Friday, 28 July 2017

Towns of Note: Berat, Albania

Text by Morelle Smith, Photographs Flickr/Creative Commons   
Morelle Smith takes a lonely, somewhat bizarre, but beautiful journey through the ancient town. Startled by a knife dropped from an unknown hand, and shown around by strange and slightly obtrusive locals, she walks cobbled streets and wild paths to look for bygone opulence, museums and orthodox churches.

Tomori Mengjes. The name of this hotel in Berat derives from the Tomor Mountains which surround the town, and the Albanian for ‘morning’ (mengjes). The picturesque name of ‘morning mountains’ however, sits a little oddly with its outer appearance. The building is a rectangular concrete block, its outer walls painted orangey-pink. As I approach it, its utilitarian shape and its lurid exterior arouse my curiosity.

It could be a converted barracks or prison from the outside. But inside, beyond the reception area, I find a spacious (and empty) restaurant, with what looks like a chandelier on the ceiling. It gives me a feeling that it is imitating luxury and opulence, but is sincere in its desire to copy.

The young man at the reception desk has a warmth and eagerness to help that are completely disarming. He gives me a key to a room on the first floor and helps me carry my bags up the wide staircase.

The corridor is long, long, with identical doors on either side; the whole corridor is painted white (only slightly creamy-coloured with age, enough to be attractive, rather than seedy) and there's a strip of red Albanian carpet, with the traditional patterned borders at the side. The paintwork on the doors - the one leading off the corridor, the bathroom door and the one out to the balcony, are marked with the traces of many fingers. The door handles and wooden surrounds are worn and chipped, but in an endearing kind of way. It feels more welcoming than the sterile interiors of most western hotels.

I love the room immediately - its spaciousness, its balcony and view, its privacy. The driver of the bus I’d taken from Saranda to Berat had shown me another hotel, the one he stayed at, which was half the price of this one, but the room was small, on a level with the dusty street. There was no sense of privacy, and I immediately felt claustrophobic. I also didn't like the manageress’s attitude, with her abrupt demand to see my passport, before I'd even seen the room. But this room is perfect, it is welcoming, giving me security and privacy and peace.

I have a shower and sit out on my balcony, with its view of loose-limbed pines, the lead-roofed mosque, the flat area of the town beside the river, the Gorica bridge, and the hill opposite, with the narrow winding little streets, cobbled and twisting, among the old Ottoman houses.


I walk up the old road to the citadel. It’s made of polished cobbles, which look like marble. These are mainly a delicate shade of yellow, shot through with grey and terracotta veins, slippery, difficult to walk on and very beautiful. It is a steep climb and takes half an hour to reach the top. Once there, the feeling is of going way back in time. There are no cars here to break the intensity of the silence. There are only the calls of roosters which have a strangely melancholy sound, in this torpid silence of mid-afternoon. You enter this citadel quarter by going through a huge arched entrance, where two men are sitting, selling tickets to go into the old town. All the houses are of the old Ottoman design, as they are in Gjirokastër, but here, they are all pressed together, with narrow little passageways between them, barely wide enough to let two people pass. The first floors of the buildings lean out into these narrow defiles so that people in houses on each side of the street could lean out of their windows and shake hands.

On the other side of the citadel town, overlooking the river and the Gorica quarter of Berat, there is a charming little Orthodox church perched on the hillside. The sign says its dedicated to saint Tridune and dates from the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Its red dome seems to curl up slightly at the edges like a pixie hat.

On the way back down the yellow marble road, I go to look for the Ethnography Museum. I’d gone into a shop and a man there addressed me in English. When I asked him about the museum, he spoke to a child who ran off, and soon returned with a woman who turned out to be the museum’s caretaker, who opened it up for me and gave me a guided tour in Italian. The house is in excellent condition, and the main sitting room, covered in a beautiful rug of red and black, is also a huge balcony, with the typical Ottoman roof extending far out over it, so it has a shelter from the sun, but the benefit of cool air from outside. Around the sides are carved and varnished wooden banisters. There is also a kitchen area, dining room and guest room. The women’s room is on a higher level, separate and screened off, with a wooden meshwork that they could look through, but which kept them invisible. The women did not sit down and eat with the men although they were allowed to come into the dining room, to serve the food to the men!

I am making my way back down to the street, while the woman locks up. I am going down the outside stairs, a simpler way, as she’d pointed out. Something falls, just behind me. I look round and see a kitchen knife, of the kind used for cutting vegetables or meat. It doesn't look like one of the antique knives that had graced the kitchen of the museum, but looks very modern and out of place in that setting. I look up but could see no one on the balcony above which seems to be the only place that it could have fallen from. It is an odd incident, slightly unnerving, a feeling that is to follow me throughout the time I spend in Berat, as if its atmosphere holds something clenched, potentially explosive.

In the evening, when the yellow streetlights have pricked tiny pools of light into the immense darkness, I go out again and ask the young man at the reception where I can find an internet café. He gives me directions, and he asks me where I'm from and why I've come here. I tell him that I used to live in Tirana and I love this country and wanted to see it again. He tells me his name is Patrick, and he was born on St Patrick's Day.

When I ask if he has travelled much himself, he replies with an outburst of frustration against 'Europe'. A Schengen visa costs 2,000 euros, and other ones are 5,000-6,000, which is impossible for most people. His emotional tirade continues- I am not an animal, why should I be treated as an animal - I can speak three foreign languages - English, Italian and a little French - I just want to be treated as a human being, You can come to my country - no-one hurts you or treats you badly, no-one grabs your bag - and he touches my bag, to make it clear what he means - no-one assaults you, you can come and go freely and people treat you well. But I cannot leave this country. What sort of freedom is it, what sort of democracy, when I cannot travel? Europe doesn't want Albanians - in the UK, you might get a UK passport after ten years - France, forget it, Germany, Switzerland, forget it. But if I have thousands of dollars, then it’s not a problem for me to go to the US.

I don't know what reply to give him. What can I say about democracy, when my own country wages wars in Iraq and Afghanistan supposedly in the name of ‘democracy’?

* * *
In the morning I sit out on the terrazzo of the Tomori hotel which is occupied mainly by old gentlemen, some of them with hats, many grey or white-haired. The waiters wear black trousers and waistcoat and white shirts. The restaurant interior is quite opulent, with green-painted walls, and the roof made of a kind of corrugated plastic, which lets light through. This pale green corrugated roof is immediately below my balcony. There are three floors to the Tomori hotel, with eighteen rooms on each floor. I think I'm the only resident.

The terrazzo is delightful, with marbled flooring, and a planted border behind, with orange flowers and various other green plants. Behind that is the park, with palm trees and those drifting-armed firs seen in Kruje and of course, Skanderbeg Square in Tirana. There's faint cloud in the sky, diffusing the sun's light and warmth with haze. It is cooler here than in Saranda, maybe because of the haze or perhaps because it’s inland and at a slightly higher elevation.

* * *
I climb back up the yellow-cobbled polished road leading to the Fortress. I'm hoping to find the Musée Onufri. I explore more of the little streets, going up steep and narrow white-stone cobbled passageways. Eventually I ask a little boy who's standing in a doorway. He takes me up and down various narrow passageways and there it is. Because he's sweet and asks for nothing I give him 40 lek. Faleminderit (thank you) he says, and later, calls out mirufpashim (goodbye).

But the museum is closed. I'm exploring some other streets when two men approach me excitedly. One points to himself - Vasili, he says, then - chiesa, chiesa, and he beckons me to follow them. Word's got around, clearly, there's a woman who wants to see churches. The first one they show me - kisha e shen Maria Claherna - is exquisitely beautiful and covered with frescos, although some of them have been half defaced. Vasili explains excitedly that this damage was done in the communist times. He shakes his head and makes a face - very bad, he says. The roof and the walls have wonderful images of saints and one in particular is of a reclining Saint Mary. The stonework of the floor is decorated with a pattern of stars. They then show me through an archway, with a modern wooden stair banister, going down to a lower floor, like a huge crypt, only it’s dusty and empty, and has an eerily ancient and abandoned feel to it. Originale, originale, they point down, excitedly. So it’s clear that this Byzantine church was built on the foundations of one that was even older.

The next church we visit is dedicated to Shen Kollit (St. Nicolas). Almost all of the frescos are defaced, but there are clear signs of reconstruction work being done. After we emerge from this church the second man disappears and Vasili then takes me, by a lower route, to the lovely little red brickwork church I saw the day before, with its red pixie cap dome. He insists on taking a photo of me, with the church in the background. We then head back up to the old fortress. He wants me to stand right at the edge, to see the 'panorama'. I have ungenerous thoughts of him pushing me over the edge so I decline. We go up and down steep steps and he holds out his hand, insistent on helping me. He shows me another part of the fortress, which used to be the dungeon. 'Esclaves, esclaves' says Vasili urgently, putting his wrists together, as if bound. I peer through an archway. The floor is underwater, covered with a thick and stagnant viscous looking greenish liquid. There's an atmosphere of pure horror.

There have been a few rumbles of thunder growling in the distance and, as Vasili leads me towards another 'panorama', I see a flicker of lightning. From this viewpoint we are looking out over the river, the carved Ottoman stonework of the Gorica bridge and on the river’s further bank, the Gorica quarter, with its warren of narrow streets tucked behind the walls of old houses. Vasili points out the church of San Spiridone, and suggests he could take me there to see it. But though I’m deeply grateful for having seen the churches, his enthusiastic whirlwind tour has left me a little stunned and overwhelmed and I decline.

Vasili then tells me he is forty years old, although he looks older, and he has a teenage daughter. It’s very difficult, he says, because at that age she needs many clothes. He wanted to go to Greece to find work there but the visa is 400 euros (a much smaller sum than I’ve heard from others) and just to find the money for that is very difficult. Of course I give him some lek, but I was going to do that anyway. He says 'grazie', and walks back towards the entrance to the fortress area with me, and then indicates with his hand, the way to go and says rruga, rruga (the road) to make sure I know which way to go.

There is a cool wind blowing, as I come down the yellow stone road. The sky further up the valley has turned dark, there are big thunderclouds blocking the sun and it looks as if rain is on the way.

When I get back to the hotel, Patrick's anger seems to have been forgotten and he's returned to being the sweet and helpful person who helped me with my bags, when I first arrived here. He showed me the book he used, to learn English - a rather out of date looking book, well-worn.

“You,” he says, “you are not prejudiced against us. And because you have lived here, you are a part of our country.”

Would we be so generous with citizenship, I wondered, could we so easily say, my country is yours as well?

Read more of Morelle Smith’s stories on Rivertrain, her blog about writing and travelling

Read more about Albania on
Albania: Monastery at Mesopotam, Photographed by Massimiliano Fusari
Gjirokastër: Albania’s Town of the Stones
Albania: Four Reasons to Visit Europe's Least Known Country
The Blue Eye Water Spring in Southern Albania Beckons with Coolness
Byllis, Albania: Ancient City in the Sky




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