Thursday, July 02, 2015

In the White City

After our hair-raising drive on Sunday, we arrived in Berat in the centre of the country. Berat is known as a museum city - a term bestowed by Enver Hoxha, thus protecting the historic buildings in the communist period. Today, the old city is a world heritage site. As with the rest of Albania, the city had a tumultuous history, with long periods under Byzantine and Ottoman rule. Its hilltop castle complex dates (in its current incarnation) back to the 13th century, whereas its striking old town was built unde the Ottoman Empire. 

This photo makes it clear why Berat is also known as the "White City" or the "City of a Thousand Windows". The city is divided in two, this is looking across at the old town or Mangalemi quarter from the other side of the river. On the top of the hill, you can just see the castle. Yes, we had to walk all the way up there!

View from the restaurant where we had dinner. 

One of berat's steep cobbled streets. 

Rain was forecast on Monday afternoon, so we made sure to be out early to see the castle before the weather turned. I know it's about as hot in Paris, London and Brussels right now as it is here, so you can all empathise with hot much we were melting as we made our way up the hill. 

Looking down around halfway up the road to the castle. Those cobblestones were really uneven and sometimes slippery as well, making the walk much more difficult. In fact, coming down might have been just as hard as going up, since I was terrified of slipping over the whole time. 

The castle is actually more like a citadel, with walls enclosing a mini city which, even today, still houses people and businesses. There's not all that much to see in terms of visiting the castle, no big fortress or palace and most of the historic churches are kept closed and have a rather dilapidated air. We were disappointed that, being a Monday, the ethnographic museum (further down the hillside) and cathedral, home to a museum of icon painting, were both closed. However, the trip up the hill is more than worth it for the breathtaking views. 

I know the point of most castles is to have a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, but this one really does have the most amazing view. Given the clear blue skies, we could see for miles over the river valley and the surrounding mountains. Beautiful, and while we ran into other people at various points in the city streets (including an annoying beggar who just followed us around for a bit with a look on her face like that old lady in the wheelchair that Homer accidentally wheeled out of the retirement home instead of Marge's mum - anyone?), we had the various viewpoints all to ourselves. 

The quarter on the other side of the river. 

The entrance into the cathedral/Onofri museum (Onofri was a "famous" Albanian icon painter who apparently introduced the colour pink into icon painting).  Remember how I said we were disappointed that it was closed? When we came across it, there was a tour group outside and the door was open, so we just went in. Five minutes later, the tour group came in and the guide asked us who we were and what were we doing in the museum, and made us go pay at the ticket office (we knew there was a charge, but hadn't seen the ticket office, assuming the door had just been left open). So that was a nice surprise. Not sure if the opening hours were wrong or we got lucky and happened to be there at the precise time they opened up to let this tour group in, but either way, we were happy that we got to see it. The museum isn't wildly exciting, but it was nice to see. 

Altar screen 

One of the altar screen doors, featuring I guess Archangel Michael, maybe Gabriel. 

 Rain didn't actually arrive on Monday, turning up only on Tuesday morning to pelt us as we got into the car for the next leg of our roadtrip, over the Llogora Pass to Himare and the "Albanian Riviera". 

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