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The road to Berat was longer than it looked on the map. Although roughly 62 miles from the Albanian capital, Tirana, the journey by bus or “furgon” (shared minivan taxis with a flexible approach to timetabling) takes two to three hours, usually making the not entirely logical detour to the western seaside resort of Durres. The trip south passes through a number of villages, where the bus erratically pulls over to pick up others heading to the “city of a thousand windows”.
It was these seemingly endless windows, set within whitewashed homes, that provided a key part of the draw to Albania, an amber list country now open to visitors from Britain. These remarkable Ottoman-era houses, many with traditional covered balconies, climb the steep hills that border the Osum river and are unusually well preserved. It is not only Berat’s status as a rare unspoilt Ottoman settlement that makes it extraordinary; the reason for its survival is equally surprising. Not only did the city outlive Enver Hoxha’s communist regime, which saw much Muslim architectural heritage dismantled as an unwanted vestige of the Ottoman period – it is, in fact, partly thanks to Hoxha that its architecture remains. One of only two cities to obtain the title under Hoxha, Berat was designated a “museum city” in 1961, affording it special protection from zealous urban planners.
If the majestic sweep of Ottoman houses is the sumptuous cake, the 13th-century citadel (Kala) is the metaphorical glistening cherry. Sat upon a craggy hilltop overlooking the city, the fortress is a steep climb from the old town. We ambled upwards, dodging diggers and shovel-wielding workers along the main road towards the castle: preparations for visitors were underway. Around a hundred families still live within the walls of the vast Kala, their houses nestled amid the Byzantine churches, stalls selling lace and restaurants serving grilled meats with ajvar (a tangy condiment made with red pepper and aubergine). Afrim, who sells homemade jams and had set up shop for the day beside the ruins of the former Red Mosque, finds it fitting that he should sell food surrounded by sacred buildings: “People sometimes come here for spiritual nourishment,” he says, “the city provides this, and I provide another kind of sustenance.”
Berat’s religious architecture is a physical emblem of a deep-seated culture of acceptance; the city continues to bear witness to the harmonious coexistence of various religious and cultural communities. As a millennial Londoner, I am keen to capture the essence of this tradition. Today, following a ban on religion under Hoxha, the predominant religions are Islam and Christianity, with Muslims making up the majority.
While in 2014 Pope Francis praised Albania as an example of remarkable religious tolerance, Berat is particularly noteworthy. Although many assert that this is one positive legacy of the policies of the communist state, Berat bears treasures that proclaim a more long-standing mindset of tolerance. Among these is the city’s Onufri National Iconographic Museum, dedicated to Byzantine icons and liturgical objects. The museum is home to the 18th-century Ikona Burimi Jetedhenes (Icon of the Life-Giving Source), an Orthodox icon that features minarets in its backdrop and has become symbolic of the religious coexistence for which Berat is lauded.
Much of the town is visible from the citadel; the whitewashed houses that congregate on the river’s northern bank make up the historic old town, the Mangalem quarter. This traditionally Muslim area is home to three grand mosques: the 15th-century King (or Sultan) Mosque; the 16th-century Lead Mosque; and the 19th-century Bachelors’ Mosque. Across the river, past the houses of Mangalem, stands the predominantly Christian Gorica neighbourhood. These parts of town are linked by the resplendent Gorica Bridge, originally made from wood in 1780 and rebuilt with stone in the 1920s. The site of local legends involving dungeons and evil spirits, the bridge is now a hotspot for pouting youngsters craving that perfect profile picture. These photoshoots serve as a poignant reminder that, Unesco World Heritage Site or not, Berat is a 21st-century town. A quick skim through Instagram is enough to tell you that the city stands on the threshold of change: the influencers and bloggers, local and international, are beginning to trickle in.
In surveying the skyline from the Kala, the eye is drawn to a gleaming golden dome. This is not a glitzy imitation of the US Capitol Building, but a house of learning. Founded in 2009, the Albanian University in Berat is the shiny face of the city’s gradual march forward, and an attempt to draw a younger demographic to this city.
Nineteen-year-old Nora moved here from a village around 40 minutes away, having spent her first year of studies commuting via furgon: “I decided to move here, though it’s more expensive than staying at home. I wanted to experience life in a bigger town.”
Less lustrous but equally significant, the hills surrounding Berat demand our attention as we admire the landscape from the Kala. Look closer at the face of towering Mount Shpirag and you will spot a message from the past, refigured as a site of collective memory and reflection. In 1968, at the height of the communist regime, a brigade of villagers painted the name “ENVER” on the side of this mountain in honour of Hoxha. Standing 100m tall, the letters were nearly wiped out by a napalm attack by Albania’s first democratically elected government in 1994, but later restored by local Sheme Filja. In 2012, as part of a documentary, he embarked on a subtle yet radical remaking of the message. Filja swapped the first two letters, leaving the word “NEVER” as an outward expression of an internal plea: never again. Time stands still for no one, not even for Hoxha.
The five-pointed red star that continues to rise over the city’s partisan cemetery complicates this pledge. While the white painted letters of Mount Shpirag proclaim “never”, such remnants of the communist era seem to perform a more nuanced spectacle that reflects, acknowledges and affirms the city’s complex past, politics and populations. But then again, perhaps that was to be expected. As epitomised by the reworked tribute to Hoxha, Berat is apt to adapt. Visit it now while the going’s good.
How to do it
All entry restrictions have been lifted in Albania, so you won’t need to take a test beforehand or quarantine on arrival. It’s also currently on the UK’s amber list, so if you’re fully vaccinated, you won’t need to quarantine on your return
Berat is an easy day trip from Albania’s capital, Tirana, with GetYourGuide offering a seven-hour excursion from £68.33 per person, including transport, a guided city tour and entrance fees to the Onufri Museum of Iconography, the National Ethnographic Museum and Berat Castle (getyourguide.com)
You could base yourself in Berat. Hotel Vila Aleksander offers double rooms from £34 per night, including breakfast (00355 69 540 9217; hotel-vila-aleksander.berat.hotels-al.com)