The Town of a Thousand Windows
Coming to our highlight city in Albania, the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed city of Berat. A trip to the past to the Ottoman era with such incredible collection of buildings from the era, unchanged and beautifully restored to become what is a rare example in the whole of Europe of such architecture and style almost intact since its construction and in such an extent. The “Town of a thousand windows”; “one above another windows” or “the city of two thousand steps” are some of the nicknames, and they make a perfect judgement on their meaning! Although not sure if that is 1000 windows (or if more), the view from the Osum River towards the city will definitely leave you amazed at that countless amount of windows packed one on top of the other as the buildings raise one behind the other on the hill, and as such comes handy the other of the nicknames… 2000 steps. Be prepared and with comfortable shoes, especially if you’re planning on climbing to the top of the citadel on foot.
Without any doubt this is the most beautiful city in Albania, and also one of the most exceptional from the many I’ve been across 30 countries alone in this year, and unique so far when considering the 83 countries been until today.
A day is well enough to enjoy every sight without any rush, however, we came here by car so this saved us lots of time than if having to depend on public transport (buses). Also gave us full flexibility on when to leave back to Tirana as we were in full charge of our time. Having a rental car saved us also from a lenghly walk to the top of the Citadel, and believe me, it is a long and tiring way up.
Navigating through the city is self explained and its difficult to get lost even though every street is as tiny and bendy as a big labyrinth, but the overall size is quite small so no need to worry.
Something different as opposite to Tirana, was the lack of restaurants in general, and the few there, were quite a rip-off, hefty prices and small quantities. As we knew about the Albanian cuisine, prices, quantities and quality before coming to Berat, we knew it was not the best place to have a good lunch, unless willing to pay that much, what we usually call a tourist trap. We managed something to keep us going, and have a proper big dinner when back in Tirana in the evening. Don’t fall fool, try to avoid anything around Mangalem and Kala, head towards the new city instead where there is a bigger and much decent choice.
For more information about Berat check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Albania’s currency is the LEK. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Berat
- Kala Referred to the Castle area on top of the hill, it is more than just a castle and citadel, but the original settlement of the city within the walls. It’s the oldest part of the city, reachable only by a path on the northern edge. Dating back to the 4th century BC, the current look is mostly from the 13th century, and quite well preserved.
-Church of St. Theodore (Shen Todher) The first of the many churches in this part of the city, located near the main entrance gate. It has some paintings by Onufri.
-Dormition Cathedral Along the main road inside the castle. Converted into the Onufri Iconography Museum depicting works of the most important post-medieval Albanian painter (16th century), Onufri.
-Church St Constantine & St Elena Located towards the western walls.
-Church of St. Mary of Blachernae From the 13th century, contains excellent 16th century mural paintings by Nikollë Onufri, son of Onufri. It’s just meters south from the previous church.
-Church of St. Michael (Shën Mehill) Built in the 13th century, located next door to the previous church.
-Church of the Holy Trinity From the 14th century, in a nice little tree-planted square at the southern edge of the castle walls, next to the citadel walls. It contains Byzantine murals.
-The Citadel In an area within the castle towards the southwest, it lies in ruins as this part was never rebuilt through the centuries. Here you will find the remains of the ancient White and Red mosques, one at the north the other at the south.
-Southern Tower This is the southernmost point in the castle you can reach and from where you can overview the entire city down below, the new town at one side, and the old Mangalem and Gorica districts with the river in between.
- Ethnographic Museum On the way up heading towards the castle, (or down towards Mangalem), along the main road, housed in a beautiful traditional Ottoman house it features local furniture and house utensils.
- Mangalem North of the river, is the traditionally Muslim area, home to the famous Ottoman buildings with the hundreds of windows. The best view of the entire area is from the Pedestrian Bridge on the east and the Gorica Bridge on the west.
-The King’s Mosque (Xhamia e Mbretit) Is the oldest in the city, built during the reign of Bayazid II (1481–1512).
-Halveti Tekke Hall (Teqe e Helvetive) Originally built in the 15th century, rebuilt in 1782 by Ahmet Kurt Pasha is a marvellous architectural work with its payer hall, portico and mihrab decorated in stone stalactites. Across the square from the King’s Mosque.
-Bachelor’s Mosque Overlooking the river and the Pedestrian Bridge was built in 1828 and retains some of its original paintings inside.
-Streets around It is worth to walk through the small narrow streets of this district to admire the unique architecture.
-St. Michael’s Church Although not belonging to the Mangalem district, it is located at the western end, set above the hill halfway to the castle. Of Byzantine style it’s a great sight due to its location literally perched on the hill.
- Gorica At the south across the opposite bank of the river from Mangalem, is the traditionally Orthodox Christian area. Once again as for the neighbour at the other side of the river, the best way to visit is to walk through the narrow alleys.
-Pedestrian Bridge This hanging bridge is the new symbol in the city, and the best vantage point of view toward the Mangalem district. Located on the easternmost side.
-Orthodox Church (Shën Thomai) Right across the Pedestrian Bridge, the first sight in the district of Gorica on its eastern edge.
-Kisha e Shën Spiridhonit The largest church, in the centre of this district.
-Gorica Bridge Originally built from wood in 1780, rebuilt with stone in the 1920s is still a symbol of the city. From the bridge you get great views of the beautiful Ottoman buildings of Mangalem and Gorica, and river in between.
- Teodor Muzaka and Central Square East of Mangalem district, you can find this “new” square with some of the remaining sights in the city.
-Lead Mosque (Xhamia e Plumbit) Built in 1555 is one of the oldest still standing in Berat. Its name comes from the lead coating of its sphere-shaped domes.
-Orthodox Cathedral The last of the sights, although of very recent construction.
As majority of tourists arrive in Tirana, Mother Theresa International Airport is 17 kilometres north of the city, and connected to the central downtown square Skanderbeg by hourly buses in both directions for LEK250. While flying is actually quite costly (at least the route from/to London), there is a good bunch of overland bus and rail routes to all the neighbouring countries. Distances are not too big however including the border crossing process it can be a lengthily journey.
The nearest border crossing to Tirana is that to Montenegro, and actually you can now fly to Podgorica on Ryanair’s new route from London (as was our case), and get on a bus to Tirana, or rent a car and cross the border. It is allowed to enter Albania with a rental car from Montenegro as long as you return it back in Montenegro of course. A small extra fee is required to be paid at the rental car office. This is how we planned our trip to Albania and experienced no problems at all.
From Tirana to Berat it’s 125 km distance, and you can get on a bus (there are no trains), or you get yourself on a rental car which will be by all means the fastest and easiest way.
Within the city there are only urban and suburban buses, however the city centre and around the old town districts distances are short, with majority of the streets very narrow and therefore pedestrian friendly, and the only access to the castle being through the path at the northern side where you can park your car at the entrance and continue on foot as there is no road for vehicles inside at the top.
Although we did not stay overnight in Berat as we came only for a day tour, our base was in Tirana where we spent 2 nights. There is a good selection of hotels of any kind from the top names to the modest ones and all in between. Of course this is not a big choice but good enough with all the big hotel names in the city. The downside unfortunately was the overall fares per night, surprisingly very high even though we came in absolute off-season!. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Broadway Hotel, at the southwest of the city, still within the main urban core and walking distance to Mother Theresa Square and the major thoroughfare where all the sights are. Definitely a great location! And also a great choice in every sense. The staff was impressively friendly and professional, and very knowledgeable in everything in the local area, speaking fluently lots of languages. The room was very large, neat and clean with a comfortable bed. All was nicely maintained and care in all details. The breakfast although simple was good enough to start the day, Apart from what they have on option at first view, they do also fresh omelettes, fried and boiled eggs to order, they will come and ask you what you wish, the same with the great coffee they serve. Albania I must say was great with excellent coffee everywhere! I will not hesitate in highly recommend you this hotel, and will for sure consider it again.