We arrived at Berat early enough to be able to walk up the steep hill to explore the Ottoman fortress situated high up over the town. Fortunately by this time, it was late afternoon and the day was cooling down. Nevertheless, we were quite sweaty by the time we got to the top.
It was lovely to wander about the cobbled streets and remnants of the castle fortifications up there – old mosques, churches and even a cistern that was constructed to serve the fortress all those centuries ago. A mystery as to how the water was collected, although it might have been collected rsinwatrr over tye winter months. The whole area was very atmospheric.
Being high up it provided amazing vistas down the river valley, over to nearby mountains and the town far below.
As evening fell we took part in ‘La Passeggiata’, the Italian tradition of a social promenade in town taken after work and before dinner. Albanians seem to follow this rather pleasant activity.
As the sun set, the call to prayer provided an atmospheric backdrop to all this social activity. First from one, then two, and then finally all of the three mosques in the town. These were the first calls to prayer we heard on our trip, reminding us of the country’s mixed religious heritage.
Our room, having windows all round the exterior corner meant that as dawn broke the following day, the room was flooded with early morning light. This accompanied the gentle cool breeze coming through the open windows. You can understand why the Ottomans built houses like this.
The next day we devoted to exploring the many narrow cobbled streets and pathways all over town as well as paying a visit to two of the mosques and four of the Orthodox style churches which are dotted about the town. One church in particular was perched half way up the cliff only accessed by a steep zig zag footpath. We arrived almost at the same time as the guardian who unlocked for us to see inside. In each of these churches there were lots of icons on the walls depicting the various saints.
The mosques provided peaceful spaces in which to contemplate and the interiors were simple but very attractive. Not quite as old as those we saw in Istanbul, but nevertheless still around 400 years old.
We had our lunch in the shade in the park by the main riverside promenade. The day before we had bought some fresh apricots and peaches from an old chap who was selling his home grown produce. This fruit was very juicy and absolutely delicious and nicely accompanied the almonds and pistachio nuts we had previously bought in the fresh produce market in Durres.
The afternoon was spent pleasantly enough sipping cool beer and lemonade in one of the many bars that people hang out in to people-watch.
After another bit of wandering it was time to think about dinner and walking along the many restaurant options offered we settled upon a place that provided some delicous stuffed mushrooms, baked aubergines and vegetable risotto at a very reasonable price of 2100 Lek (around 21 euros) including wine. We followed this with ice creams bought from one of the many ‘dyqani i akullores’ (ice cream shops) that were situated along the town’s promenade.
Tomorrow we head for Gjirocastra, 4 hours away in a shared minibus (furgon) to the south. It promises to be another attractive Ottomon style settlement, this time built at the top of a hill.
It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the much loathed previous dictator president Hoxha. He ordered one of the massive cold war era concrete bunkers to be built there as a result of his paranoia of the surrounding western orientated countries.