Once upon a time there were two giants: Tomorri and Shpirag. Unfortunately, they fell in love with the same girl. They fought for her for a long time; their swords were shooting sparks and their blows were so strong that with each successive strike they were sinking into the ground. In the end, they both died from the severe wounds they inflicted on each other. Only two mountains left after their fight: Tomorri and Shpirag. The girl grieved for them for a long time, so long that her tears became a river. As you probably guess, Berat is situated at the foot of these two giants, on either side of the Osum River.
The city was found most likely by the Illyrians who, in the 3rd century B.C., built here a stronghold known in the ancient times as Αντιπατρια. In 440, the city was seized by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius who named it Pulcheriopolis – i.e. the Beautiful City. In the 9th century the city was captured by the Bulgarians who renamed it Beligrad (the White City) and which was finally transformed into the current – Berat.
You can reach Berat from various places. There is also no difficulty in getting out from here. There are direct buses which run to Tirana, Vlorë, Gjirokastër and other cities. We went to Fier where you can take a bus to the ancient city – Apolonia. For example, when you want to go by bus from Berat to Fier you will have to pay about 100 Lekë for each person.
Going towards the stronghold we go past Mangalem – a lower district of the two-storey houses. A steep, rock-strewn path leads directly to the gates. The entry to the castle costs 100 Lekë. In front of the gate stands a self-appointed guide who offers his services for 1000L. We decide to make use of it but it is already late and, since we do not have much time left, we will definitely not be able to see everything.
We pass by a shop and a bar. Behind the walls there is enough space to hold the entire settlement. The castle is inhabited! The oldest houses were built already in the 13th century. Our guide claims that already before the Ottoman invasion, there were about twenty byzantine churches here. Afterwards, the Turks built here two mosques. Unfortunately, not many temples stood the test of time and those which survived served as the warehouses after 1967. In one of the churches there is a museum of Onufri – the most famous 16th century Albanian icon painter.
Going up we reach the acropolis before which extends the view of the mountains and the river. You can also see the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church. The double wall was rebuilt many times over the centuries. These days it is slightly damaged but as you can see it is quite well preserved anyway.
We are going past the remains of the mosque and then down the steep stairs to a viewpoint. Below us is the oldest (except the castle) part of the town – Mangalem. The guide claims it was built in the Middle Ages. You can cross the river through the Ahmet Kurt Pasha bridge which was built in 1780. This side of the city, which was built by the Turks, is called Gorica. The farther you go from the castle the more present-day buildings you will see... I think I do not have to tell who built them. So ugly blocks of flats could be only left behind by the Communists.
After years of isolation Albania experiences probably the stage of relishing the consumerism. Plastic packaging is everywhere; everything in the shops, even the smallest items, is wrapped up in the disposable plastic bags. As a result, this beautiful country is buried in garbage. Berat, however, is the positive exception; its streets are very clean and, in general, only a dirty river and sometimes some small illegal dump can scare you away. This ecological improvement is probably connected with the fact that in 2008 Berat was listed as the UNESCO world heritage.
As I have written before, on the other side of the Osum River there is Gorica - the part of the town built by the Turks. It is worth going there in order to take a stroll along the narrow alleys. You will see donkeys carrying goods along the steep paths or people lugging strange-looking vessels. As you probably guess, they serve for distilling Rakia, i.e. the most popular local alcoholic beverage.
It is not likely you will die of starvation in Berat. Their local equivalent of our fast food restaurants are byrektore – stalls specialising in the production of the very scrumptious and stodgy Börek. Börek is a kind of a puff pastry with a stuffing which you can buy even for 30 Lekë! The most popular are: Börek with meat, Börek with cheese and Börek with spinach. If you fancy something more expensive I recommend a nice, still affordable restaurant in the Berati Hotel. I was especially delighted with Tasqebap, a kind of thin goulash with bread (250L) and a sizeable bowl of the Greek salad (150L only). Other sample prices: spaghetti sauce – 100L; grilled lamb – 500L; grilled cheese – 130L; Chips – 100L; Tirana beer – 100L; Fanta – 100L.
The main street is just bursting with countless number of different bars and cafés. We were savouring our desserts in Shpetimi2. You should definitely order fruit ice cream on the waffle. Sample prices: ice-cream – 80L; Tirana beer – 140L; pizza – 200-500L.
Kids will surely be happy to have a ride on a merry-go-round for only 50L or to scoff popcorn which is sold in the street for 30L. My children, however, were most pleased with dodgems – tokenish 50L for a few minutes’ ride! If someone was not sure whether Albania is the right place for children, our answer is – YES. There are kids in this country as well and they are doing fine.
In the Gega Hotel, for a quite small but a very clean room with two beds and a bathroom you will pay 20€. For the same looking room equipped with the air conditioning you will have to give 30€. It is similar in the Berati Hotel which location I think is better; the room costs 25€.
Life in Berat goes by very slowly... no, goes is not the right word... life flows here by slowly, like the Osum River running through the city. You can see men playing cards in a park since the morning; cafés are also very crowded even though it is the middle of the week. I can see nobody who seems to be in hurry to get somewhere. Cars are going sluggishly; some donkey is pulling a chassis of some disassembled vehicle...
In the evening people go out into the main street. At its beginning there is a sign – traffic ban from 5 p.m. to 12 p.m. It is time for taking a walk. People from the whole city are having a stroll. So we are. It looks like a parade but a two-way one, because when people reach the end of the street, they turn back and continue their stroll in the other direction. Neighbours have an opportunity to talk with each other, young boys can spot some good-looking girl... Who knows, maybe it is the last city in Europe where you do not need the internet to do that things!
Olive trees which grow on the picturesque slopes bask in the sun and the grapevine twines in the neighbourhood of many houses. People are very nice. When we were going up to the castle some family addresses us and gives us as a present a few bunches of grapes; for nothing in return. They smile to us and tell us to enjoy our meal. When we are strolling along the Gorica streets, an owner of a donkey smiles to us while his four-footed friend climbs the steep, paved street. Jolly kids play ball. Some lady waters her flowers, the other whitewashes her house. She speaks to us in English. She tells us she teaches chemistry, her family has lived in this house for generations. Her eyes express pride. She asks how we find Berat. We like it very much!
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