Nobody has bothered to count them, because Berat , the so-called “city of a thousand windows”, or also nicknamed “white city” , stuns, making it impossible to count the houses that sit on the hillside.
Berat, the beautiful city of Albania
Berat is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Albania, a World Heritage Site since it was listed by Unesco in 2008. The old quarters of the old town: Mangalemi, Gorica and Kala (castle), are perfectly preserved examples of Ottoman and Byzantine architecture and urban planning.
HISTORY OF BERAT
Situated in the south-central part of Albania, the Osum River flows through the city, which lies in the Topallti Valley. Berat has been continuously inhabited since the late 6th century BC and is one of the few places in Europe that managed to maintain a balance of tolerance between different religious and ethnic communities: Christian, Sunni Islamic and Bektashi. It is perhaps this great achievement that allows Albania to boast a rich cultural heritage and richness embodied here in the architectural mix of its buildings.
Interior of Berat Castle
The earliest archaeological evidence shows the presence of the Chaonian tribes, namely the Dassaretae. The Illyrians re-founded the town of – one of the oldest in Albania – taking advantage of the strategic position of the mountain above the river. In the 2nd century BC, Rome’s expansionist policy, led by the legate Lucius Apustius, brought the city under its control, but not without stifling resistance with a policy of violent subjugation, according to the chronicler Titus Livius. Renamed Albanorum Oppidum (Albanian Fortress) it remained in Roman hands until the division of the Empire, when the Byzantines controlled it under the name of Pulcheriopolis , or “city of Pulheria”, sister of Emperor Theodosius. During this period its economic and cultural development was boosted, until it took the name of Belgrad , then the White City, with the Slavic invasions. For a couple of centuries it passed into the hands of the Byzantines, again into those of the Bulgarian Empire, and even had a presence of the House of Anjou of
One of the most important early medieval manuscripts in Europe are The Berat Codices . The “Purple Codex of Berat” (called Beratinus) contains extracts from the Gospels and is one of the oldest variants used for the text of the New Testament. It was written in the 6th century and was one of only five codices in existence worldwide. The Codex Aureus is the second most important codex from Berat, a ninth-century manuscript. The Berat codices are inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Ottoman-style houses in Berat
Despite the instability of this frontier area coveted by many, Berat’s greatest period of prosperity was in the Middle Ages, when it was one of the most prosperous cities in the Balkans, the capital of the principality under the rule of the noble Albanian Muzaka family. Within the castle walls there were as many as 30 churches, of which only a dozen remain today. In 1417, Berat came under Ottoman occupation, but it remained one of the largest cities in Albania.In Berat, the Bektashi current – a Sufi brotherhood originally from Turkey – was of great importance during the Ottoman occupation, being responsible for important religious monuments and a 15th-century mosque. In the first third of the 16th century, families arrived from Jewish communities expelled from the Catholic kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.
At the end of the 16th century Berat suffered a decline caused by continuous changes of control, but in the 17th century it became an important centre of craftsmanship specialising in wood carving. From the 1670s onwards, the city became a Muslim-majority town, and in the 18th century it became one of the most important Albanian centres during the Ottoman period.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Orthodox Christians in Berat were an important community that played an important role in the Albanian national revival. Christian merchants in Berat supported the Albanian movement, and Berat became an important base of support for the League of Prizren (today in Kosovo), the Albanian nationalist alliance of the late 19th century. The earthquake of 15 October 1851 caused extensive damage to the buildings, but the reconstruction brought homogeneity to the Ottoman style of the Mangalem quarter.
During World War II, the Italian and German occupation was particularly hard on Jews, who were hidden in the homes and basements of families from the Muslim and Christian communities. The Albanian partisans contributed to the defeat of the Axis, and Berat, like the rest of Albania – now an independent nation – entered the long communist period.
Engraving of Berat in 1813 by Charles Cockerelle
Surprisingly, Berat survived the Cultural Revolution of 1967, when Albania proclaimed itself the world’s first atheist nation, banning religions but at least preserving the city’s vast religious heritage. This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that in 1948 the state declared the whole of Berat a museum city.
It is also famous for the characteristic Albanian Tosk Polyphonic music, a type of isopolyphony in which three or four voices are accompanied by a choir. It is heard during celebrations but sometimes also plays in bars and restaurants in Berat.
WHAT TO SEE IN BERAT
The Ottoman houses are the most striking feature of Berat’s appearance and their photographs are its best ambassadors. However, they are not the only incentive to visit, as reminiscences of the Byzantine period fused with the Ottoman are all over the city. The neighbourhoods of Mangalem and Gorica are ideal for wandering around, alternating with a visit to the castle on top of the cliff, and of course a visit to the Onufri National Iconographic Museum. Churches and mosques alternate at every turn, hiding frescoes and Byzantine icons of great workmanship inside.
The group of Byzantine churches in Berat Castle is extraordinary. At the foot of the castle is the Byzantine Church of Shën Mëhilli (St. Michael), while inside the castle quarter are the 13th century Church of Shën Maria e Vllahernës (St. Mary Blachernae), the Church of Shën Triadha (Holy Trinity), the monumental Byzantine Cathedral of Shën Maria (St. Mary) and many other temples. You can also visit the Monastery of Shën Spiridhoni (St. Spyridon) in Gorica.
Shën Triadha (Holy Trinity) at Berat Castle
In 1417, the Ottomans occupied Berat and this conquest left its mark with the construction of Islamic monuments such as the Xhamia e Kuqe (Red Mosque) inside the castle, the Xhamia e Plumbit (1555), the Xhamia e Beqarëve (Celibataires Mosque) (1872) in the Mangalem quarter. Also the Xhamia Mbret (King’s Mosque of the 16th century), and Halveti Tekke in the medieval centre.
Xhamia e Beqareve Mosque
Mangalem and Gorica neighbourhoods
The Osum River separates the banks where the historic neighbourhoods of Mangalem and Gorica are located. The photos of Mangalem are taken from the second one, whose variegated houses face south, in the warmth of the mountainside.
What makes Berat so special are its traditional houses from the late 18th and 19th century. Like a white waterfall they cascade down the hillside on which the 13th century Berat Castle stands. These houses, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, were the property of merchants, from whose windows they could watch the arrival of goods across the river at all times. They generally consist of two storeys with a stone ground floor, a white-painted upper floor, and roofs covered with red ceramic tiles. They have large wooden windows that, due to the slope of the hill and the close construction of the houses, appear to be stacked one on top of the other.
Typical Berat houses
In the Mangalem quarter, the King’s Mosque is the oldest Islamic temple in Berat. It was built in the 15th century by Sultan Bayazid II. The unmarried Mosque dates the building back to 1827.
Near the “King’s Mosque” is the Halveti Tekke (Albanian: Teqeja e Helvetive), a unique monument built in 1782 by Ahmet Kurt Pasha, a member of the Sufi Khalwati order. The Halveti Tekke is believed to have originated in the 15th century and was remodelled in the late 18th century. It consists of the square prayer hall, a small room for religious services and an elegant portico in front of the entrance to the prayer hall. On the east side of the prayer hall is the mihrab. The interior walls are decorated with eight frescoes depicting landscapes, dwellings, and Muslim religious buildings. The walls beneath the frescoes are covered with holes that improve the acoustics in the prayer hall. The ceiling of the prayer hall is made of wood and ornamented with paintings. The Baroque influence, adapted to Islamic art, is noticeable. The portico of the tekke has five stone columns taken from the ancient Greek city of Apollonia. The function of the tekke was to serve as a meeting place for members of the Sufi brotherhood.
Near Sheshi Teodor Muzaka Square, the Orthodox Cathedral of St Dimiti and the Mosque compete – or perhaps flirt – with each other as the most beautiful in Berat.
The Gorica Bridge , which connects Mangalem and Gorica, was originally built of wood in 1780 and rebuilt with stone in the 1920s. The seven-arched bridge is 129 metres long and according to local legend, the original bridge contained a dungeon in which a girl was imprisoned until she starved to death to appease the spirits responsible for the safety of the bridge.
This is the only neighbourhood in Berat that lies on the right bank of the Osumi River. Surrounded by houses is St. Theodori Orthodox Church, built in the mid-19th century and decorated with frescoes.Below Gorica Hill are the ruins of another small castle. The dervish traveller Evliya Çelebi mentions in his account that it was inhabited by Greeks and Albanians at the end of the 17th century.
View of the Gorica quarter from Berat Castle
Following the bank of the Gorica quarter, we reach the Velabishti Bridge, built by the founder of the Patriarchate of Berat, Ismail Velabishti in 1750. From here we have another view of the castle rock.
Berat Castle – Kala Quarter
Rising above the labyrinthine streets of Gorica, the hill on which the castle sits offers excellent views of Berat as a reward for those who brave the steep climb. A good tip for finding the way up is to find the small alleyway next to the Hotel Muzaka.
Entrance to Berat Castle
The castle has remained faithful to its original Illyrian layout, dating from the 4th century BC. Excavations of the subsoil have identified the contributions of its inhabitants throughout history: Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Kala, the interior of Berat Castle, was an intramural quarter, which, together with Mangalem and Gorica, forms the triad of the city’s historic quarters. The immense proportions of the castle are understandable when one considers the 20 or so churches that once stood inside it. The population of the fortress was Christian, with some 20 churches (mostly built during the 13th century) and only one mosque, for the use of the Muslim garrison (of which only a few ruins and the base of the minaret survive). The main entrance on the north side is defended by a fortified courtyard and there are three smaller entrances. The Berat Fortress, although considerably deteriorated, is still a must-see in Berat.
The natural defence of the hill, almost two hundred metres high, with a steep cliff in the south, steep slopes in the east and west and a winding access in the north, explains the great strength of the castle. One of the entrances still bears the date of fortification works undertaken by the despot of Epirus, Michael Komnenos. Doukas, a cousin of the Byzantine emperor, in 1204, and finally completed in the period 1813-1821 by the Ottoman Ali Pasha.
Today it is still the third historic quarter of Berat, home to families, souvenir stalls and restaurants. The castle is open 24 hours a day, making it a great place to watch the sunrise or sunset. Between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. visitors must pay a very moderately priced entrance fee, but outside these hours it is free.
National Ethnographic Museum
Berat is home to the National Ethnographic Museum of Albania , opened in 1979. The city’s long history, its great artistic and cultural heritage and its symbiosis of cultures make it a worthy site for this museum dedicated to Albanian people and traditions. It is housed in a former merchant’s house, and allows the visitor to contextualise, through a variety of everyday objects, the other monuments that can be discovered during a visit to Berat.
Onufri National Iconographic Museum
The Onufri Museum focuses on the iconographic work of the 16th-century painter. Many of the churches in Berat were decorated by his school. Onufri was the most important painter of the 16th century in Albania. Not only was he a master of fresco and iconographic techniques, but he was the first to introduce a new colour in painting, bright red, which the French called “Onufri’s Red”.In addition, Onufri introduced a certain realism and a degree of individuality in facial expression.Onufri’s style of painting was inherited by his son, Nikolla (Nicholas), although he was not as successful as his father. In the Onufri Museum, inside the cathedral of Shën Mëria, you can find works by Onufri, his son, Nikolla and other painters. There are also a large number of icons and some fine examples of religious silverwork (sacred vessels, icon covers and Gospel book covers.
From the town hall, the steps lead back to the river, where the University of Berat is located, inside a beautiful building with neoclassical reminiscences. Along the Bulevardi Republika where the university is located, the cafés are full of people, sipping a glass of verë or an ice cream, and proving why it has the title of the liveliest street in Berat.
In the evening we can stroll along Bulvardi Republica, the street where most of Berat’s bars and cafés are concentrated, and take the opportunity to shop for handicrafts.
GUIDED TOURS IN BERAT
HOW TO GET TO BERAT
Berat is an important city, in the city and the department live about 120 thousand people, so there are different transport options to get there.
Arriving by plane
The nearest airport is in Tirana, but unfortunately there is no direct bus to Berat from the airport. Renting a car would be the easiest option, but you can also go from the airport to Tirana and then take a bus to Berat from Tirana.
Arriving by bus
There is no train connection to Berat, but there are bus services from all major cities in Albania. Berat station ( Terminali i Autobusave ) is about two km from the centre, a 40-minute walk, but is connected by city buses from the bus station to the city.
The bus trip from Saranda to Berat is quite long (5-6 hours), as it passes through Gjirokaster, but can be done in a day, while there are several daily connections from Tirana, and the journey takes just under 2 hours. Departures from the Albanian capital to Berat are every half hour and the departure station is South (Terminali i Autobuzave te Jugt).
Minivans are another means of transport throughout Albania. They leave when the vans to Berat are full. Slightly more expensive than the bus but faster.
Berat’s information point is on Sheshi Teodor Muzaka Square. There you can get a map of sights and activities to see and do in the city.
Map with places to visit in Berat
HOTELS AND ACCOMMODATION IN BERAT
TOURS AND GUIDED TOURS IN BERAT
WHERE TO EAT IN BERAT – RESTAURANTS
Restaurant recommendations include Lili’s home cooking, or Wildor’s traditional dishes, but there are many good places to eat in town, some hidden away with beautiful patios or romantic terraces overlooking the river like Antigoni, with the lights of the “city of a thousand windows” in the Managlem neighbourhood holding out against the impending night. Berat is one of the best places to try truly homemade food but it is always best to book in advance.
EXCURSIONS FROM BERAT
Berat, capital of the county, can be used to visit other places in south-central Albania such as the Tomorri Mountain National Park, the Bogove Waterfalls, the village of Bogove, the Osumi Canyons, or to go to the outskirts of the county to visit wineries such as Nurellari – an emblematic place to taste Albanian wines -, the village of Roshnik, and Cobo, whose production focuses on organic wines.