Saturday, October 12, 2013


Driving into Berat, Albania, was easy compared to the prior four hours of wandering around the rest of the country. Bob reminded me after my last post that we had printed out some driving directions for the drive from Ohrid to Berat that failed us because the directions tried to put us on new roads that had been under construction for a long time and certainly should have been done by now--but weren't, requiring detours down unknown roads.  Surprise, surprise.
Once in Berat, however, we were able to connect quickly with the tour guide our original tour guide had been kind enough to arrange for us, a very knowledgeable and interesting Albanian named Elton. He has degrees in archaeology and history, so he really knows his stuff. I felt almost guilty using him as a tour guide. This is a man who should be leading an excavation or restoration project, but unfortunately Albania does not have the money to pay him to do that.

We made our way from our parking spot up some very old stone pathways

towards the castle overlooking the city:

A local legend says that thousands of years ago, two giants both fell in love with the same girl. Since they could not both have her, they fought for her love at this site. Both were well-armed and valiant, but in the end they both died. The girl whose love they sought wept and wept until her tears filled up the Osum River, which runs through Berat. The girl herself turned into a large stone, and it is upon this stone that the Berat castle was built.

I love a good romance.

Some kind of a fortification has stood on this rocky prominence since at least 200 B.C. However, it has been attacked and wholly or partially destroyed multiple times during the last two thousand years, and most of the current structures date to the ubiquitous Byzantines of the 13th century. At that time, the extensive castle grounds housed most of the residents of the city and included as many as twenty churches.

Within the fortress walls, people still live and work in the very old buildings. Elton pointed out the unique construction of layers of stone separated by strips of wood that has allowed these buildings to settle without crumbling:

The living quarters (apartment buildings just doesn't seem like the correct way to label these structures) mostly date back to the 18th and 19th centuries and appeared to be fully inhabited:

Just in case you're wondering, that's Elton's arm on the left pointing out construction techniques and Bob's cute head on the right.
One of our first stops was at the Cathedral of the Assumption of St. Mary:
This church was rebuilt in 1797 over the ruins of another church, and at one time it served as the cathedral for the city.  The building currently houses the Onufri National Iconographic Museum. Unfortunately, no photos of the beautiful art collection inside were allowed, and I haven't been able to find many on the internet.  Luckily, we purchased a book with pictures of both the interior of the building and the extensive icon collection:
The cathedral/museum has quite a modern feel with its airy views and clean architectural lines:
It was a breathtaking surprise to round the corner and come upon this magnificent iconostasis, a 16.5 x 32-foot-long carved wooden panel covered in gold and medieval-looking paintings. While this may look like it was created in the Byzantine era, it was made in 1807 by a team of Albanian woodcarvers and painters. Icon painting is still a major art genre in the Balkans and other Orthodox regions today, and the old styles of carving and painting are still very much in vogue:

The other rooms of the museum contain hundreds of pieces of art from the last 800 years. Two of my favorites are this unusual nativity scene from the 16th century:

. . . and this wonderful rendition of John the Baptist, also from the 16th century:

Our next stop was St. Mary of Blachernae Church, named after a famous church of the day (13th century) in Constantinople:

The 16th century murals within are in very good shape considering there is little to no money for preservation work such as climate control or restoration:

How many more years until the frescoes flake completely off, or until this beautiful floor is destroyed?
I hope the Albanian government can find the resources to preserve this treasure:

Beautiful deposition scene with a tender Mary cradling Jesus' head:
Once more outside, we enjoyed the stunning view of the valley on the other side of the Osum River:

We made our way to the base of the wall near the church we had just been inside and ran into Constantine the Great, no doubt a fairly recent addition:
Another tour guide (the one we had booked and missed) wrote this description of Berat on his websiteBerat is the place of sun and flowers. The area enjoys 300 sunny days per year as a gift from God and 25 square metres of green spaces per person, gardens and parks, are maintained by its citizens, who are well known as lovers of flowers.

Next we visisted the Church of St. Constantine and Helen from the 17th century:
It has a wonderful floor. Although not the polished marble we have seen in many other churches, I love this rough stone. There is something about its coarseness that appropriately matches the stony ground upon which the church sits.
The frescoes have suffered more in this church than in the previous one but still convey deep religious devotion:
The kiss of Judas
Winding our way down a typical walkway. Elton told us that everyone has a garden of some sort, even if it is just a few grape vines:
These ruins reminded me of Brigadoon, and I wonder if some ancient inhabitants might someday come back to reclaim this spot:

The Holy Trinity Church has a hard-to-beat approach,

. . . but the interior shows even more wear than the previous church:
If I am remembering correctly, Elton told us there had been a leak and the moisture had ruined the frescoes.
So sad.  But as we walked away, I saw a sweet bit of graffiti:
Every now and then a jolt of reality pulled us out of the 13th and 14th centuries to the present day.
A large underground cistern sits at almost the exact center of the castle grounds. The entrances are on the side walls:
At one time this massive structure held enough clean water for the entire community. Unfortunately, it too has fallen into disrepair:

Albania suffered under 45 years of communist rule, from 1944 to 1992, and during this time religion was illegal, which may be part of the reason for the condition of the churches. However, Elton noted that during this time there were also many interfaith marriages, perhaps more than in any other Balkan country, and as a result, there is more religious tolerance in Albania than anywhere else in the Balkans.  (We did hear a similar story in Sarajevo.)

I think Albania's tumultuous history of conquering and being conquered also encouraged religious tolerance. One indicator of at least some level of diversity is that in addition to all those Orthodox churches, there is one lonely mosque on Berat's castle hill, circa 14th or 15th century. Its intact minaret gives the mosque its name: the Red Mosque.

I think it was in Albania that I first noticed all the clotheslines. In every city we visited from this point on I started seeing clothes of all types, sizes, and colors strung in very public places to catch the drying rays of the sun:

We just couldn't get enough of the view from the castle, whether it was through the deep walls:

. . . or from the parapets. We were especially intrigued by the building below that looks like the U.S. Capitol.  It is actually the brand new Berat University.

Unfortunately, we didn't find time to visit the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Demetrius:

This huge castle is the stuff that legends and fairy tales and haunting romances are made of. While one of the least preserved of the many castles and citadels we visited, it was still one of the most appealing and intriguing, in part because of its natural, overgrown state.

We were in Berat on May 31st, a Friday. As far as we could tell, we were the only tourists on the mountain. Our guide was given a ring of skeleton keys to unlock the doors of the various churches we visited.  This is a city that has few tourists but that is ripe for tourism. Perhaps the new roads, if they ever get finished, will bring more tourists from Macedonia and other nearby countries. If tourism dollars start dribbling in, perhaps more aggressive maintenance and restoration can occur. It's a delicate balance between spending and taking in that I hope the Albanian government will be able to reach.

Next: "Lower" Berat


  1. "Iconostatis"-that's a new word for me. Ok, after viewing these beautiful pictures, Albania is back on my list. Those last several pictures are surreally beautiful.

    1. Oops. That's because it should be "iconostasis," which is the icon-covered screen that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church. I fixed it. :)

    2. Well it's still a new word for me!!

  2. One of my favorite destinations of our trip. Dubrovnik and Kotor are great places, the reason that cruise ships and all their minions bombard them daily. But here I felt like we were really seeing something special, something that most travelers miss, something a little more adventurous, drive and all. Give me a few more days in Albania, to roam and soak in this very old country that sits exposed without guardrails, fences, long ticket lines and cruise ships.

  3. Ah, Bob! I'm headed to Dubrovnik soon, but I do know what you mean about exploring and learning about new places without mobs of tourists, kitchsy souvenirs and a canned experience.

    I loved the first church with all their icons. We just toured our local Greek Orthodox church and they also have a tradition of iconography. During the tour he mentioned that the church adds a few new icons every year, as they have the money, and that soon the whole ceiling would be covered. Somehow, this local church and the ones you saw, must be related. A lovely trip along with you on this post.