So today we were going to spend the morning at Berat Castle, which sits high up on a hillside overlooking the little UNESCO heritage town of the same name as well as the Osumi River. The castle sits on a former Illyrian fortress dating to the 4th century B.C. The present castle was built in the 13th century by the Byzantines and was not only a line of defense, but also included homes, shops and most importantly lots and lots of churches. In fact, at one time, there were 20 churches from the 13th century occupying the site. And when the Ottomans took over, two mosques were added within the castle walls. Today, only 8 churches remain while there are still a number of residents living within the castle walls.
Anyway, Gasie and I drove to just outside the castle walls and then walked up the cobblestone road to the entrance gates. Above one of the gates was the initials MK, which apparently stood for Michael II who refortified the castle in the 13th century.
Once we entered the gates, it was clear this was going to be quite a hike this morning. It appeared that everything was up little cobblestone alleyways that made up the inner sanctum of the fortress. After walking past residents sitting outside little white washed homes for their morning café, we turned up a small alley and made our first stop at the Church of Dormition of St. Mary built in 1797 and the only church that is presently accessible to the public. Now while I was permitted to take a picture of the exterior, which included a lovely fresco over the doorway, pictures inside were strictly prohibited.
And while the old church was lovely with brilliant frescos covering the walls and lots of old icons, the real attraction inside the church was the museum that adjoined the church featuring works of 16th century icon painter Onufri.
After Gasie explained a bit about the history of the church and the significance of some of the icons in the church (icons are paintings found in Orthodox churches that tell a story about some religious event in history), I was free to wander about the little museum. There were icons in the museum from over 100 churches in Albania with some as old as the 14th century, but one icon in particular caught my eye. It was a painting of people being baptized with two minarets in the background. There were so many interpretations I could have made about this, but chose to simply admire and move on.
After the church, we walked down another little alley and down a little hill to a very strange communist statute that was simply a big, giant head. And as if this weren’t enough for one picture, just as I was snapping away, a resident walked up the cobblestones leading a mule. The whole thing was just weird.
Anyway, we wandered down to the bottom of the hill and then took a left towards one of the most iconic churches in Albania: the 13th century Church of St. Trinity. Not only were the views to the little town below spectacular from the church, but the church had been rebuilt to its former glory. Unfortunately, the interior of the church was still in ruins (thanks to the communists) so the church remains closed.
We hiked back up the hill past the gorgeous little church and through a courtyard past the remains of the “White Mosque” and the oldest ruins at the site dating to the Roman period. We then turned to the right and entered the “fortress within a fortress” or what was actually the original ruins of the fortress. Inside we saw the cistern that had provided water to the fortress. And no, there was no underground spring, but rather, the locals collected rain water and stored the water in the well.
We then moved out of the inner fortress and walked past the remains of the Red Mosque. We finally reached the end of the fortress and the magnificent lookout point where we could see across the Osumi River and to the signature white houses with matching square windows and red tiled roofs that made Berat so famous.
After the requisite pictures, we walked down a very narrow stone staircase and turned left to walk back to the entrance of the castle. A few minutes later we were in the car driving down to the hill and to the Hotel Mangalemi, my lovely little 18th century restored building.
At this point, I had the afternoon free so I wandered around the little town and back and forth along a massive pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants. However, it soon became apparent that there wasn’t much else to do in the little one trick town. I decided to just head back to my hotel and enjoy my lovely little deck and a glass of wine in the muted afternoon sunshine. I only had one day left in Albania so I might as well enjoy a little free time.