Getting to Berat from Tirana was not as hard as we feared. Our hostel in Tirana gave us a map with information about where the minibuses (furgons) for Berat left. There is no main bus station in Tirana. The bad part was that the day we left was miserable and rainy. It was quite funny, actually, we moved slowly in the morning and were planning to leave right at the checkout time of 11. We were a few minutes late, pulled our bags on, and started to head out the door. At that moment, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We decided to stay in the hostel for awhile to miss the downpour. We waited for almost 2 hours… then decided to set out anyway. After a 30 min walk in the rain, we were pretty grouchy. But luckily, the furgon to Berat was not hard to find. We did have to wait for awhile, as the furgons don’t really leave until they are full. But we made it to Berat by late afternoon. We were lucky to have GPS and the google map preloaded on our phones because, again, we didn’t get dropped off where we expected and had to find our way to our hostel. Luckily, by then, the rain had stopped!
Where We Stayed
Ana’s Rest House – We had spent a long time deciding whether to stay at the highly rated backpacker’s hostel or Ana’s, which was right across the street. We are happy with our decision. The guesthouse was quite new and comfortable. The bed was large and lovely. We also lucked out with the new worker there. He was a native of Berat and was starting a burgeoning tour business. He was around all the time and we really enjoyed a lot of discussions with him from everything from books, to American politics, to Albanian history.
What We Did
We stayed in Berat for 4 days but feel like we didn’t do a ton.
Ethnographic Museum – This was similar to something we did in Mostar, Bosnia. It was an old, Ottoman style Albanian house which had a small museum dedicated to arts in crafts in the area. The upstairs was a preserved living area from Ottoman times. It was fun to see the plush carpets and couches. It was also interesting to see and learn about the hidden rooms that women stayed in when guests were present that had small screens so they could watch what the men were doing. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the museum.
It was similar to some of what we saw in Mostar. The pictures below are from Mostar, not Berat.
Walking Tour – The worker at our hostel was starting a walking tour business. It was not free, but seemed like a reasonable price. It ended up being a tour with just us and one other couple from Belgium (who we really enjoyed meeting and chatting with). It was really nice to have such a small tour because it became very personalized. Both Della and the guy in the Belgium couple were teachers, so we asked if we could see a school. Our guide quickly took us in and chatted with the director and we were able to quickly visit a classroom. We chatted about a lot of different things, learned a lot about the history of Berat, and enjoyed walking through the medieval center, entering a mosque and a Sufi Tekke, and hiking up to the castle where people have been continuously living for thousands of years. Our guide then took us for traditional Turkish Coffee and to his favorite restaurant in Berat.
Some of the things that we were fascinated to learn were that Albania has a long history of religious tolerance and has really never had any violence related to religion at all. Our guide showed us many examples of people of different religions supporting the beliefs of others. Some examples were the Muslims of Berat sheltering hundreds of Jews during WWII and including Stars of David in their Mosques as a way to respect them. He also talked about how during communism, most churches were destroyed. Many mosques were left because, once the minaret was torn down, the building could be reused for something else. He talked about some of the communities of Muslims coming together after communism and helping raise money to assist the Christian or Orthodox communities in building new places of worship.
We also learned about how much Albanians love the USA. This was surprising given how many countries don’t love Americans. The Albanians love us! We had first heard about this in Tirana but it was confirmed here. Our guide explained that it stems from Woodrow Wilson making sure that Albania stayed a country back at the beginning of the 1900s and was confirmed with the US assistance in Kosovo and President George W. Bush’s visit earlier this century.
Visiting a School – Once our guide/hostel worker found out that Della was a teacher he expressed his deep interest in teaching as well. He also was adamant that Della have a chance to see Albanian schools in action. Not knowing what to expect, we said that might be cool. He called a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer from Maryland, who worked in an alternative high school in Berat. This opened the door for us to spend the morning with the Peach Corps volunteer discussing his job and then an hour in his classroom where he works with a partner Albanian teacher to teach English to the students, the equivalent of seniors in the US. It was a unique experience that we quite enjoyed. We felt quite bad thinking that the school went out of their way for us. We found out that even though they are about a month into their school year, they are still working on getting their schedule in order, due to shifting teachers, who may or may not work at other locations in the area at the same time. So, the schedule for any given day comes out the prior day and can shift at the last minute. For this reason, our Peace Corps volunteer explained, the class we saw was not completely typical. There were about 20-25 students crammed into a small room and the class was a bit shorter than expected. There were things that were different that Della sees at home and a lot of things the same. Mainly, the room was very small and there was no technology. We also were told that the books hadn’t come in yet, so only a few students had them. We found out later that the class was combined so was twice as big as normal. We were really fortunate to be able to experience this!
Where We Ate
Hotel Mangalemi – This very pleasant restaurant is attached to a Hotel. We liked it so much we went back twice. The second time we were able to sit on a lovely patio. The excitement of the evening came when a man and his two grandkids (??) came up to the patio where we were eating and proceeded to shoot off several fireworks, just for fun as far as we could tell.
We really enjoyed our time in Berat, in large part to the excellent connections we made. We were so fortunate to meet several other travelers while we there that we really enjoyed chatting and hanging out with. We were even luckier to be able to connect with our hostel worker, who was an Albanian native who loved to talk. We hung out with people every day and almost every evening, learning a lot, and enjoying the ambiance. We even were able to hangout with the travelers who were staying at the backpackers across the road as well. Berat was a charming town with some beautiful scenery, but what made us love it was the people we met.