Berat— Albania’s oldest city —has 1,000 identically-shaped windows in its Ottoman-era old town and a Byzantine city on top of one of its mountains. The Osum River runs through the town with buildings hugging the slopes.  A green ridged range covers its north side. South of the valley are snow-capped peaks.  It is gorgeous.

If you are coming from Tirana, as we were, it is a vacation from air pollution, and a chance to commune with nature. Getting off the Van from the Capital City, there were other differences I appreciated. These have to do with infrastructure, not geography.   1. A real bus station—not just a chaotic parking lot, like in Tirana. Here in this small southern Albania town, the station has a bathroom, café, room for Muslim prayer, and outdoor and indoor seating, in case you have a wait. 2. Wide, solid sidewalks made the 1.6-mile walk into the old town a pleasure. 3. In the old town there were plenty of places to walk separated from cars. On our walk, we passed a food coop, In the new and old sections of town, monuments celebrating anti-fascists still had red stars on them. Berat is one of those towns with an equal number of mosques and churches and the mountains ring with occasional calls to prayer and church bells. 

I saw this graffiti: 1997, Berat. Fuck Police.

Like big cities, Berat was a place of chaos and revolt in 1997 after a rush to privatize and invest led to a ponzi crash. Sixty percent of the population lost everything they owned.  Like the rest of Albania, there are no places other than occasional graffiti, where an outsider gets a hint of the meaning of this recent history.  

We were here for a “vacation.”  We did not cook, shop for food, or do laundry. We hiked mountains, breathed fresh air, and ate sumptuous restaurant meals.  We stayed two nights, giving us a full day to explore. Our hotel was $65 for two nights and included breakfast.  On our full day, we hiked the mountain twice. The first time we hiked up to the chapel which, from the bottom looks like it is perched precariously on the ridge. Inside was a man who invited us in to look at the ancient frescos. When he heard we were from the US he began to rattle off US names: “Joan Biden, Hillary Clinton, Mike Tyson, Donald Trump”. After the last name, he hooked his thumbs together and said. “Trump, Putin” as though each man were a digit conjoined.On our way up to the chapel we were on a tiny pedestrian mountain path big enough for one person, strewn with early spring mountain blossoms. A small black dog led us part of the way.

Our second climb to the castle was a happy mistake. We were trying to go to the ethnographic museum halfway up on the road. A man with an “Illyrian Guard” cap told us it was closed. A that juncture, road signs beckoned us to keep climbing to the castle at the top. There were a few pedestrian staircases and passageways, but mostly we had to share the narrow mountain road with the cars and vans. At the top, in addition to people, most of whom rode up to see the wonders,  there were also dogs sleeping in the road, a herd of sheep, a donkey carrying a load, and a horse awaiting a paid rider. There was another chapel with even more ancient frescos. As we viewed the Castle and town ruins dating back to 700 BCE, David said “This is every bit as amazing as Machu Pichu.” It told him people usually say that the other way around–the Incan ruins in Peru are every bit as amazing as anything in Europe–but his point was that we knew about Machu Picchu (and Dave has been there). We did not know about this ancient city on top of a mountain in Albania. For me, the real draw was the view of the river valley with the village below and neighboring peaks on either side. We had bought fruit at the bottom— those Albanian deep purple, almost black grapes—and I’m here to tell you they are the perfect food to eat at the top of a mountain you have climbed. On the way down we stopped for tea at a place with seats that perch you on the edge of the world.

We treated ourselves in Berat. The first night we had dinner at a place I chose because of its view, and indeed, watching the lights go on in hundreds of identical windows as the sun set over the river would have been worth the $27 price, but we had a feast as well. The second night we were in a cellar by ourselves with a prix fix no-choice menu. We stuffed ourselves with all kinds of things our diets usually preclude: meats, cheeses, breaded vegetables, everything delicious and enough to loosen belts.

The next morning, before we left, we visited the Jewish Museum. While Albania prides itself (rightly) in being the country that saved the most Jews—citizens and refugees— during the Nazi era, Berat prides itself in being the city in Albania that saved the most people.  Berat Muslims and Christians, Communist and non-Communist partisans, worked as a community,  to provide sanctuary for 60 Jewish families. A Mosque erected a Star of David and provided space for Jews to worship. Now a woman—not Jewish herself but married to a Jew who recently passed away—keeps the memory of this virtuous past alive in a one-room museum.

I knew the story before we went. We almost skipped the museum after seeing what we could learn online. We were concerned about time. I am so glad we went. The material online did not stir me. Being in the museum and talking to the caretaker, unleashed something. I swallowed sobs but was unable to control the flow of tears.  I was thinking about our time.  Who is that kind of hero today? Refusniks in Israel, who choose five-year jail sentences rather than participate in a genocide of Palestinians are one example. May there be a museum, someday in Jerusalem, documenting their heroism. Albanians explain this history by referencing “besa” the Albanian idea that one must care for the stranger, even at the expense of your own. One might also call it radical hospitality. 

We had a sweet, relaxed, emotionally fulfilling, and mentally stimulating time in Berat.  From the outside, we admired its 1,000 windows, and glimpsed eras ancient and recent. We left dazzled and full of questions about the view from the inside.   The city opened windows in my brain and heart, too, though I’m still not able to fully understand their significance.


The ride home, especially the transition from the regional bus to the city bus, was exhausting. Strangely, it felt so good to be home, to our fifth-floor apartment in Tirana.