Jesse and I arrived in the ancient town of Berat after driving through cloudy, rainy skies all the way from Lake Shkodra, some three hours away. When we finally arrived in Berat, the clouds were still present but the sun was there too and the rain had ceased.
Berat is known as the City of a Thousand Windows, and literally translates to “White City;” that is due to white second floors of the hill homes that are situated under the castle and across the river. The Ishull River runs through the middle and two bridges that cross it. Now there is a new Berat, and that is where we stayed, in a guest house run by a friendly and cordial woman named Lili and her husband, who cooked us an excellent breakfast every morning and welcomed us back whenever we returned in the evening from exploring the town.
We have enjoyed all our guesthouse stays in Albania; the proprietors are all so friendly, welcoming, and treat us so kindly and put up with our attempts at speaking a few words in Albanian, and help us learn a word or two of Albanian that we did not know before.
After we arrived, unloaded our luggage, and freshened up, we were off to the city to find some food. Lili’s husband gave us directions into town, but it was rather easy. We just walked along the Ishull River and soon, we were in the main part of the city. We were hungry and looking for a place to eat when I checked the map app and found a place that was just off the main drag that had great reviews. We climbed up some stone stairs, some in need of heavy repair so much so it did not feel like there could even be a restaurant nearby. After spying a literal hole-in-the-wall, we found ourselves at Lili Homemade Food, and we thought, well its the same name as our guesthouse, so that must be a good sign.
The owner, a man named Lili, welcomed us excitedly, telling us we had until 8:30pm (it was 6:30pm at the time we arrived) and if that was ok we could sit down. Jesse and I sat on the corner of an old, shaky, wooden table, next to a young couple we later learned were from Ireland. Lili pulled up a menu board, explained all the menu items to us and the Irish couple (you can see from the menu board below).
Eight food choices, and a 1/2 liter of homemade (made by Lili’s father, he told us) red wine. We drank wine, talked travel with the Irish couple, and ate and ate scrumptious homemade food that was prepared by Lili’s wife. After we finished, Lili shared some homemade Raki with us; and we sipped on it from tall shot glasses; then he shared another, and another, and 8:30 arrived much quicker than we thought.
We said our goodbyes to Lili, thanked him for all the food, and wished the Irish couple a farewell, before heading back to the main street, and onto the main drag; Republic Boulevard. There are bars and restaurants and a park that runs alongside; street vendors selling ice cream, water, grilled corn on the cob; along with friends and families sitting on park benches enjoying the nice weather. We found a bar and sat at an outdoor table and people watched; many of the same people we saw multiple times, as walking up and down the boulevard was apparently the thing to do on weekend nights.
At around 10pm the street died down and we started our walk back to the guesthouse, but first we wanted to see if we could have a nightcap at the Hotel Colombo, which looked like a government or capital-type building (we later learned it had been a university that was sold and changed to a hotel). We had seen it several times as It stood out in the distance and up close; we walked inside on the fancy red rug under the red awning, and found it eerily deserted.
We finally found two hotel staff relaxing outside, and asked if we could have a drink. One led us into the bar area, where all the lights were off. The bar was in a grand room and he had to turn on all the lights, as we were the only people there. We ordered drinks and thought how weird it was to be there, seemingly all alone in the massive hotel.
We finished our drinks, left, and were welcomed back by Lili’s husband when we returned to the guesthouse, satisfied and a bit tipsy, with our first night in Berat.
Our second day in Berat we visited Halveti Tekke, which was a Dervish mosque built back in the 1500s but now is one room (that tourists can see) beautifully and intricately decorated.
We were let inside by a friendly, older, bald man with only a few teeth, who spoke just enough English (and he spoke some Italian and German as well) to tell us about its history. He left us to take pictures, and told us to meet him at the Xhamia e Sulltanit Mosque that was across the stone courtyard from the Halveti Tekke when we were ready. The detail on the ceiling was so cool, and zooming in on the pictures below is a must.
After we finished, we met the caretaker outside the mosque. Jesse was going to cover her hair, but he told us it was ok, they were liberal Muslims here in Albania. He saw a group of tourists approaching, told us they were Spanish, and when he asked if they were, they confirmed it; then he said he didn’t speak Spanish, so spoke to them in Italian, which, by the looks on their faces, they kind of understood. He was funny and personable, and after he told them to head over to the Halveti Tekke, we took off our shoes and went inside the Mosque.
He told us about this mosque, which is also known as the King’s or Sultan’s Mosque. It was originally built in the 15th century, and underwent major renovations at the end of the 18th century. He had told this to English speakers before, as he would write out dates with his index finger on the palm of his other hand. We appreciated all the information, then he asked, “do you want to climb the minaret?” Yes we said, and he handed us the keys to a short door in the corner of the Mosque and conveyed, “the other key opens the door at the top, where the Imam used to climb; and you will need the flashlights on your phone, its 94 steps to the top and dark,” and with that he was off to meet some other tourists.
So in we went, up these narrow, cobweb filled spiral staircase in our socks; every couple flights there was a small window letting a little light as we breathed heavily, climbing the tiny stairs. Finally we reached the small door that we had to duck under to stand outside; he had also told us only one at a time could go outside which was because it was not a large enough space for two to stand. The views of the city and the mountains beyond it were incredible.
I was also able to climb a bit higher and get some cool pics through some of the minaret’s tiny windows:
Then Jesse and I descended the many winding steps back to the bottom; it was almost more worrisome as we braced ourselves to not fall and also try not to dirty our clothes in the process. At the bottom, I took a picture of Jesse:
Here are a couple of pictures of the Mosque and minaret:
After that climb we decided our next day’s trip was up to Berat Castle, which is an even greater climb itself (700 feet, or 214m above sea level). One can drive to the gates, but we decided to walk; instead of walking the whole way on the cobblestone streets, we took a slight shortcut trail on a dirt path that zig-zagged its way up to a side entrance. Here is the view once we reached that entrance:
Once we reached the castle gates, a man approached us and asked if we were interested in a tour; we thought it over as we caught our breath from the walk up in the shade, next to an old cannon.
We decided it was a good idea to take him up on the offer, and we were joined by a nice couple from Prague on our hour walking tour of the castle town. Our tour guide introduced himself as Toni, and he was born and raised in Berat Castle, as was his father, grandfather, and so on. He told us the oldest base walls dated back to the 4th century BC and were built by the Illyrians, who lived in the castle and area until being later conquered by the Romans. Later Berat became part of the Byzantine Empire, and in 1417 it became part of the Ottoman Empire.
He also informed us that he lived in Berat Castle, along with many other families; and there are also restaurants and gift shops within the castle walls as well. At its height there were 20 churches inside, along with two mosques (which were for the Turkish soldiers stationed in Berat Castle). The first church he showed us was the best preserved from the outside, St. Theodore’s Church.
From there we went deeper inside the castle walls, past the remnants of the white and red mosques, the ancient cistern, then back into where the people of Berat Castle still live and work, down narrow streets, until we came upon a doorway and sign for a church, St. Mary of Blaherna Church (Kisha e Shën Mari Vllahernes in Albanian), but with a lock on the door.
Lucky for us, Toni had the key, and let us inside this church built in the 13th century in the Byzantine style, called the clausonage technique (stone surrounding with tiles), with flooring and frescoes from the 16th century.
Here is the front of the Church, to show the clausonage technique of the Byzantines:
Lastly, Toni took us to the lookout point high above the city, which held the greatest view of the city along with a large Albanian flag on a tall flagpole. We saw the new city, the old stone bridge, the river; it was truly the best place with which to view Berat, and not to be missed.
We said good-bye to Toni and the couple from Prague, and went back down the path we came up, back to the guesthouse. Jesse was not feeling well, so she rested, but there was one place I still wanted to see, which was the Church of the Holy Trinity. We saw it from above when at the castle (in the last picture it is in the lower right with the maroon roof). It was not too far from the Lili Restaurant where we had eaten a couple of days before, but it was another zig-zag climb up uneven cobblestones.
I went inside; the altar is wooden and basic, and there were many pictures of various sizes, many of St. Michael. The church building itself was only two small rooms,
A local parishioner began speaking to me, but he did not speak English, and barely any Italian, but he led me outside, where they were having a full service; I had forgotten it was Sunday. There were two priests leading the service, one in a bright sky blue robe, the other in forest green. There were about 40 people standing, as it was not a large space, outside and next to the rocky mountainside. I watched the service for a while; I had never seen an orthodox service, especially not one in another language, but I recognized some parts; when one of the altar boys cut the bread to be the body of Christ, and the beats of the Our Father prayer, along with the blessings and some call and response with the priest and parishioners.
After a while I left, and walked down the Republic Boulevard one last time; then moving to the river’s edge, watching dusk become night on our last night in Berat.