Settled in the 6th century BC, the town of Berat is considered one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Albania. Berat has been witness to the coexistence of various religious and cultural communities over the centuries and is one of the few examples of the architectural character typical of the Ottoman period. Because of this Berat, like Gjirokastra, was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2008.
The town of Berat is found on the Osum River, which has cut a deep gorge in the limestone rock thus forming a natural fortress. This fortress of Berat, known as Kalaja to the locals, is a dominant feature overlooking the town. The origins of the castle go all the way back to the 4th century with a medieval fortress built in the 13th and 14th centuries with 24 towers and four entrance gateways.
Although we were dropped off at the bottom of the path up to the gate by our coach, the castle can also be reached by public bus from the town centre. Other options include walking up (but it is a hard walk up a steep hill) so most places I’ve read suggest taking the bus or taxi from town up to the castle and then walking back down. Do be very careful when walking along the cobble stone hills because they are very, very slippery – even in good shoes.
Ransacked by almost everyone throughout its history (Romans, Slavs and Luftwaffe) many of its treasures are now long gone, but the remnants of some of its architectural elements can still be found, such as court yards, a large cistern in the centre, and numerous stone houses that are still occupied to this day.
A guided tour is the best way to visit the castle to really help you learn about the unique architectures and its full history. We were fortunate that our guide for the whole tour, Ilia, was as knowledgeable about the castle as he was with so many other places we’d visited during the week, and he gave us a full tour.
We learned about the history with its predominantly Christian population which accounted for the twenty churches within the walls. There was, however, also a Turkish garrison on the site and they used the ‘Red Mosque’ , identified now but only its minaret that remains.
Also within the fortress we visited the Onufri National Museum, so named after the famous 16th century Albanian artist that painted many icons and other works of art. He was well known for introducing emotions into Byzantine art, despite strict codes against this. The museum is located inside the 18th century Orthodox St. Mary’s Church and features about 200 of his works of art.
Also located within the fortress walls is a little restaurant, also called Onufri, that is owned by a very enthusiastic and social man who serves up traditional (and delicious!) dishes. Our whole tour group ate lunch there together and were served dish after dish to try, along with the local firewater called ‘raki‘ which, by the looks of the one brave soul on our tour that tried it, is potent!
With full stomachs we explored the rest of the castle grounds and really just enjoyed the architecture and the views.
After a few hours visiting this site it was time to make our way back to the bus for some cool water, a little rest, and our drive to Durres where we would be spending our next night in Albania.
To read more about our adventures on our tour around Albania, please feel free to check out these posts:
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