Driving into the world heritage city of Berat during our Albania road trip, the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was midday and there were not very many people outside. Except for a few kids playing in the fountains and some old men playing chess under the trees, the city seemed deserted.
To be fair, we found out later that it was unseasonably warm and most people were staying inside out of the heat. However, we were happy to find some of these sites practically to ourselves.
We headed straight to our hotel even though we were hungry and wanted lunch. And we were glad we did, because we were able to order dinner and have that all set for us when we knew we’d be exhausted from touring in the heat. Then we headed out to eat and enjoy the Ottoman city. We ate at a café along the main road which has recently been converted into a pedestrian zone.
The bars and restaurants were lined up along a nice wide walking area and a green strip. There were several places to choose from and we had no data to help with the decision so we chose the one that looked like it had good shade and would be the coolest. The menu was very international and had many items we associated with Turkey. We came to expect this more and more as we traveled around Albania.
After lunch, we just couldn’t wait any longer to head up to the fortress or kala. At the very top of the city, along a deeply rutted, cobbled road we climbed in our little rental car. At the top it was shaded by pines, but we decided to drive right through the gate to park where we paid our fee and entered the fortress. The rock walls were thick and we followed them around to the left of the gate.
Again we saw very few tourists. Staying near the wall, and not entering the area with houses and shops, the path widened and we came to the Saint Triad Church. Here there were a couple of women selling cold water. I couldn’t believe that they were selling it for the exact same price as the shop we’d stopped in earlier, and it was a good thing they were there. In fact, we were probably pretty near heat exhaustion by this point!
We then went inward, climbing some steps to another small shaded courtyard where we rested and talked to some other folks who were road-tripping the country. Later on, more towards the center, we entered the Church of Saint Mary of Vllaherna. Here we gladly gawked at the icons and the altar for a few moments in the dark, cool interior.
From there, we wandered and wandered, amazed at how large the kala was. We found narrow alleyways, plenty of stone stairs and steps, rustic wooden trim, and the natural shade of grapes everywhere. While there was the obligatory gauntlet of vendors at the beginning, no one bothered us or even asked us to buy anything. It seemed like they just invited us with their eyes,which is much easier to ignore.
We came to a corner of the castle that had a huge staircase going down and we did stop and buy some fresh strawberries from a girl who said she’d grown them in her garden. She was doing a lively business, and it was hard to pass by. We munched on berries as we climbed down to a viewpoint overlooking the Osumi river and the beautiful white-washed houses that Berat is famous for. At this point, it seemed like a fitting end to our kala explorations, but it was still quite a long walk (about 25 minutes) back to the parking lot.
The National Dish of Albania
Even though I’m not a huge pre-planner, one thing I’ve started doing is minimal research, a quick list of foods to make sure I try. Before we flew to Tirana, I noted that I’d read a couple of times that the national dish of Albania was Tavë Kosi, a baked lamb dish. Of course this was on my list to try, but I was worried that I wouldn’t get a chance to try it, because it is a dish that needs to be in the oven altogether for a couple of hours.
In the small city of Berat, we stayed at an amazing, small privately-owned hotel. The proprietor, Zamira, had just renovated the entire place and while doing so put in a restaurant. The restaurant is so new that there weren’t any decorations up on the wall yet. Upon check in she asked us if we were planning on having dinner there that night. Instead of just saying yes or no, I wanted to see the menu first.
It wasn’t a large menu, but it did highlight some local dishes. I didn’t see the Tavë Kosi on it, so I just asked if I could have it. She thought about it, looked at the clock, and said yes she would make it for me. I was thrilled, because even though I’m sure it is offered on some restaurant menus, sometimes things that take a long time to make are hard to find.
We settled on 7:30 for dinner which gave Zamira, who did all the cooking herself, time to go out and buy the ingredients as well as make the meal. Meanwhile, we explored the beautiful town which is a subject of another post.
Returning for dinner, we sat out on the balcony and enjoyed the fantastic view while the sun was setting. The waiter had been with us when we were talking to Zamira and knew that we had pre-ordered the Tave, plus had mentioned two other local dishes. He told us right away that they were pretty much ready for us and what else would we want? We ordered a salad and some wine and left it at that.
A few minutes later our entire meal was served just as a Spanish couple was sitting down to order. They had failed to look at the menu when they had checked in and certainly didn’t think to pre-order. They, too, were interested in the local dishes, but as it turned out Jim and I had gotten the last of them, except for one dish. We felt a little sheepish that we were indulging in such a feast of local specialties, fresh and cooked to order just for us, but it just goes to show you that a little pre-knowledge as well as a little cheekiness can be a tasty advantage while traveling!
Berat is a beautiful city on the UNESCO World Heritage List, surrounded by olive groves, and we enjoyed the time we spent there. If you are in the vicinity, you really should plan on spending a couple of days. You’ll love it!
How to get there: We rented a car and followed our GPS from Tirana. If you are using a GPS be aware the road system is maybe too well covered in most systems. Our unit took us along paths that were literally just that, cow paths. Berat is also serviced by local transportation, and you can easily take a three hour bus out of Tirana for only a few Euros.
Castle: Parking was free. Entry to the castle grounds was 200 LEK (about US$1.60)
Church of Saint Mary of Vllaherna: 200 LEK
Where to Stay
The Hotel Rezidenca Desaret was one of the best value small, family run hotel we’ve stayed at in some time. For almost US$40 we had an extremely comfortable, oversized double bed in a large room with a balcony and views of the old city. The owners were very friendly and even cooked items not on the menu for us. It was a real treat. This was a non-sponsored stay, just well worth recommending!
Rruga Dr.Lluka, 5001 Berat, Albania
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
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