Berat and excursions

Monday 4 to Wednesday 6 March

Our next destination was Berat and we drove via the National Parc of Divjaka where we were given a warm introduction by a guide, at the visitor’s centre. This is a new facility built with assistance from America. It included a tower to look over the inlets which make up the Karavasta Lagoon. The lagoon is a Ramsar protected wetland covered by an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the Convention was signed in 1971.

We walked to a small inlet called Godulla e Pishes (Fish Lagoon). It has a dilapidated but photographic pier. There are a lot of birds in the park area and it is a favourite for migratory birds. The endangered Dalmatian or Curly Pelican is a symbol of the park and a couple of them have taken up residence in the visitor’s centre.

We drove into the park and discovered a holiday village that was in-waiting for summer. The beach was disappointing – flat, grey, damp sand and the rubbish we have come to expect. However, the beach is renowned for its iodine rich sand, said to be a curative for some skeletal system diseases.

During the communist era the swamps in the Divjaka region were drained, creating some of the most productive agricultural land in the country, with some crops harvested up to four times a year.

Berat is advertised in tourist brochures as the town of 1000 windows. The hotel here was the best we had stayed in to date and the restaurant served a great meal. Unfortunately, we ate alone, once again we are travelling out of season.

Our roadbook had suggested a long drive of sightseeing the next day.

Our first stop was the Monastery of Ardenica near Fier, which our travel guide suggested would ‘lead us to a moment of total meditation’. These are strong words, but we were met by a lone man who took our entrance money and ensured we didn’t disobey the ‘no photo’ order.

The monastery sits close to Via Egnatia, the ancient Roman road that connected Western Europe to Constantinople in the east. It is dedicated to the Nativity of the All-Holy Theotokos. Theotokos is a title of Mary, mother of Jesus, used especially in Eastern Christianity.

It is a beautiful stone building with an imposing white painted tower. The church has a beautiful colonnade at its entrance and there is a magnificent pulpit inside it.  I have stolen some photos from the internet to show it off.

The inside of the church is completely covered with frescoes, the work of the brothers Konstandin and Athanas Zografi and completed in 1744AD. Richly decorated icons from the same period were by Konstadin Shpataraku.

During its communist period Albania was totally secular. Today they claim that 70% of the population is Muslim, but there is very little evidence of any adherence to religion and very few houses of any religious nature are visible. This is a marked change from Kosovo where minarets dominated the cityscape wherever we went.

This monastery was first established in 282AD. It hosted Skanderbeg’s wedding to his lifelong wife Donika in April of 1451 at the Chapel of St. Trinity Church, the monastery’s very first church, built in the 10th century. It is the last monastery in Albania to be used for its religious functions and it is the only one which continues to accommodate monks.

Our next stop was the ancient city of Apollonia. It is a large site with ruins that are 2000 years old, to some more recent Byzantine churches. The Roman emperor Gaius Octavius studied here.

The most stunning feature is the Bouleuterion (Monument of the Agonothets) which housed the City Council. It was built around the 2nd century AD when the city expanded and added a new library.

Information generally was very good. The site was excavated in the 1930s by French archaeologist Leon Rey and restoration work was undertaken by the Institute of Tiranë between 1970 and 1980.

Nearby was the Oden which could seat 650 in a covered theatre. It is believed public meetings were also held there.

An older Portico with seventeen niches dates back to the 3rd century BC. It had a dual purpose of retaining the slopes behind as well as providing communication between monuments to the south and the agora (market) to the north.

We looked for the amphitheatre, but its materials seemed to have been reused for later constructions such as St Mary’s Monastery which had been built on the site.

The monastery was now a museum with its nymphaeum (monumental fountains) and ancient statues of Illyrian times and mosaics.

We returned to Berat to see the 1000 windows around dusk, and regretted missing the town, which has a UNESCO rating. We can slow down or speed up our travels, but there will always be places we regret we didn’t spend enough time. Berat certainly was one.

Nonetheless we enjoyed another great meal at our hotel and shared stories with a couple from the USA who were also lonely guests. As it turned out they had fled Iran when the Shah lost his role but had visited since then. It was nice to share stories of our travels there.

Next morning we drove up the steep hill to the Berat Fortress. This is one of the rare fortresses where a village still exists inside it.

When we were purchasing tickets, Jurgen Pushi approached us and asked if he could video us with our impressions of the Berat Fortress as tourists. He came up to the top of the fortress with us and gave us some history of the city. He did tell us the village of 1000 windows is not accurate, even though you find that description in most tourist information sheets. The description is derived from the houses that are stacked one on top of the other on the very steep rocks above the river. He told us it was a misinterpretation of the Albanian description of the city of vertical windows.

We recorded our story, our impression of Berat, for him under the shade of a tree. For the first time we were feeling a little warm. Jurgen was thrilled with our interview, he thought it was very professional. But it wasn’t the first interview we had done as impressed tourists – there was one in Havana in Cuba, about introducing fast food, one in Yazd in Iran about our impressions of the Azadari festival and another in Tena in Ecuador where some students asked us to wish the city Happy New Year.

Jurgen had a lot to say about the situation in Albania. He told us that the American families, the Rothchilds and the Rockafellows are holding the country to ransom. They are taking all the money.

Petrol is the highest price in all of Europe. The government won’t say why. They just say if you can’t afford petrol then walk. On his €350 salary per month, three trips to Tiranë uses all his spare cash.