In central Albania, nestled between mountains with the Osum river running through its historic centre, Berat is justifiably seen as one of the country’s most beautiful towns.
It is UNESCO listed, and the legend of its founding is a Tale of Two Brothers, Tomorr and Shpirag, who might have been giants, and were inseparable – until they became rivals in love.
They both fell for a fairy called Osum.
She loved them both and saw no problem with sharing the love. However, it turned out the brothers didn’t see sharing as caring. When Tomorr discovered he was being two timed, he demanded Shpirag stop seeing Osum, but Shpirag refused. Apparently, Tomorr’s scream of anguish could be heard in the heavens.
Then, like scrapping siblings Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they agreed to have a battle, but unfortunately, in this story, no big black crow swooped in to distract them from fratricide. Shpirag hurled stones at Tomorr, who retaliated by slashing his brother to pieces with his sword.
They both died and in her grief, Osum drowned in her own tears.
The conclusion to this happy little yarn is that the brothers turned into mountains which bear the imprint of the mode of their demise. Mount Tomorr is pitted with holes, while Mount Shpirag is notched with ridges. They are forever separated by the River Osum, created by the fairy’s tears.
At 2,416 metres (7,927 ft) Tomorr is the tallest and has his own national park. Baba Tomorr ‘Father Tomorr’ is also a sacred peak, believed to be the home of the gods. Mount Shpirag is the massif formerly known as Enver Hoxha Mountain. To celebrate a visit by the dictator, a volunteer army emblazoned his first name on it in characters eighty feet high. When Hoxha died, the letters were destroyed, although a local farmer recreated the memorial with a twist: he changed the word Enver to Never.
More conventional history cites the Illyrians, who knew it as Antipatrea, as the founders of Berat around 700 BC. Five hundred years later, the Romans stormed and burned the city. With the decline of the Roman Empire, it became a frontier town of the Byzantine empire. Then, in the fourteenth century, the Ottomans captured it and ruled for six centuries, until the collapse of their own empire in the early 20th century, just after WWI.
Today, Berat is considered the best-preserved Ottoman city in Eastern Europe, and its three old neighbourhoods are a clear testament to how different cultures and religions could coexist in harmony. To the north of the river Osum lise the Ottoman/Muslim quarter of Mangalem, with the Christian quarter of Gorica across the arched stone bridge to the south. It gave me a warm cosy glow to learn that during WWII, both the Muslim and Christian communities offered sanctuary in their homes to their Jewish neighbours. Apparently, there is still a star of David in the city’s principal mosque, which the Muslims opened up to allow the Jews to worship.
Like a rocky crown towering above Mangalem is Kalaja, the magnificent 13th-Century hilltop castle; the largest in Albania. The bluff, with its panoramic outlook over the entire valley, has been used as a fortress since 400 BC, although the buildings currently within the citadel date from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Encircled by walls and protected by twenty-four watch towers, it is a vast complex of cobbled streets, bazaars, museums, cafés, churches, two mosques, a water cistern, and houses, which are still occupied by locals. In its heyday, the population was mostly Christian and sufficient to support more than thirty churches, of which around ten survive. The two mosques were built for a Turkish garrison.
Berat is an Albanian derivation of the Old Bulgarian Bělgrad, meaning ‘White City’, and is sometimes called the City of 1000 Windows. As we strolled along the river Osum and looked up towards the Kalaja, it was easy to see how it earned these names. A boxy jumble of lime-rendered stone buildings cascade down the castle hill, from which symmetrical rows of dark rectangular windows stare down like empty eye sockets.
We twisted and snarled our way through Mangalem via a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets that clung to the hillside. The amount of building work we saw in both Mangalem and Gorica suggested that, similar to the Sassi di Matera, Berat was ‘up and coming’ and wouldn’t look the same for much longer. We called into Lili’s, a restaurant famous for home cooked delicacies, served in Lili’s garden. When he came to the door, with a warm smile, Lili told us he was full all weekend, which taught us an important lesson. If you want to eat at somewhere as popular as Lili’s, you need to book!
Close to the castle, we received a true demonstration of Albania’s long tradition of hospitality and kindness to visitors.
While I bagged a table with a beautiful view over the minarets and terracotta roofs of Mangalem, Mark went to get us a beer from one of many outdoor cafés that lined our route. There was no traffic on the ancient cobbled road, so our little pack of hounds was running free. As I positioned our chairs to make the best of the panorama, I didn’t notice that nosy Rosie followed Mark.
“What’s wrong?” I asked when I saw Mark’s face as he plonked down two beers in front of me.
“When I got to the café, the owner was eating his dinner at a table outside. I said we could wait until he’d finished, but he insisted on getting our drinks. When I turned around, I saw Rosie had jumped up on his chair and stuck her nose into his food. I couldn’t believe it. He was really kind about it…”
We were mortified, but didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which this was a demonstration of tolerance. Much later, we discovered that in the Muslim faith, dog’s noses, especially near food, are an absolute taboo.
With temperatures soaring to unseasonal mid-30°C (mid-80°s F), we’d waited until early evening to ascend to the castle. From the ramparts, the fairy-tale waters of the Osum looked like a river of gold as they trapped the glow of the setting sun.
Just before we entered the citadel, we had spotted a large-ish stray dog curled up on the grass. He was white, with black patches on his face and over one eye. We gave him a wide berth, and he ignored us initially, but as we ascended the castle walls, I saw him rise, stretch extravagantly, then trot along in our wake. Mark and I glanced at one another as we prickled on to high alert, but the pooch came over, nuzzled us to say, ‘Hi’, then quite obviously decided he was our protector.
Within the castle precincts, he kept a rabble of half a dozen yapping strays at bay, which made our tour with The Fab Four more relaxing than it might have been. Before we left, Mark returned the favour. Dogs seem to know when you’re helping them, and he lay down quietly in front of the red mosque while Mark carefully removed around twenty ticks, distended with blood, from around his head, ears, and chest.
He was such a sweetie, and I can’t deny there was a discussion, but bringing a stray back from outside the EU is not quite as straightforward as it was with the Transylvanian street dog we picked up in Romania.
Otherwise, I think we would have had have a Fifth Man!
Join us next time when we discover that from a high point, the only way to go is down – and I take the most important photograph I’ve ever taken in my life.