Home BalkansAlbaniaBerat Albanian UNESCO listed ancient towns of Gjirokastër and Berat

Albanian UNESCO listed ancient towns of Gjirokastër and Berat

29 October 2014
Gjirokaster and Berat
Despite its beautiful nature and its rich cultural heritage, Albania is not yet a touristic destination: usually, we were the only two foreigners enjoying unspoilt beaches, wild mountainous areas and lake shores. The only two times when we weren’t the only foreigners around –apart from Tirana, the capital town- were in the two UNESCO-listed ancient towns of Gjirokastër and Berat.

Both Gjirokastër and Berat are well-known for their old neighbourhoods preserving historic Ottoman-era architectures, a style originated in Turkey between the 14th and 15th centuries and arrived in Albania during the 18th and 19th centuries, but that’s not the only reason why I found them both very fascinating!

The ancient town of Gjirokastër

In Gjirokastër, you can spot tourists by the way they face Gjirokastër’s steep cobbled streets. I was not acting as a local and taking ant-steps, while locals do climb their streets as they were goats: more often than not old ladies overtook me, even when they were carrying their grocery bags. And kids ran so fast up and down the alleys that I almost wanted to scream at them “be careful“. Streets are narrow and curvy, the town itself keeps climbing -year after year- over the nearby mountain, and Gjirokaster’s urban plan looks like a maze.
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
On our first afternoon in Gjirokastër, we visited the castle: we walked among cannons and tanks at the National Museum of Armaments (also featuring a supposed American spy plane from the Cold War!) and laid down on the fortress’ surrounding wall, reading and waiting for the sunset.
castle Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
castle Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
From up there we could spot the nearby village of Lazarat, the European capital of marijuana, which we didn’t dare to visit because there were so many policemen at the interchange to Lazarat (with burp guns and all) and they were looking pretty intimidating…
From the castle you can also admire beautiful mountains -green, yellow and brown, with their peaks disappearing among the clouds- and the old town of Gjirokastër, with its roofs made of stone shining under the sunlight: a silver-wash effect mirrored in Gjirokastër’s own name, which in Greek means “silver fortress”.
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Back downtown we found ourselves at the right place at the right time: in the main mosque’s yard during the muezzin’s call to prayer. I always find his singing incredibly fascinating and, despite being not-religious, when I happen to hear it I always freeze myself and just stare at the closest minaret hanging off the muezzin’s call.
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans

The morning after I woke up very early, way before the opening hours of all souvenir shops downtown. I went out alone at the sunrise, wandering around old Gjirokastër and watching its bright white houses being progressively enlightened by the sunshine, which was rising from behind the old fortress we visited on the day before.

Old ladies with their heads traditionally covered appeared first in the streets, heading to the market or sweeping in front of their doors. Then, men gathered in front of the bars, sharing stories between cigarettes. I went to the bakery to grab a couple of byrek, which were coming out from the oven at that exact time.

“The early morning has gold in its mouth”
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
I went to the old bazaar’s neighbourhood, which I found more authentic than downtown Gjirokaster –or was it just the sunrise mood?
Then I entered a tunnel under the fortress and explored the neighbourhood at the other side of the valley admiring its decadent houses with wide porches.
The air was fresh, very regenerating; and I was feeling damn fine.
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans

DAY TRIP FROM GJIROKASTER: SYRI I KALTËR (THE BLUE EYE)

This beautiful mineral water spring is definitely on the beaten path, but we wanted to visit it anyway.
blue eye, syri i kalter, Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans

The colour of the water at its different depths is mesmerising, shading from emerald to dark blue; and even if the temperature is around 10°, the Blue Eye is so captivating that many people were daring a plunge.

blue eye, syri i kalter, Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
The spring is nestled in a beautiful park where you can enjoy a relaxing walk into the wood.
blue eye, syri i kalter, Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokastër || Where to stay: we slept at Hotel Kalemi, a guest house inside an old Ottoman building with traditional woodwork and carved ceilings. We got a very nice room, and I loved to spend the time writing on the big couch in the Ottoman hall. And I couldn’t help thinking how lovely this place can be in winter, with a warm heart!
hotel kalemi, Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
hotel kalemi, Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokastër || Where to eat: we especially loved Kujtimi Restaurant in downtown Gjirokastër where we ate mixed qofte (meatballs), fried peppers and grilled vegetables (did I mention how much I loved Albanian fresh vegetables?)
kujtimi restaurant food Gjirokaster, Albania, Balkans
Gjirokastër || What to read: “Chronicle in Stone” (1971): from the best-selling author Ismail Kadaré (born in Gjirokastër in 1936), the touching story of a kid living in Gjirokastër and experiencing the horrors of WW2 from a perspective that only a very imaginative child can have.

The ancient town of Berat

Old Berat is divided into two parts by the river Osumi, and on those two banks you find the two old neighbourhoods of Mangalem and Gorica, both inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list to protect their old Ottoman typical houses. These areas are characterised by picturesque cobbled alleys and houses with beautiful wooden structure, bright white walls and so many windows that Berat’s epithet became “city of a thousand windows”.
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Mangalem, Berat
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Gorica, Berat
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Osumi river, Berat
Berat, Albania, Balkans
On our first afternoon in Berat, we climbed the way up to the Medieval fortress (Kala neighbourhood), which surrounds 14 churches (or their ruins in some cases) and ancient stone houses still inhabited. (I even entered one of them as the owner kindly invited me for a glass of water, after hearing me gasping for breath all the way up to the castle –no need to say she was at least 30 years older than me and managed the climbing just fine…).
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
I sat down writing on the ruins of a tower overlooking the hills, the curvy silver river, the green valley, the blue light at dusk, the black shadows of the trees and the red roofs of the villages in sight.
Berat, Albania, Balkans

There is a big NEVER written on the Mount Shpirag on the other side of the valley, which is the anagram of the previous sign ENVER wanted by the dictator Enver Hoxha during the communist regime.

Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans

On the morning after, we visited Gorica neighbourhood, where the houses are smaller and more rustic, with vineyards crossing the street from one house to another. Gorica is less crowded than Mangalem, more authentic maybe, let’s say I liked it more.

Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Another area I liked a lot is the one from Sheshi Axhensia on, a nice walk off-the-beaten-path I had on my second morning in Berat. From the main square, I took a boulevard scattered by small grocery stores, tiny shops, butchers, dairy farmers, shops for gears and various working tools, shoe-shine men at the corners of the street, post offices and over-crowded buses.
While I was walking past a Mosque under construction I couldn’t help thinking that I finally got where Berat is not preserved, yet still constructed, imagined, transformed and re-shaped.
Forget the open-air museum feeling of Mangalem and Gorica: over here Berat is lively and bustling!
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat, Albania, Balkans
Berat || where to stay: also in Berat, we couldn’t resist to the charm of the Ottoman guest-houses, and so we spent the night at Kodiket Inn. We got a gorgeous room, with a fireplace, a couch and more windows than any room I have entered in all my life! The owners are very kind, and they even invited us for a hike at Mount Tomorr: sad we were leaving on the day after!
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Gjirokaster and Berat Gjirokaster and Berat
PEEK THROUGH | You find both Gjirokaster and Berat in my video “My 13-days road-trip across Southern Albania…in 130 seconds

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