Berat was the highlight of my trip to Albania. It is a beautiful old city with three main districts – Mangalemi, Gorica, and a castle district above Mangalemi. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because of unexpectedIy making some new friends, I was only able to visit the castle. The main draw of the castle is the Byzantine churches and white stone homes.
I arrived on a three hour bus ride from Tiranë costing 400 lek (the return on a furgon was 500 lek). I was dropped off at the bus station in the Mangalemi district, which looked like a graveyard for old Greek buses. Apparently, Berat is where old Greek buses go to die.
Once I left the bus station, I looked up at a very high castle on top of a small mountain and started walking that way. The walk wasn’t too bad. It took 15 minutes without stopping to reach the top.
At the top, I was greeted by a huge wall and a small gate just big enough to fit a car. Apparently, there was a 100 lek admission fee, but there was nobody around to collect or enforce the fee.
I entered the castle and began to follow the map. The white stone houses and buildings in the castle were stunning. I had seen homes like this before in other Medieval castle villages, but not situated on top of a small mountain like this. I also passed by nearly all of the Byzantine churches. It was at these churches where I met my new Albanian friends. Dino, a university student who had grown up in Greece, and his father, offered to give me a tour of their town.
I followed Dino past more churches up to the highest point of the castle, the acropolis. When you hear the word “acropolis”, usually images of Athens and the Parthenon pop into your head. Not in Berat. It had a few ruined stone structures including the White Mosque, a cistern that still holds a large volume of water, and a couple arches.
The acropolis also has a fortress topped by a large antenna.
Around the corner from the acropolis were the ruins of the Red Mosque. All that’s left standing is the minaret, which Dino had me climb for some amazing views. It was also the first time I have been able to climb to the top of a minaret, and probably the only time it’ll happen.
From the Red Mosque, I was able to see something unique to Albania on the mountain across. On the side of the mountain, it spells out NEVER with rocks. It once spelled ENVER, after dictator Enver Hoxha, but a farmer got fed up with it and changed it to NEVER.
Dino led me along a path past the former Church of St. George was a lookout point with some of the most breathtaking scenery in Albania. I was able to look down on the districts of Gorica and Mangalemi with nothing but silence and the wind. From there, we returned to the main square and had some coffee.
All in all, it took about 90 minutes to explore the castle. I would like to return another day to see the Ethnographic Museum, Gorica and Mangalemi, but the highlight for any visitor is definitely the castle.