“Which station for the bus to Berat?” Jonas and I asked the bus driver. Using a map to try and communicate with 4 others who didn’t speak English, we all laughed until we had finally been pointed in the correct direction and had successfully gotten off at the right stop. Tirana didn’t have a central bus station; in fact when we arrived, we had been dropped off in front of a hotel near the center of town. The pickup and dropoff spots were totally different.
We walked to where we saw buses lined up and found one with a Berat sign in the front. For the first time we experienced the aspect of transportation that everyone raves about in Albania, the lack of bus schedules. Buses leave when they’re full or when they want, they don’t leave according to a schedule. If you have somewhere to be at a certain time and don’t have your own car, don’t count on being on time, it’s as simple as that.
Luckily for Jonas and I, we were the second and third ones to board the bus to Berat (not lucky at all, that meant we had to wait for it to fill). An hour and a half later, we finally departed and I counted about 12 heads filling only a handful of the dozens of available seats. Slowly but surely more people piled on as we stopped at other stations along the way. When we eventually arrived in Berat, we were much later than anticipated.
The bus dropped us off on the outskirts of town along with a few other backpackers and locals. We had to wait about ten minutes in the scorching heat before catching another bus to the old town. When we felt that our stop was getting closer, we asked the driver where to get off and he told us the right stop. We followed a map that the guesthouse we had booked sent us and within minutes recognized the front of our place from the photos of it uploaded online. Just the word guesthouse scared us from our most recent experience in Ulcinj, but we decided to try again. (We also didn’t have much of a choice since we had only booked the night before.)
We found the owner, he gave us our keys, then we unlocked our room and were in disbelief to find a fully functioning air conditioning unit. I had gotten sick with a cold and cough and the last thing I was in the mood for was talking with strangers. Jonas was the opposite and immediately began talking with the Italian couple who were staying in the room next to us. The combination of the heat, being sick, and spending the past few hours sitting on a hot bus made taking a shower the only thing on my mind. I jumped in while Jonas continued to chat with the couple next door.
This guesthouse was already luxury compared to the other. In the bathroom, I was taken aback to find a shower head without a shower stall. There was just a drain in the floor next to a toilet and a sink. The shower worked well, it just was odd to leave the bathroom with an extremely wet floor waiting to dry.
After my shower, Jonas and I wanted to go out as soon as possible to hike up to Berat’s castle since we had arrived in town later than expected. Berat was one of Albania’s 3 UNESCO preserved heritage sites and we had been looking forward to seeing it in person ever since first hearing about the country. Berat’s historical significance was due to it being one of the world’s best preserved Ottoman Empire towns.
Albania was the country that we had both done the most research on before coming to Europe since it was such a mystery to us. In high school and even in Jonas’ university, neither of us had been exposed to anything regarding the country. The reason why Albania was in our itinerary was because curiosity got the best of us after continuously seeing it on the top of lists of European countries. It was also on the way to Corfu where we had planned on meeting our parents, and we were intrigued by the limited information we could find online about it. As soon as we began our research, Albania changed from a country that we knew nothing about to one that we needed to experience. In the post previous I had written that the country was isolated from the rest of the world only 20 years ago. To us, seeing how a country so recently under communist rule was changing with the rest of the world was beyond fascinating. Yomadic’s posts about Albania being such an up-and-coming destination, yet so untouched and still too off the beaten path for tourists definitely helped sway our easily-persuaded minds too.
Now that you know the background on how we ended up in Albania and more specifically in Berat, back to the story. When we were packing our day packs after my shower, we noticed that the balcony doors didn’t lock properly and spent the next 10 minutes searching for an object to jam the doors shut. Jonas found a metal bar hidden in the kitchen and it fit perfectly. Knowing our belongings were safely locked away, we began our journey to the castle which towered above us as well as the surrounding city. In the extreme heat and humidity we took our time hiking up the steep incline leading to the castle. I continued to sniffle but was determined to make it to the top. The views even just walking up were stunning and it only made us more excited for the end view.
We finally reached the castle’s gates, paid 100 lek to get in (the equivalent of 80 cents at the time), and then were surrounded by hundreds of hand-knit goods blowing in the wind. The atmosphere was already incredible and the annoyances of my sickness disappeared and were replaced by awe from the surrounding environment. Within these castle walls weren’t ruins, but an entire town still fully functioning. It was as if Jonas and I entered a fairytale, one of the ones you read about as a little kid but when you grow older you realize they don’t actually exist anymore. Well, they do.
We were originally going to grab dinner before exploring within the castle walls, but it was too late for that, we were captivated.
We spent the next two hours walking through the narrow city streets, stumbling across doorways with peeling paint, grass growing through ancient cobblestone walkways, handmade artwork flowing in the wind, mosques hidden beneath hills, stunning views tucked away behind decaying stone, intimate, family-run restaurants and shops passed down from one generation to the next.
Continuing to walk, songs of Cosmo Sheldrake’s looped in my head. I could see his inspiration for filming his music video for “Solar” in the Balkans. Watch below and tell me you don’t hear or feel a sense of fairytale in his track.
We reached the opposite side of town, found a bench, and gazed out on the city, still trying to process that this was real life.
On our walk back to the other side, we passed a courtyard overlooking the other side of Berat. We watched below us as several locals played football (American soccer) on the thousands-of-years old stone.
As the sun began to cast a brilliant golden hue over the town, we took a seat at one of Berat’s top rated restaurants that I had discovered through TripAdvisor (Europe’s Yelp equivalent). 4 tables sat outside with an excellent view of the castle’s front gate and more.
We chose a table and browsed through the menu. There were only small traditional Albanian dishes (called meze plates, similar to in Greece and Turkey) to share so we chose 3 – stuffed peppers, pumpkin burek, and chicken and rice. To drink, we ordered a liter of homemade wine. As soon as everything came out, we knew we had made the right decision.
Each dish not only looked delicious but they tasted it too. It was easily some of the best food we had tried traveling in the past 2 months. The chef/waiter/owner couldn’t speak fluent English but we were fairly sure he understood just how much we enjoyed the meal especially since he brought us complimentary fresh watermelon for dessert.
We tipped well (only necessary if you feel like you had good service or food) and while leaving I asked if it was ok to refill my water in the bathroom. He shook his head no, walked away, then seconds later returned with a cold bottle of water, which he refused to have us pay for.
Fully satisfied from dinner, we browsed through a nearby vendor selling handmade clothing. We were determined to find something for our mom since we’d be seeing her in a week and we knew she’d really appreciate a gift. One handknit white jacket stood out the most. Not only did it look like something she’d wear but we also watched the woman finish knitting it. The woman spoke no English so we had to communicate with her through her daughter. She was asking a price higher than we could do since we had just treated ourselves to a nice dinner. The restaurant owner who’s wife was friends with the knitter came over and tried to help us make a deal. Even after a few minutes of prices slightly lowering, we couldn’t get her to come down to our desired price. We told her it was for our mom and the next few minutes Jonas, the knitter, her daughter, the restaurant owner, and I all said “for mom” repeatedly in our respective accents until she finally allowed us to have it for our desired price. She had a wide smile packaging it in a bag, mumbling again that it was “for mom.” Jonas and I were happy too, so much so that while watching the sunset from the pinnacle of the fort, we discovered a heart shaped rock and shot a photo of the jacket with it to send to our mom.
After the sun had set, Jonas and I made our way back down the mountain. We stopped by our guesthouse to cool down, charge our phones, then shortly after head into town. We walked besides, over, and under the Gorica Bridge, which was fully illuminated at night.
The backdrop of the town’s iconic architecture was fully illuminated behind another bridge.
We sat and looked out on the town for some time before heading back to our guesthouse and falling asleep in the comfort of air conditioning; no complaining necessary!