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

Albanian Surprise – Çobo Winery, Berat, Albania

Some kilometres outside Berat you think you’ve landed in a real dump with nothing much to offer than a statue in the centre of town and the ubiquitous cafés surrounding it. The place is called Ura Vajgurore and this is where the gem is to be found.

Çobo Winery in Ura Vajgurore, near Berat, Albania

The winery consists of a huge house attached to the cellar, bottling plant and tasting room. A charming gentleman steps forth and introduces himself as Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker and marketing director. He knows how to do all three of these things well. Here’s why.

Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker, marketing director

Taking us through the cellar which produces no more than 100 000 bottles per year, he tells us that the grapes are sourced from their own vineyards and others that they buy in. The stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation look pretty new and shiny and then there’s the room where all the vats are kept most of them new Barriques and some older large ones. I notice the riddling board where several bottles of sparkling are awaiting a turn and he tells me it’s his new baby, making a bubbly out of Puls, a white wine grape only found in this region. Everything is done by hand and carefully monitored by Muharrem himself. His first batch of Shendeverë, the name of the fizz suggesting the good life, has been sold out except for a few bottles kept for tasting.

An impressive tasting room

Our next stop is the tasting room, a fabulous facility where you’re able to indulge in the line-up of wine as well as have some bread, cheese and olives to go with it. Shesh I Bardhe is an example of a traditional Albanian white wine, kept as pure as possible to its traditions without too much interference. It’s got a strange flowery nose almost like honeysuckle and has some gooseberry on the palate with good acidity and something slightly bitter but not offensively so, on the finish. Shesh i Zi reminds me of Pinot Noir which I find out later is in fact true. It’s acidic, bright and fresh with berry fruit on the palate. But it’s Kashmer that gets my attention. The name is made up of the 3 grapes it contains viz. Cabernet (Kabernet) Sauvignon, Shesh i Zi and Merlot. This is an earthy wine and tells the story of its terroir. There’s enough fruit and acidity to keep it interesting right through the finish which is medium. The flagship is next up – E Kugja e Beratit meaning ‘the red of Berat’. This grape varietal is also called Vlosh and has seen the inside of small oak barrels for 6 months and 4 months in big ones. It comes from a small parcel of land measuring 2 hectacres. It has a deep nose of horse, leather and covers the palate with thick, velvety tannins that are not overwhelming. The finish is looong and satisfying. Put it together with a meaty dish on a cold winter’s night and life’s complete.

The reds got my attention
Muharrem’s new baby – a sparkling made from an original Albanian grape called Puls.

As I said before, Muharrem knows what he’s doing. The pricing is somewhat more than you would expect from Albanian wines but the quality is all there and for a small set-up like his, paying €30 for their E Kugja e Beratit is not unthinkable. It might be difficult to sell this to a consumer after import taxes, transportation, etc. but production is so little that he probably doesn’t have a lot to export anyway.

What a surprise to find a top class winery in the wilds of Albania that understands the international market and sticks with what it knows best i.e. grapes from the area that speak of the oldest winemaking tradition in Europe.

Links:

Çobo Winery

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