Sunday, April 25
We left Tirana by bus and have settled in at a beautiful little inn in Berati, one of the oldest cities in Albania, with a collection of white Ottoman-style houses built into the hillsides. The windows in all the houses are what gives it its nickname, City of a Thousand Eyes. There's a castle and a well-preserved collection of mosques and medieval Orthodox churches that were spared by the communists. Berati was a government-designated "museum city.'' It's now a UNESCO site. We explored just a little on our first afternoon, climbing up a steep path to a little 13th-century chapel, called St. Michael's, wedged into the hillside. A woman who said she was a French teacher tried to explain a little of the history in French and Italian.
St. Michael's Church, Berati
We were lucky to get a room at the Hotel Mangalemi a little inn in what was once the Muslim Quarter, and home of the Ottoman king, or pasha, of the time. There's a mosque across the street, a Catholic church nearby, and and a temple built by Bektashi followers, a Muslim sect, sometimes identified by their whirling dervishes.We awake to church bells and the Muslim call to prayer.
Tomi Mio started the Mangalemi as a four-table restaurant in 1993, after communism, when private businesses were allowed for the first time.
Some of the rooms are in what was his father's house, built in the 1930s. The others are in a newly-restored house built in 1775 by the Ottoman king or pasha as he was called. It's an incredible bargain. Our room is cozy, with pine ceilings, wooden floors, a balcony and new bathroom. The price is $40 a night, with a breakfast of blood orange juice, feta cheese, eggs, thick slices of toast and yogurt. Dinner last night (Tomi's wife, Violetta, is the cook) was a Greek salad, a delicious pepper and cheese spread, homemade sausage, potatoes, homemade merlot and a dessert made from honey and walnuts - $20 for the two of us. Albania is a true travel bargain.
View from our hotel terrace
Berati is in the mountains, surrounded by pine forests, with fig and olive trees growing on the hillsides. A river separates the town into two sides, one that was once primarily Christian; the other Muslim. The castle area, another former Christian neighborhood above the Muslim quarter, is unique in that about 200 families still live within the castle walls. There's a very interesting museum there in a historic stone church housing some famous religious icons. Unfortunately it was closed the day we visited. The tourist office offers a very good audio tour of the town's historical sites, all of which can be seen on foot.
Red mosque inside castle
The people are very friendly, and we met several as we walked around. A few make a little money by offering visitors coffee or snacks from their homes. A woman named Violetta invited us in for coffee, and served us some of her homemade preserved cherries, then offered to sell us some of her homemade fig jam. We chatted a while, using a few Albanian words and some Italian. Then she went behind a chair in her living room and pulled out a plastic water bottle filled with raki, a clear alcohol everyone here makes and drinks. She offered Tom a sip, but he politely declined.
Violetta of Berati
We had originally planned to stay just one night in Berati, but decided to stay two, and we're happy we did. It gave us a chance to get to know Tomi and his English-speaking son, Valter, 22, and experience a little of the local life.
The highlight is the evening "xhioro,'' or stroll along a street near the river. Every evening around 5 p.m., it's closed off to cars, and everyone walks or stops at one of the outdoor cafes. Vendors sell roasted sunflower seeds in paper cones and little sour plums the size of cherry tomatoes.
Our next stop is Gjirokastra, another historical town about three hours away by bus, and about an hour from the coast where we plan to spend a few days more. Buses and furgons are how we have been getting around. Driving is out of the question. Albanians drive fast. Most roads are bad, and there are few signs.
Furgons are vans that operate as a shared taxis. They park in the town squares or along the side of the road, and leave when they have enough passengers. Sometimes there's a sign in the window saying where they are going. Other times the drivers just stand in front of the vans, and call out their destinations. Furgons are cheap. A three or four-hour ride is no more than $3-$4, but the rides can be harrowing. Drivers tend to drive fast and squeeze in as many passengers as possible. We're sticking with buses when we can.