Fortunately for mankind, someone many years ago had the foresight to designate the ancient town of Berat a “museum city.” It was this designation which helped spare the town from city planners who ran amuck during communism tearing down churches and mosques.
Berat, located just three hours south of Tirana, has been inhabited for more than 4,000 years. Time has been kind to the town, showering it with beautiful ottoman houses, stone buildings, red tiled roofs, churches, mosques, cobblestone roads, and some very iconic, ever-so-expressive, windows. The amazing windows are what gives Berat is nickname: The City of a Thousand Eyes.
High above this collection of houses looms the remains of a rather substantial castle. Not much is left of the original 14th century structure, but it’s still worth an afternoon climbing among the ruins and checking out the views. Bring plenty of water, however. There is very little shade atop the castle and the sun can become unbearably hot.
The best place to stay in Berat is Hotel Mangalemi (tel. 032 32093). This quaint, ottoman house is a portal to another time. Unfortunately, a group of Austrian kayakers–the only tourists I saw the whole time in Berat–had booked out the hotel’s nine rooms.
The very kind proprietor–the hotel is family run–walked me down the hill 100 yards to another hotel that sat right on the Osumi River. Hotel Palma (tel. 032 32143) was 20 euros a night. It was very modern and clean but ultimately disappointing because it so thoroughly lacked the old-world charm so abundant everywhere else in Berat, especially at Hotel Mangalemi.
I made sure to return to Hotel Mangalemi, however, to eat in their fine restaurant where I indulged in cheese, bread, and sausages served in a spicy tomato sauce. The only other place worth grabbing a meal is Ajka, directly across the river from my hotel. Like nearly all the other restaurants in Albania, they specialized in Italian food. Although the pizzas are decent, the view of the town, castle and river from their outdoor deck makes the food taste all that much better.
The rest of my time in Berat was spent wandering the narrow streets, peering into various backyards, and checking out the not-terribly-exciting churches and mosques. The Ethnographic Museum, however, is well worth a visit. This two-story ottoman house replicates what life was like in the 18th and 19th centuries. You can get a good laugh from the non-English speaking tour guide if you point at the strange metal disks in the kitchen and ask, “pizza?”
One afternoon, I spent a few hours in search of Enver Hoxha. The former communist dictator had a very primitive way of forcing those in small towns to honor him; they spelled his name out in enormous letters on hilltops and mountainsides across Albania. This was mostly done with large rocks and boulders carried up the hillside. When communism crumbled, villagers climbed back up those same hills and triumphantly, but painstakingly, removed the thousands of rocks that spelled out Hoxha’s name. The signature in Berat, however, had apparently been burned into the hillside in acid and was therefore unable to be removed. Someone must have been very diligent, however, because after a couple hours of wandering and scanning all the scenic hills surrounding Berat, I was never able to find his name anywhere. I did, however, come across a very large snake. So be careful if you go tromping around.
Getting to Berat from Tirana is rather easy as long as you can find the minibus station. The departure point for minibuses heading south seems to jump around quite a bit. Your best bet is to hop into an official (yellow) taxi and ask to be taken to “Berat minivan” (or, if your Albanian is decent, “Berat furgon“). The taxi will cost just a couple of dollars and save you an enormous headache trying to find it on your own. The three hour journey to Berat, is just a little more expensive at $3.