Berat was the high point of the week-end. We got up Sunday and after breakfast headed out of Tirana. We only got lost briefly once before we made it to the city limits of Tirana and headed southeast for the mountains bordering the city. We took Highway E-852 which was well maintained but a seriously winding and narrow road. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride through the mountains, but if you have a fear of heights or have a tendency towards car sickness this road is not for you. The owner of the vehicle, who had been sitting in the passenger seat, was not in very good condition by the time we got out of the mountains, and had made the unilateral decision that no matter what we would not be returning to Kosovo via that route.
After getting out of the mountains we got on to Highway SH-7 and headed southeast. SH-7 was flat and in pretty good condition, and we drove though acre after acre of vineyards and olive groves, the weather was perfect for early April and everyone was outside working in the fields. We continued to pass dozens of cement bunkers, but we eventually got used to seeing them. Eventually SH-7 ended near the town Rrogozhine and we headed generally south on another highway that was to become SH-72 once we got through the city of Lushnje. The geography continued to be mountainous but road continued to be flat as we drove on through the Albanian countryside. Throughout our drive a huge mountain was visible to the southeast. We first saw this mountain off in the distance as we wound our way around the mountains outside of Tirana. As the road began taking us more east than south we began getting closer and closer to mountain. As we continued the journey it became obvious that Berat was located in the foothills of that mountain.
As we got closer to Berat the road got increasingly bad and though it continued to be paved at several point sit might as well have been gravel. As we arrived in Berat it appeared to just another post-communist city with the multi-story cement apartments that seem to be everywhere in this part of the world. As we went through town heading east we could see the ruins of a large fortification on top of the mountain overlooking the city. The road took us along the river and we came to the old part of town which was made of almost entirely of stone houses with large windows. These houses were all nestled closely together going up the hillside on each side of the river. A couple of old stone bridges connected the north and south side of the river.
Amongst the houses were some small businesses, restaurants and hotels. It was all very picturesque, with the exception of the trash in the riverbed. We found a place to park and walked across a bridge to a restaurant on the south side of the river where we ate lunch. One of the people I was traveling with, I cannot recall who, had heard of a hotel called the Mangelemi Hotel which had been recommended to them. After lunch we decided to cross the river and look for the hotel.
It might be worth noting that as we got farther from Kosovo we found fewer people spoke English and more and more spoke Italian. Which makes sense since Italy is right across the Adriatic from Albaniaand you can get Italian radio and television signals in western Albania. Albania has not had as much American influence as Kosovo though there is an American presence there. However, we found that many people, even in a small, fairly remote town like Berat still spoke a fair amount of English, and they still seemed friendly and Pro-American. As we looked for the hotel we walked along some very lovely narrow streets, the place looked like a movie set…
…A fair number of times since I have been here I have found places that justseem too perfect to be real; the Eiffel Tower at night, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the mountains around the ski slopes in Bansko, an old neighborhood with cobblestone streets in Thessaloniki, Greece, the monastery at Ducani, and now the alleys of Berat come to mind. There are times I feel so fortunate to have been able to see some of the things I have seen it is almost overwhelming. I wish I was capable of writing about these things in a way the people reading this could get a sense of just how many amazing places there are in this world. But I digress…
…Eventually we asked some directions and found the hotel we were looking for right around the corner from where we were walking. The hotel was in a large old home, it had a small restaurant and bar in it and a courtyard that was bordered by another building which was part of the hotel as well. We hadn’t made reservations but they had four rooms available and we checked in. All of the rooms had been newly remodeled and were fairly spacious with very nice, what appeared to be, handmade furniture in them, my room came with a queen sized bed (most single rooms in hotels in Eastern Europe have single sized beds). The bathrooms were large and up to modern, even American standards. The ceilings were made of carved wood were beautiful. The price included a full breakfast in the morning. It was the best hotel deal I have ever gotten at 25 Euros a night. The place was one of those rare gems that you sometimes stumble upon but don’t come around often enough. If you are ever in Albania and ever go to Berat. You have to stay at the Hotel Mangalemi.
After checking into the hotel we decided to explore the Castle on top of the hill. The clerk at the front desk told us there was a nice museum in the castle and that is closed at 4:00 pm. It was after 3:00 when he told us that so we decided to drive up the hill instead of hiking to save time. We got there in a few minutes and it was another breathtaking sight. The pictures I took don’t do the place justice. There was a large Orthodox Church in the castle (in fact there were several churches within the walls) and the Church, though still functioning, had been made into a very nice museum. After exploring the church we met back up in the church courtyard where Tim had made friends with an older local gentleman. It turned out that though some of the castle was in ruins quite a few people still lived in houses within the castle walls. He was one of these people and wanted to give us a tour.
He gave us a very thorough and complete tour of the high points of the castle, and was very concerned that we see all of the “panorama” views. Although his English was broken he gave us a great tour. This was one of the largest fortresses I have been in and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is definitely worth the drive.
After finishing the tour it was getting late and we decided to head back to the Hotel. I decided to walk back down the hill and met up with everyone for drinks in the courtyard outside of our hotel rooms. After a couple of drinks, we had dinner at the hotel. We continued drinking wine through dinner and finished the meal with a walnut Rakia. I was surprised by this at first but walnut is definitely the best flavor of Rakia. From what I recall dinner was excellent and lasted most of the evening, another guest of the hotel from Slovakia joined us for dinner. The evening ended well with me sleeping in my large and comfortable bed.
I got up in the morning and for some reason had a headache, but got cleaned up and had breakfast and went for a walk. We left the hotel and headed for home about mid-morning; we drove northwest and eventually got to the coast around Duress but didn’t stop at the beach. We made pretty good time with the exception of the road out of Berat and the road south of Prisren the roads were good and the drive went well. We made it back to Pristina about 5:00 in the evening and had plenty of time to rest up and prepare for work in the morning.
Thus ends my painfully long recounting of the week-end trip to Albania. Just in time for my next trip to Zagreb, Croatia, stay tuned for a Croatian Easter…