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Monday, October 10, 2016

9/30: Onward to Beautiful Berat & the Animal Kingdom

With mixed emotions leaving Tirana's hostel after spending a fascinating time in the capital, we took the bus to the capital's main bus station for our next stop in Albania: Berat. Unlike major city bus stations we were accustomed to, this one was very different. There were no signposted or numbered platforms as we expected but rather the buses were all lined up with their destinations posted in the windows. We had seen that at the city's small north bus station yesterday but didn't expect it at the main terminal too,
What made this stand out was each bus ticket taker stood in the middle of the parking lot yelling out his particular destination as passengers walked into the center of the fray. It sounded like an auction with the cacophony of announcements from the competing ticket takers. I shall not soon forget one man constantly shouting 'Durres, Durres' as if he were hoping people might change their minds and want to go there instead of some other place!

We had gotten there earlier than we needed to but I was glad we had as it was as if we were watching street theater with all the hubub going on around us. Then, there was the man below carrying bags of bananas trying to sell half a dozen or more of them to people waiting for their buses to leave. I could see people wanting to buy one or two but who would want or need six for a bus journey?
We were finally on our way at 11, passing the large eagle monument one last time on the outskirts of Tirana.
Halfway to Berat, two guys came onboard selling bags of popcorn and other snacks - that was a first this trip.
We arrived in Berat at one and took a taxi to Villa Lilli where we were staying for three nights. Berat is one of Alabania's most beautiful towns as it was preserved as a museum city by the former Communist government and was recognized by UNESCO in 2008. After being plied with Turkish coffee by our very friendly villa owners, we still had much of the day left and we walked into the tiny town and began exploring. 

The reason we had decided to come to Berat was because of views like this one. The most striking feature of Berat is the collection of white houses climbing up the hill to the castle. That is why it has earned the title of a 'town of a thousand windows.' 
Berat is undergoing a major construction boom so much of it was torn up. Almost finished being built was Berat University that was all of three minutes from the villa.
Ivy: I couldn't keep from smiling and thinking of your mom when I saw this graffiti in Berat of all places. Please let her know I was then, and am now, hoping she is well. When the building boom is completed, the downtown core will look amazing, I am sure. It seemed to have a huge amount of construction going on in such a small area relative to the size of the town.
A brief background about Berat, courtesy of Lonely Planet: A large fortress was built here in the 3rd century BC by the Illyrians on top of an earlier settlement. The Byzantines strengthened the hilltop fortifications in the 5th and 6th centuries as did the Bulgarians 400 years later. The Serbs, who occupied the citadel in 1345, renamed it Beligrad or White City. In 1450, the Ottoman Turks took over the town. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the town began to thrive as a crafts center after going through a period of decline. For a brief time in 1944, Berat was the capital of a liberated Albania.
In the main square was a large new Orthodox church and a mosque in a sign of religious harmony.
The church's marvelous iconstasis was so huge it even extended into side chapels too.
Next to the church was a bar called the Mississippi or at least a close variation of that! That was the first time I've seen that state listed in Albania but I sure have seen a lot of Florida signs, on bars and restaurants and on people's nametags in stores. Wonder what the thing is between Albania and Florida is?
Unfortunately, the adjacent Lead Mosque, so named because of the lead coating on the domes, was closed both times we tried to enter. It was built in the first 30 years of the 16th century and was considered to be one of the best preserved architectural structures from that period of Ottoman occupation in Albania. The mosque was in the town's traditional Muslim quarter called Mangalem.

Just a couple minutes' walk from the Lead Mosque was another, the 16th century Sultan's or King's Mosque. 
Note the little 'cubbies' for lack of a better word for shoes to be placed prior to entering the mosque.

The Helveti Tekke behind the mosque was erected in 1872. The Helveti are a dervish order of Muslim mystics. It had a beautiful carved ceiling which was especially designed with acoustic holes to improve the sound for meetings held there. It was also stunninglly painted in multiple motifs. We have seen several other tekkes this trip but there were never any performances or shows held in any of them that we knew about unfortunately.

Photos of the Tekke:

Another part of the grounds included the Han Inn for Dervishes, a modest two story building from the 19th century.
A view of the Sultan's Mosque but looking directly into the sun.
After leaving the Mangalem Quarter we decided to hike up to the castle. Almost at the bottom of the hill, was the Gate of the Pasha which was made of stone. Its arch was decorated with scrolls and garlands.
Views of our climb:

In virtually every city and town throughout the Balkans, there have been these huge communal dumpsters for residents to place their garbage in. Obviously, there is no garbage pickup. Berat, I noticed, was no exception.
The sight of the whitewashed walls, tiled roofs and old stone walls often guarding courtyards with shaded grapevines was simply spectacular. Too bad these photos don't do it justice but I couldn't do much about the overcast skies.

We sure hoped the taxi driver had excellent brakes as the hill was so steep.

As we neared the top of the hill, we saw this monument and walked over to see it. All of a sudden, three horses came half trotting down the street from the right toward the monument.

Two of them were hobbled as their back legs were loosely tied together so they couldn't run away from the young girl who was tending to them. She began throwing rocks at the third one when it tried to escape.

Don't know what the monument was to or for:
Soon, we could hear bells and figured why quickly enough when we saw sheep and goats pass in front of us just by the castle.

I just wondered what part of the animal kingdom we would see next!
What a gratifying sight seeing the impressine Kala or citadel at long last after the hike on the cobblestones up the hill. I've noticed that the word 'kala' has been used for fortress or citadel in many of the Balkan countries.

As soon as we walked through the gate, we saw yet more handmade items for sale.

Surrounding Berat were olive and cherry trees on the lower elevations and pine forests on the steeper inclines. The rest of Berat and the Osum valley looked quite spectacular from the Kala.

Much of the citadel was still in excellent shape so we wandered among its walls almost by ourselves.

When there was a missing piece of the wall in one spot, Steven joked that I needed to say that he helped me across the 100 foot canyon. He was my knight in shining armor as befitted our being in a medieval castle!
We thought we had just been roaming around the Kala when all of a sudden, we stumbled into someone's backyard.  
That opened up to a large clearing, in which was a massive bust of Constatine the Great. It looked like it should have been in a museum and not exposed to the elements.

The Kala had been traditionally a Christian neighborhood but fewer than a dozen of the 20 churches remain. We headed first to the one on the far hill.
It was called the 14th century Church of the Holy Trinity but it, like many of the churches in the Kala, was closed. We were very impressed that the local Minister of Culture had been responsible for putting up very informative English language signs at all the points of interest we had seen so far since our arrival in town.

From that hill and church, we kept climbing up to another hill.
At the top, were even more lovely items intended to separate me from our money and weigh down my suitcase! But I resisted the urge.

This was all that was left of the Red Mosque. It was the first in Berat and dates back to the 15th century. I must say it looked like a smokestack to me rather than the remains of a mosque.

I could resist no longer all the lovely items and bought a table runner from this woman. I couldn't imagine she would have had more than twenty tourists by all day as she was located in an area of the citadel far from the entrance.
The next part of the animal menagerie included turkeys and  chickens as we passed a number of homes still in the Kala. Often, women would pop out of their doorways and point to displays of their handiwork and jams, etc hoping we would buy from them too. I think this was the only citadel or fortress we have been in this trip that still had a somewhat thriving community living within its walls.

These bumped-out upper floors were a common feature in homes in the region.
We were heading next to the quarter's biggest church, the Church of the Dormition of St. Mary.

The Church only only holds one service a year and it  has been the site of the Onufri Museum since 1986. Onufri, you may remember from the post on Tirana's National Historical Museum, is Albania's most celebrated painter of icons.
The church dates from 1797 but was built on the foudations of a 10th century church. Photos of its beautifully gilded iconstasis:

The Royal Door of the iconstasis is the primary door leading directly to the Holy Altar and included both carving and painting.
The door's detailed woodcarving was positively exquisite.

The Sanctuary is always the holiest of places in the church and is usually pointed toward the sun. The sun is considered to be the mind of God and toward which the hearts of the believers should be directed during prayer. According to Orthodox tradition, women are barred from the Sanctuary as are men who have not received a special blessing to enter. Of course, the hierarchy of the clergy may enter freely.
On the Bishop's or High Priest's Throne was an icon of Jesus Christ to remember that he is always the Great High Priest and Lord of Creation. In every Orthodox Cathedral church there are always two thrones, one on the center and one in the Sanctuary near the Holy Table. With as many Orthodox cathedrals we've visited over the years, this was new to me and to Steven too, I suspect.
The Amvona is a very early podium in which the Deacon could either read from the Gospels or preach the word of God. Various decrees, either religious or governmental, were also read from the amvona which is found on the left side of Orthodox churches. Since the amvona is the highest part of the church, it represented that the words stem from and were inspired by God.

From the darkened church, we entered the Onufri Museum where his 16th century icons were beautifully displayed on bright white walls with superb lighting that showed them off to perfection. 

Here are just a few of Onufri's paintings that I cared for. This one was called The 40 Saints.
His painting of The Last Supper:
Part of the iconstastis was painted by Onufri.
Oops, I see now I forgot to write down which this one was. Hope I haven't gotten it and the next one mixed up!
This icon was done by Onufri’s son, Nicholas Onufri, and was called The Nativity of Jesus.
This last painting was of St. John the Baptist.
It was incredible that the Museum only cost $2.50. Not only was the price ridiculously low, for us at least, there was a really good free, written guide available in many languages which was a great help pointing out what we were seeing in the Church and throughout the Museum. We commented that the icons certainly rivaled those in collections we’d seen in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg several years ago.

Leaving the Kala, we walked down a steep hillside path toward town. It seemed that this terrain was also favored by the sheep and goats!

Early evening and a shot of Berat's pedestrian street with the pretty as a postcard view of the City of 1000 Windows in the background:
So odd seeing an honest to God food truck in tiny Berat! 
We were pretty tired by then and wanted to grab some dinner from one of the many restaurants that lined the promenade. We chose a table right out front so we had a perfect view of the residents strolling up and down the esplanade. It was surprising how many small groups of men, both young and older, there were as opposed to either couples or women.

Steven ordered a hot dog and of course, we should have known by now, that it came stuffed with French fries in the bun! You think we might have learned by now to ask for fries on the side but we’re obviously slow learners. (That happened to us again just two days ago in Corfu when we each ordered a gyro and they came with fries. In our defense though, there was no mention of fries with the gyro on the menu!)  Steven said his hot dog was really good after he had managed to separate it from the fries!

I ordered a margherita pizza that cost all of $2.40 and was absolutely delicious. Whenever I order a pizza, Steven always manages to find room for several slices of it in addition to eating his own dinner so it didn’t go to waste! With prices like that, there was no wonder we were able to spend less than $10 a day on food for both of us in Albania. Not many other places we’ve been to, could we say that. I guess it does help that we normally skip lunch and just get something on the fly.
After seeing most of the town’s ‘sights’ in just a matter of a few hours, we decided to change our plans and only stay two nights in Berat and head to our next stop, Gjirokaster, a day early and spend three nights there instead of just two.

Posted from Athens, Greece on October 11th , 2016.


  1. Hi Annie and Steven. I'll let my mom know about the graffiti with her name on it! She is doing very well. Also glad to see you made it to Greece. Lots of love. Ivy

  2. I love reliving each day of the trip as I read your posts.


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