Berat – an Albanian Must-See

When the overcrowded, touristy beaches all get too much, head for the hills.

If you’ve had it up to here with new architecture, crowded beaches, dirty resorts, jump on a furgon, privately-owned minibuses, and get the hell away from the coast to this beautiful city where old, Ottoman architecture in all its white glory still survives. Most Albanians are pretty friendly, but hospitality takes the biscuit in Berat.

Ottoman Architecture in Berat

I always choose Airbnb because it lines the pockets of the locals and not some huge probably foreign-owned conglomerate chain. You get to know the people too and here’s where the real Albania lies. The guy sitting behind me on the bus, peers over my shoulder with the address I’m looking for on the piece of paper. What would normally seem like strange manners, he tells me where to get off and I’m grateful to him. My little suitcase doesn’t weigh much but rolling it over the slippery stones towards my destination is not an option so I have to carry it. I stop to ask some young guys directions. They smile at me, call my landlord Petrit Sheshaliu and lug my luggage up the hill to his place. A warmer welcome you couldn’t get. The airy room is high up, looks over the city and is equipped with air-conditioning, phew!, and excellent wi-fi. Petrit and his wife are delightful. Petrit serves me homemade berry juice, drive me to Çobo Winery (see Albanian Surprise: http://foreignfinn.com/?p=1638) and waits for me to take me back. The breakfasts come with homemade jams and they’re quick to point out that the butter and cheese has not been bought in the supermarket but locally sourced from a farmer. It’s all delicious.

Petrit and his lovely wife

The Mangalem district or Old Town with its three mosques and Ottoman architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring it takes you over rocky patches, through small walkways, passed flowery window boxes and quaint chimneys. If you keep looking, you will eventually find Lili’s Homemade Food which is absolutely where you want to eat. The four or five tables in the tiny courtyard are usually fully booked in the evenings but lunchtime is a good bet and lasts from 12.30 to 4.30pm. Lili, strange as it may sound, is a man with impeccable hosting skills who knows how to make you feel comfortable, wanted and at-home. Stuffed tomatoes, aubergines, pork with cheese, and byrek pastry, come in huge quantities and don’t be fooled by the size of the portions on the photoboard that acts as a menu, it’s a lot bigger than you imagined. Lili’s father makes the homemade wine from Shesh i Zi and Merlot and it’s a brilliant accompaniment to the food they serve. You get chatting with people at the next table and before you know it, you’ve exchanged details about your life with complete strangers. Getting away is the hard part and Lili insists on drinking a small, yes homemade, raki or firewater with you which settles the tummy and sends you on your way with the best of memories. Don’t give up on finding this unique spot – just keep asking and eventually you’ll stumble upon it.

Lili’s Homemade Food – keep trying until you find it
You’ll not go hungry (or thirsty!) at Lili’s

The climb up the mountain to the Castle is a trek but needs to be done to see the sweeping views over the city and the Byzantine churches. On the way back, take a break from the super-slippery stone road to see the Ethnographic Museum which constitutes an enormous home of a former rich Muslim landowner and gives you a glimpse into the daily lives of the citizens of Berat. The archways are low so be careful of your head.

Ethnographic Museum, Berat

The Boulevard or ‘strip’ as I might call it, fills up with the people who live in this city in the evenings. Well turned out families buy ice cream for their kids, young guys try to catch the eyes of the stunningly, sexy girls while the elderly amble along enjoying the cool, breeze and the social chumminess of it all. Tolerance is a word that springs to mind when you know that Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic all live and have lived side by side for many centuries here which is the oldest, continuously occupied city in the world.

Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics live in perfect harmony in Albania

Links:

Airbnb – Petrit Sheshaliu

Ethnographic Museum

Lili’s Homemade Food

Butrint – City of Occupations

A 45-minute bus ride from Sarande will get you to Butrint for 100 lek (0,76EUR). Entrance fee will set you back another 700 lek (5,50 EUR), every bit of it worth it. Its history has seen all kinds from pre-historic man to Romans, Greeks, Christians, Byzantines, Venetians and finally Ottomans. It tells a tale of civilisations and how they lived but also enables you to take a walk through the National Park of Butrint on the banks of the Vivari Canal. Historical monuments, nature and landscape all make it a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Eucalyptus trees line the entrance to the ancient city of Butrint

In spite of cars and tourist buses blocking traffic to and from the entrance, it has remained remarkably untouched by development. There’s a little kiosk inside that sells some handicrafts from the area but mostly people are lining up for the cold drinks from the fridge. The restaurant close by is the only one and no one crowds the sidewalks with made-in-Taiwan trinkets for sale.

An avenue of massive eucalyptus trees provides much-needed shade as you begin your walk. It takes you through the Chapel of Asclepius, Greek god of healing whom the frail and ailing would worship in hopes of a cure. They would sleep in the area and relate their dreams to physicians and medicine men eagerly proffering interpretations and selling them herbal concoctions to make them well again. The ancient Theatre was established by the Greeks but later re-modelled according to the Roman style. Today the International Theatre Festival Butrinti2000, held in July, fills the stone seating with audiences applauding drama, orchestral and dance performances in this magical setting.

What is left of the cult of Asclepius, on display in the museum.

The Baptistry and the Great Basilica attest to the Episcopal or Christian period albeit a cult establishment from the 6th Century. A staircase through the medieval Lion Gate leads you up the hill to the crowning glory where the remains of a Venetian castle, beautifully reconstructed in the 1930s, houses the museum. If you’d been wondering what had happened to the archaeological finds dug up over the years, this is where you’ll see the intricate sculpture of the Greeks, the fine glassware of the Romans and the primitive flint tools of the ancients. It is an excellent collection with easy to read explanations of each period. In praise of the Greek period are the inscriptions alluding to manumission or the freeing of slaves and that done by women who, unlike their Greek classical counterparts, were able to own and release them at Butrint.

The Baptistry
The Great Basilica

This ‘microcosm of Mediterranean history’ as mentioned on the UNESCO website, survived occupations by the Byzantines and the House of Angevin or Anjou, English kings also known as one of the four royal houses of the Plantagenets. Who would have thought their empires in the 13th Century would extend so far east? Fortifications kept on getting bigger and stronger until Ali Pasha, the notoriously cruel Albanian Ottoman, built a new one in the 19th Century. After the decapitation of the ‘Lion of Yannina’ by the Ottomans because of his separatist attacks, Butrint was abandoned.

Fine Roman glassware

What is left is a rich legacy of a long period in time which stands as a testament to history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, science and domestic life.

Links:

Butrint

 

Sad in Sarande, Albania

From Corfu to Sarande, the ferry takes about 30 minutes. A nice, easy ride across the Adriatic gets you there but upon arrival I was shocked by the hotchpotch design of the city perched against the hill facing out over the bay. Electric cables join some pleasant looking buildings with some half-finished construction sites and if it weren’t for the boulevard and its palm trees, all would be lost.

Flowers Room – a haven in the heart of Sarande from Airbnb

The streets and steps, and there are plenty of the latter, are fairly decent but veer slightly off the beaten track and you notice so much trash and litter with rubbish bins overflowing and not a hint of recycling in place. Then you find out that tap water is undrinkable and that you need to buy bottled water to survive the hefty heat in the summer. Too much plastic, too much waste and very little urban planning is turning this seaside town into a concrete jungle with little more to offer than clear water and wall-to-wall beaches, a lot of which are private ones where you’re required to rent a lounger and umbrella. Top of the awful pops music blares and one bar competes with another as to choice and volume.

Ksamil islands – ‘commercial’ takes on a new meaning

You can’t say it’s not cheap, cheap it is in every way possible. Few shops have anything of value to offer and the restaurants have the same menu wherever you go i.e. ‘country’ salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish, seafood and meat. My country salad consisted of deliciously fresh veg and lettuce with feta cheese and olive oil salad dressing but the lamb ribs which I was looking forward to, came piled high on a plate with no more than a wedge of lemon. Ribs they weren’t, just random cuts of meat.

Too much plastic and trash

Everyone recommends Ksamil Islands but if you think Sarande is commercial, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Every inch of beach is lined with the ubiquitous sunbeds and umbrellas all costing something albeit cheap in comparison to other Mediterranean countries. Trash decorates the sidewalks with not a collector in sight.

My saving grace in Sarande was the haven of peace and beauty called Flowers Room which I booked through Airbnb. Besmir and his family couldn’t have been kinder or more generous and the smell of herbs and foliage filled the night air. Air conditioning meant that you could close out the sounds of honking hooters and get a good night’s sleep. I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot.

Kristiano Wine Bar – a must-see

Having said what I’ve said so far, there is one spot which is worth a mention – the wine bar called Kristiano, way up high on the hillside and perhaps impossible to find if it weren’t by taxi. The interior is elegantly rustic complete with stuffed animals and the terraces outside look out over the bay. Sip a glass of wine and just take it all in, including the huge cruise vessels that stop in during the summer months. My hike down the mountain was made all the more pleasant when I joined a mother, her child and grandmother who took me down a shortcut through bush and thoroughly uneven terrain. What amazed me even more was that granny and daughter were both wearing wedge-heeled sandals leaping across boulders and rocks with the sure-footedness of gazelles. We waved a friendly goodbye to each other when we hit the first tarred road.

View over the bay from Kristiano Wine Bar

Friendliness, smiles and generosity are in ample supply in this city and while English doesn’t trip off their tongues, they make an effort to understand you and to get you what you want. Here’s to the locals, in every way! My advice on food – go to the market, buy the freshest of ingredients and cook your own. The fish and seafood from the fish shops is excellent as is the meat from the many butcheries scattered across town. With a lathering of olive oil and green herbs, you’re your own best chef. One more thing, the internet works well in cafés and restaurants.

Links:

Flowers Room

Kristiano Wine Bar