seeks to improve the overland connections between the Italian and Albanian ports of Bari, Durres and Vlora on the Adriatic and the Bulgarian Black Sea ports of Vahna and Burgas. In a 2005 article, Tommaso Merlo paints an optimistic picture of the benefits for Albania:

"Corridor 8 will launch Albania towards the Eastern European markets but that's not all. The roads, railway lines, ports, logistics infrastructure and subsidiary services will guarantee enormous investment from the West. There is already interest in the management of the gas and water pipelines from the Caspian which will cast up on the Albanian coast. Besides being good business in the short term, the Corridor will guarantee structural economic advantages from the international presence and from improvement to the transport system and internal services. The enormous economic prospects from the Corridor and a new political landscape seem to bare testimony to the fact that history has decided to pass through Tirana once more."

(Tommaso Merlo, Corridoio 8: il sogno albanese)

"Corridor 8", a film by Bulgarian filmmaker Boris Despodov, takes a more sceptical, mocking view of the project. The film, which won a prize at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, portrays a journey from Burgas to Durres along the as yet nonexistent highway included in the plans for the TEN-T project.

"What Despodov reveals as he travels the stated path from the Bulgarian Burgas to Albanian Durres are a people mistrustful of their neighbors and unimpressed by grand claims from local and European politicos.

A perfect example are the train tracks in the Bulgarian town of Gyueshevo, on the border with Macedonia. Less than 550 yards of rail lines need finishing to connect the village with its neighbor across the frontier, but the incomplete tunnel begun by the occupying Germans in 1941 is still being used to grow mushrooms and store cheese. Plenty of delegations come, with hyperbole and promises, but it remains impossible to get from Bulgaria to Macedonia by train."

(Jay Weissberg, review at the Berlinale 2008)

May 2008

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