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.
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.
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.
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.
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.