Day 23-24: Berat, Albania

by - August 24, 2011

The public transport system in Albania may lack timetables, but what it loses in reliability it makes up in flexibility with the furgon system.  Furgon is the Albanian word for van or minibus and is the main way that locals get around - essentially any vehicle, ranging in size from people carrier to bus, will stop and take people to the place that they are advertising in the front window.  It is essentially a massive share taxi scheme and it works extremely well, as long as you can find out where the furgons to a certain city tend to hang out.  To do this we got a taxi from the hostel to a random street corner where a lot of cars with ‘Berat’ in the window were.  It cost us 500 leke each (about three pounds) for a two hour journey and was quick and surprisingly comfortable, despite the insane driving of Albanian motorists.

View from the hotel
We arrived in Berat at about 3pm.  The town was designated as a 'museum town’ by the communist regime and is therefore one of a very rare breed in Albania that were maintained rather than flattened over the last half century.  The old town is built into a hillside and was developed mainly by the Ottomans with a huge fort on the hill top.  Before I came on this trip I would have no idea how to describe 'Ottoman architecture’, though Berat is definitely a prime example of the simple but extremely attractive and window dominated building style.  The town has gained the nickname 'city of a thousand windows’.  We stayed at the 'Castle Park Hotel’, located about 1.5km out of town in the hillside, surrounded by a forest.  While Ellie was certain that staying at a castle in an Albanian forest would be a bit dodgy, it turned out to be really nice and was full of Italians who use Albania for a cheap holiday.  The view over the new town is stunning, even if the new town itself is pretty ugly, as the area is extremely mountainous.  We still had a nightbus hangover so took it easy at the hotel restaurant for our first day.

Rubbish at the castle
Starting fairly early to avoid the heat (I think I am right in saying that Berat is the furthest south we will be going in the European part of the trip), we walked down into town along a winding mountain road.  We thought it would be wise to go up to the castle first to avoid the heat, but it took us so long to get up that it was about midday when we got in.  The town is one of two Albanian UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but judging by the castle the money has gone towards saving it, rather than promoting it as a tourist attraction.  There is a neighborhood inside the castle where locals live on cobbled streets in pleasant Ottoman style houses, driving battered old Mercedes.   Unfortunately this community isn’t very considerate when it comes to rubbish disposal and it seems that they literally tip their bins over the castle walls - I have never seen such a badly cared for heritage site and it is a real shame.  For the sake of balance I will show you both the good and the bad of the fortress - the views over the surrounding area is stunning, though the ongoing forest fire problem in the country was quite obvious, with lots of smoke coming from wooded areas on the valley sides.  Having spent about two hours in the castle, and with mixed feelings about it, we headed back into the medieval and Ottoman parts of the town.

View from the castle

Berat - the city of a thousand windows
While there are a few museums in the town, we decided to just wander around the old parts, past mosques, old squares and pretty houses.  Unfortunately we had quite a backlog of bookings and reservations to make for the next stage of the trip, so we had to spend a few hours in an internet cafe and by the time we had finished it was time to walk up to the hotel again.  Berat was definitely worth visiting and with more time would be a great base for outdoor activities, but the town needs a lot of work to maintain its architectural assets. 

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