Berat Obama

Trip Start Aug 25, 2012
Trip End Sep 11, 2012

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

6th September 2012

I was rudely awoken at 5am and 7am with some quite bad stomach issues (must have been last night's dinner!). After recovering slightly, Yurial from the hostel took us to the nearest bus depot so that we could catch a ride to the town of Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008.

The mini-bus we caught drove us along a new (+ flat) section of motorway towards the coastal port city of Durres, where we had to change over to a larger coach to take us onto Berat. Even with this inconvenience, we still made it to Berat by 12:30 on some rather rough and bumpy roads (most of the roads in Albania are in a very sorry state!).

The coach dropped us off on the edge of the Old Town, next to the River Osum. Our hostel, Berat Backpackers, was located on the opposite side of the river in the Gorica district, a cluster of 18th and 19th century Ottoman style houses. After a rather swift check in, we headed back across the river over a modern footbridge, past St. Thomas Church (one of many churches that we would find in Berat) and into the Old Town.

At the end of the footbridge, we were greeted by the formidable fortress that was Berat Castle. The castle was built on top of a rocky hill by Roman and Byzantine rulers, with the majority of it's current buildings dating back to the 13th century. Heading off up the hill towards the castle, we passed by the Bachelors Mosque, an elaborately painted mosque which was built for unmarried shop assistants and junior craftsmen in 1827.

The interior of the castle consisted of dozens of churches, mosques, other ruins and houses, with the majority of the houses still being lived in today. The whole castle was undergoing renovation works, a benefit of its World Heritage status! We spent a good few hours wondering around the narrow streets, exploring the old churches, mosques and other ruins and taking in the breathtaking views of the neighbouring valleys and mountains.

Some of the more impressive churches, mosques and other ruins included:
  • St. Theodore's Chapel, with wall paintings by the famous post-Medieval Albanian painter, Onufri;
  • Church of St. Mary of Blacherna, a 13th century chapel with 16th century wall paintings by Onufri's son, Nikollė Onufri;
  • St. Nicholas Church, with it's 13th century fresco;
  • The Chapel of the Holy Trinity, a 14th century church in the form of a Greek cross with Byzantine murals;
  • The White Mosque, now just the ruins of the minarets staircase;
  • The Inner Fortress, the highest point of the castle and home to the Tolkien-esque underground water reservoir;
  • The Red Mosque, the first mosque built in Berat in the 15th century; and,
  • St. Georges Church, previously used as a garrison but now abandoned.
After walking around the castle grounds for several hours, we waited around to go inside the Onufri museum, which was located inside the Dormition of St. Mary Cathedral. Built upon the foundations of a 10th century church in 1797, it survived the era of atheist communists and now displays dozens of spectacular religious artworks by Onufri.

Out of the castle and down the hill, we popped into another Ethnographic Museum, which again was housed within an 18th century Ottoman style house. The museum had numerous displays on Ottoman clothing and culture on show.

At the bottom of the hill, we headed towards the bus station, via the King's Mosque (one of the oldest mosques in Albania) and the Halveti Teqe, a beautifully decorated 18th century building which belonged to the Khalwati Order (a bektashi sect of Islam who were considered to be a brotherhood of Islamic mystics!). At the bus station, which was actually just a large square, we saw the Lead Mosque (built in 1555 with a lead coating inside the dome) and a massive Orthodox church.

Heading back past the Old Town towards our hostel, we took a slight detour up a narrow path towards St. Michael's Chapel, which was perched halfway up the hillside Berat Castle was on. The chapel turned out to be closed but we did get some good views of the Gorica Quarter from there.

Back down the hill and crossing over a stone bridge (apparently the first bridge built over the River Osum), we headed back to the hostel, where the staff had cooked spaghetti for everyone. Over dinner, we talked to an Australian chap who was riding a bike around Eastern Europe and also the hostel owner "Scotty". It turned out that Pete had already met him before, 5 years ago at the Polish/Ukrainian border, where two distinct incidents involving cigarette smuggling on a train and a military themed bar occurred (what a small world!). After having a few drinks, I called it a day as my stomach was still not settled but Pete stayed up to 1am to reminisce with Scotty about his early travelling days.
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