I can’t believe there are so few tourists here in Berat.
How can there be picturesque laneways like this one, and yet, no tourists? It makes no sense.
But the scarcity of tourists in central Albania, in 2015, is one of the reasons travelling here is so great. It means that low-budget travellers like myself have the opportunity to stay in historic residences in the centre of town. Usually such places are ridiculously overpriced, and well out of my price range. But here, in Berat, they are the only places in which you can find any accommodation. And so cheap. US$25 a night gets me a room to myself with a view of a church and the river.
What I like most about this laneway, which is right outside my hostel, in Gorica, the tiny neighbourhood perched on the southern side of the river Osum, is that it manages to be so attractive without being even the teensiest bit pretentious. This little laneway hasn’t been prettied up, as it would have been if it were located in a heavily touristed historic centre, the likes of Mont Saint-Michel, or Český Krumlov, or Kraków. This little lane hasn’t been subjected to a civic beautification program. It manages to be this pretty all on its own.
Fifty metres along the laneway the path splits, one arm heading down to the river, the other heading uphill, climbing the rocky spur that Gorica is built upon. On the corner is another cute Ottoman dwelling. This one, unlike the others, has a modern, fake-stone façade around its front door. That façade wouldn’t be allowed in Mont Saint-Michel, or Český Krumlov. And if Berat ever undertakes its own beautification program, it’ll be one of the first things to go. I don’t like those power lines’ chances either.
I take the path leading away from the river. I’ve been told there’s a goat track somewhere along here that will bring me to the top of this hill.
I find a goat track. No way to know if this is the goat track, or just a path leading to some guy’s house. No matter. It’s heading in the right direction. I take it, and am soon high enough to see over the river and across to the opposite side of Berat.
Perversely, I took almost no notice of Ottoman architecture while I was in Turkey. There I was more interested in ancient Greek cities, Roman ruins, Lycian tombs, and so on. It was only when I entered the Balkans that I began appreciating what the Ottomans left behind (such as those at Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria).
Berat: the town of a thousand windows
Houses sprouting from the base of the hill like an outbreak of giant, sugar-cube-shaped mushrooms. Buildings of separate properties melding together, conjoined to the untrained eye. Berat is known as the Town of a Thousand Windows. Certainly no window tax here.
The dearth of tourists can’t last. They are sure to flood here before long. And then the city will change; there’ll be more hotels, more hostels, more bars and restaurants; the large fast food franchises will arrive. Berat will gain the features of every other European tourist city; it’ll become more like Mont Saint-Michel, more like Český Krumlov, less like Berat.
Keep climbing, put some of this hill behind me, or below me might be a better way to put it. The village drops away.
From here I can see the lower fortifications of Berat Castle, built in the 13th Century when this region was part of the Epirus despotate (a successor to the Byzantine Empire). The castle was built on Illyrian ruins that date back to 400BCE.
Poor Illyrians; they seem to have been left out of the history books. What happened to them? Crushed by the Romans, I think; their cities destroyed more than two millennia ago. Those that outlasted the Romans were put to the sword by raiding parties of Goths and Huns, and those that survived the raids were eventually absorbed by the Slavs. A few stones in the ground is all that is left of their civilisation. Albanians are descended from Illyrians, and they don’t mention them much. If they aren’t going to promote them, who will?
Keep climbing. The track I’ve been following begins to circle the rocky spur, leaving the river behind. Berat disappears from view; I end up amongst undulating hills covered in olive groves and pine forest.
Pretty. But not what I’m here for.
I ditch the trail and push through pine forest, making my way to the peak of the spur. Amongst the trees I stumble upon ancient building blocks, foundations of dwellings, or defensive fortifications, from centuries ago, perhaps millennia ago. There are Illyrian ruins up here, supposedly. Is that what these are? Two thousand years old Illyrian ruins? Is this the respect Illyrian ruins receive? Not even a single sign identifying them? Or are these blocks just the remains of a farmer’s shack from a couple hundred years ago? I don’t know. Move on.
I crest the rocky spur. Too many trees in the way. I’ll have to try lower down.
There, down there, a patch of escarpment, a rocky outcrop, a break in the trees. Exactly what I am after.
A perfect outlook over the village below. It feels like I am flying over Berat. I’m even higher up than the castle on the opposite side of the river.
And… now what? I had no plan beyond this. Climb. Reach the highest point. An instinctive urge. One we all have. And which I indulged in immediately, the greatest joy of travelling alone.
Sit down, lie back, relax, take it all in. Spend a moment or two thinking about those poor Illyrians.
Practical information on reaching Berat:
Read more on the historic centre of Berat in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.