“It’s over there” said the driver. He pointed to the edge of a roundabout as we grabbed our bags from the bus. And that’s how we found ourselves standing in the sun, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the next furgon to Berat, our next destination in Albania.
What is a furgon?
The main mode of transport in Albania is the minibus, called a furgon. There are no timetables for the furgons, you just need to tell a local where you’re going and they’ll point you in the direction of the where the furgon stops. Most of the time, a furgon will come your way within 10-15 minutes. There are also normal buses that run to timetable but the furgons are an easy, cheap and cheerful way to get around. The best seats are the ones near the window, as the air conditioning never works. The worst seats are right at the back, where you feel every single bump in the road. And Albanian roads are in a shocking state, so it’s a bumpy ride. Even worse than the back seat – is when you have to stand…
Picture postcard perfect
Albania had so far exceeded our expectations every step of the way, so we had high hopes for Berat, which had recently been added to the Unesco World Heritage list. But the perfect postcard shots you see on the internet aren’t always the reality when you get there, so we weren’t sure what to expect.
We needn’t have worried. Arriving in Berat, you can immediately see what the fuss is about, as you look out over the ottoman-style houses that lead up the mountainside to the castle at the top. Berat is one of the best examples of an Ottoman town in Eastern Europe.
We passed our days here wandering through the towns cobblestone streets, admiring the many views, eating amazing food and just generally enjoying ourselves.
Berat is also known as the ‘town of a thousand windows’. I have no idea why?!
Berat was also the first town that stopped us in our tracks as the call to prayer rang out, through the valley from the hillside mosque, adding to the atmosphere of this charming town.
We might not enjoy ancient ruins but we love castles! Berat Castle didn’t disappoint with its huge imposing walls and towers.
The castle area is so large that even today there are people living within the limits of the castle walls. It was quite strange, as it was easy to get lost wandering the narrow streets. One minute you’re looking at a great view or piece of castle history, then around the next turn, you find yourself admiring a nice garden which turns out to be someones backyard. But as we experienced in the rest of Albania, the locals were welcoming and friendly, even though we’d stumbled into their home. It would be pretty amazing to be able to say you lived within the walls of a castle!
At it’s height, the castle area also had 20 churches and one mosque. Not all still remain today but this beautiful Byzantine church was our favourite.
Berat New Town
As well as the old town, the more modern side of Berat has it’s own charm. The university is one of the biggest buildings I think I’ve ever seen. And there are some beautiful churches and mosques around town.
Walking the Streets
In all the places we’d visited so far in Albania, we’ve watched the towns come to life at dusk as the locals came out to ‘promenade’ (or ‘xhiro’ in Albanian). Berat was no different and so again we joined the locals and strolled up and down the street watching people of all ages on their nightly stroll. Always in groups of two or three, and again a complete mix of people. Families, pensioners, teenagers – all walks of life were out enjoying this nightly tradition.
The owner of our hostel in Berat told me that the promenading had started under the Communist rule. As you weren’t allowed on the streets in groups – people would use the act of walking up and down the street to check in on each other, and try and pass messages without being spotted by the authorities. If you wanted to go on a date, you walked the streets, if you wanted to check in on your compatriots, again you walked the streets. And while they no longer need to hide their coming and goings, the tradition remains today.
When to visit Berat: We visited mid July 2014
How to get to Berat: We took a furgon from Himara to Lushnje. And at Lushnje changed to a furgon to Berat. The road from Lushnje to Berat was one of the worst roads we traveled on in Albania, which is saying something.
Food & Drink recommendations for Berat: Restaurant Mangalemi – One of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at during the entire trip, with the added bonus of Albanian prices. The food was amazing. We had perfectly cooked lamb, fish, tasty salads and vegetable dishes. Most of the menu is local specialties and they also have good local wine on the menu. Delicious and good value.
Where to stay in Berat: Berat Backpackers – Located across the river, which meant great views over to the castle and old town. Friendly owner and good atmosphere. The double rooms inside the main house are stunning, with views of the old town and castle.