BERAT, the Town of a Thousand Windows — Albania, Part 4.

13 May

Journey through central and south Albania in April/May, 2012. Part 4.

SARANDA to BERAT. —  We finally reached Berat, one of Albania’s most picturesque towns, after another epic road journey. For 5 hours the public bus ground through hills, mountains, and small market towns, passing fields full of crops, oil fields full of quaint “nodding donkeys” and miles of rough, badly surfaced roads. I was not surprised when the driver stopped for a rest after 3 hours of bumping along. As well as negotiating difficult roads and coping with the constant coming and going of passengers, he had also had an explosive, expletive- laced argument with someone on his mobile. The whole crowded bus had hushed to listen in. Eric and I couldn’t understand a word, but we got the message loud and clear. The tone of his voice told us that he’d sent the other guy packing with a flea in his ear! All the passengers nearly burst out into a round of applause when he finally slammed the phone down in triumph!

During the stop at a hillside cafe, the driver gulped down a big bowl of soup and demolished a hunk of bread, while I encountered my only Turkish toilet of the whole Albania trip. I survived! When we finally pulled into Berat bus station, Eric, myself and the driver were the only 3 left from those who had set off from the south coast early that morning. He was an unsung hero that bus driver, and he still had a smile on his face as he passed us our cases.

DRAMATIC ” MUSEUM CITY.”  —  Along with Gjirokastra, Berat has been preserved as a “Museum city” since 1961. In 2008 it joined the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The fast flowing River Osuni has cut a deep gorge through the limestone rock of the valley, creating precipitous crags on either side. This is the picturesque setting of Berat. Striking, white Ottoman houses climb the hill to a massive castle perched on the very top. Berat means ” white city” and it has also been evocatively named “The Town of a Thousand Windows.” Soldiers from many countries have been magnetically drawn to Berat because of its strategic site and almost impregnable position. They were followed centuries later by artists and poets, mesmerised by its wild, romantic beauty. It was this sort of location that caused Byron to praise Albania as paradise on earth. The accomplished artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear, also visited the country in 1848 as part of a painting tour of the Balkans. Copies of 3 of his lovely pictures of Berat hung in our hotel room and the original are in the Lear Gallery in the lower town. Apparently he was a note-worthy and successful artist before inventing the Owl and the Pussy Cat and The Jumblies.

Attractive ensembles of white-washed houses, tiled roofs and old stone walls are laced together by steep cobbled lanes. Above the town, pine forsts cling to the higher slopes whilst down below there is a lovely mix of olive groves and cherry trees. We were just in time to see the blossom. A dramatic back-cloth is provided by the stupendous, snow covered Tomorr Mountains. It’s a memorable sight especially when viewed from the castle grounds at the very top of the main crag.

CASTLE, CHURCHES and ICONS.  —  Eric and I climbed to the citadel via one of the straightest, steepest cobbled streets we had ever encountered. It took us a full 15 minutes to get up there. It was especiaaly difficult for my friend Eric, because the slippery smoothness of the worn cobbles matched the smoothness of his shoes’ soles. He had to perform a sort of soft-shoe shuffle in order to get a grip. Inside the castle walls sprawls a whole village known as Kala. It contains the remains of one mosque ( for the former Turkish garrison) and 8 Churches ( for the local people). There used to be 20 churches. The 13th century Church of the Holy Trinity is particularly beautiful. Built in the shape of a cross, it clings to a grassy slope just below the castle’s inner walls. It is a lovely mix of warm red, decorative brickwork, arched windows and curving, rust coloured tiles. Inside it lurk Byzantine murals but it is locked up, awaiting money for restoration.

The only church that is open is the gorgeous, late 18th century Church of the Dormition of St Mary. It only holds one service per year but houses the lovely Onufri Museum of Icons and religious artefacts. We were too late to visit that first evening but returned the next day after hauling ourselves up the steep hill again.

Onufri was Albania’s most celebrated icon painter. He worked in the 16th century and was noted for his technique, realism and vivid colours. He actually invented a colour that was subsequently named after him — shiny, “Onufri Red.” In the church itself is a spectacular, intricately carved wooden iconastasis. It is made from walnut covered in gold-leaf. It featured 2 lines of ravishing icons, including two paintings by the master himself.

THE BEST RESTAURANT IN ALBANIA?  —-  Whilst exploring the labrinthyne town inside the castle walls on our first visit, we suddenly got hungry and needed somewhere to eat. We thought we would have to struggle down the long, cobbled hill to the new town far below, but then inadvertently discovered an eating place inside the castle. At first it looked just like a refreshment bar, but when we mentioned food and did a bit of sign language we were shown into what seemed a room inside an ordinary house. In one corner an old guy was sipping a desultary raki. There was little evidence that this was a restaurant ( “resterant” in Albanian)  — no menus, no prices, no set tables, no food on display. When we signalled for the menu the woman disappeared and returned with her husband. He appeared to be acting as a human menu. Someone who knew him , later told us that he knew about 17 languages, but only spoke a few words of each! His attempts at English seemed to boil down to :resterant traditionale, speciality barak ( or burek). I knew the latter was a Greek or Turkish style dish consisting of flaky, filo pastry layered with spinach and cheese or meat. I had had it in Greece and Cyprus. Luckily the guy understood the word “vegetarian” when I mentioned it and he got the message about Eric after he had performed his now infamous clucking chicken act. I just hoped he wouldn’t get the two of us mixed up!

Thus it was that we were served a veritable feast washed down with beer, mineral water and raki. It was a traditional Meze with new dishes appearing roughly every 5 minutes, until we finally held up our hands in surrender and Eric shouted “finito!” ( He has recently been learning Spanish just to confuse everybody!)  It was all delicious but in danger of becoming overwhelming. While his wife slaved away preparing the food, which then appeared as if by magic, the man showed off about his place being the best traditional restaurant in Berat, if not the whole of Albania. He showed us a framed photograph of himself with the President of Albania who had come to dine there. The owner’s wife, who actually cooked all the food, was nowhere to be seen on the picture. She was probably preparing the next course or washing up the pots while her husband hobnobbed with the VIPs in front of the camera, taking all the credit! We ate: stuffed peppers, stuffed vine leaves, butter beans in a tomato sauce, generous Greek salads, a whole plateful of burek, poached egges set in spinach, spicy chicken chunks in spinach, homemade bread. Even after we said “stop” we still got 2 pieces each of dark, sticky honey cake. All this for just under £8 each!

STRANGE LIGHTS — When we left the castle restaurant it was dark and we nervously navigated the long, slippery slope to our hotel down in the town below. About halfway down I saw a tiny, luminous, flashing light. It briefly flashed on and off by the side of the dark road. The next second it had moved to somewhere else and then it moved again. I wondered what it was. I couldn’t remember any lights by the road when we had climbed up. I thought back to those Edward Lear prints. Was this a rare sighting of the luminous nose of the mythical Dong? Then suddenly I realized what I was witnessing — FIREFLIES! I had never seen them before and neither had Eric. That’s the thing about travel: it always has a surprise up its sleeve when you least expect it. Now, as we stopped and looked, the whole bank was full of flashing, briefly glowing, constantly moving lights. According to the dictionary  a firefly is a “beetle emitting phosphorescent light.” We stood in amazement.

ALBANIA’S ANNE ROBINSON. — On our last night in Berat we sat on the rooftop terrace of a restaurant overlooking the river as it curves between two bridges, one modern and the other 18th century. In front of us was the gorge, and the white Ottoman buildings nestled on the hillside, punctuated by churches and mosques. In the distance were the magnificant, white-topped mountains.

In the background 3 chain-smoking men watched with rapt attention the Albanian TV version of “The Weakest Link.” It must have been compulsive stuff for a people who had once idolised Norman Wisdom, because his silly slapstick offerings were the only Western films they had been allowed to see. The male Albanian version of Anne Robinson seemed to be kindlier and didn’t have her wicked wink but the 3 smokers were engrossed. As our pizzas cooked in the wood fired oven, Eric and I savoured the moment. It was typical of many we had had in Albania —- beautiful but bizarre!

 

 

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