The Museum City of Berat

It is called The City of a Thousand Windows and at night, when the rare and beautiful Ottoman architecture is lit up, you can see why. We arrived on Saturday evening, as locals were promenading and the lights were coming on. Overhead, fireworks began to pop in the air - celebrations of a wedding. It was a veritable light show - the loud, bright burst of present-day dancing above spotlit history. And it was a perfect first impression of Berat.
Berat was one of two cities in Albania to be named a "Museum City" under Enver Hoxha, giving it protection from the Communist urban planning that steam-rolled most of the country's old world charm. There was something about the title that made me think I would find a town behind glass, someplace undeniably picturesque but a little untouchable. I couldn't have been more wrong. In the murky Osum river, deceptively lit blue the night before, a man and his son threw large nets out in the water. They wore matching white tees and bermuda shorts and caught only sticks.
On the historic stone Gorica Bridge, this young boy tried his own luck with a fishing rod. Cars are no longer allowed to drive over the well preserved bridge, but motorcycles weave through the blockades throughout the day. We walk across this each morning, as we're staying in the section of town called Gorica, which is a cluster of steep, ankle-twisting cobblestones walkways and a cluster of Ottoman-style houses that stand out from the pine backdrop like a page in a pop-up book. This morning, we moved aside for a wide SUV and then again for a man pulling a wooden-saddled mule. The roosters next door have been our alarm clock.
It's a city of 60,000 or so people and in about 72 hours, we feel like we've talked to about half of them. That's an exaggeration, but it's impossible to walk down the street and not enter a conversation. The owner of this clothing store wanted to show me the wedding dresses. She has family in Michigan and Florida, she told us. Just a few feet away, a trio of men were loading a spearfishing gun into the trunk of a car. One of the men was "an engineer for the protected houses," and had done a lot of work in Gorica. Today, though, he was just going to the coast for some fishing.
We were told that Berat has a 60% unemployment rate. That's about four times the national average. I can't help but think that tourism would generate jobs in this Museum City like crazy if this were any number of other European countries. While it's true that we've encountered more Brits and Americans here, about a dozen, than we did in the whole of Tirana, such a uniquely beautiful spot would be swarming with foreigners in - say - Czech Republic or Croatia.
But this is Albania - and while Lonely Planet may have named it #1 on its Top Ten Countries to Visit in 2011, they still haven't put out a dedicated book on the country. (We love you LP, but Bradt's got the goods on this one). The three restaurants we've gone to in Berat so far have all had the same Albanian-English menu, separated into grilled items, pastas and pizzas. Frogs legs, prawns, lamb, turkey, veal - they've all regretfully informed us that today there is only beef and pizza. But as is the case throughout the country, there are also vegetables galore. How can you complain with a lunch like this?
Berat's future may be uncertain, the employment has driven most of the young and aspiring out of town, but it's history is long and strong. In the ancient world of Albanian folklore, it's the land of two giants who became mountains. The woman they fought over's tears became the river. More factually proven inhabitants are: Greek, Macedonian, Byzantine, Roman, Slavic and Bulgarian. It was one of the most important cities in the Ottoman Empire between the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1944, the Anti-Fascist National Liberation Committee met here in Berat and Hoxha's party, the Provisional Government of Albania, beginning his 40 year rein as Albanian's leader. Monuments in the new town celebrate this fact and commemorate those who died in the struggle.
But it's the Ottoman houses that have left the most indelible mark on this 4,000 year old city. And they are simply beautiful. Their white wash-ed walls and terra cotta tiled roofs, large windows and vertical piling make them a sight to be seen. Architecture like this isn't preserved so well anywhere else in the world. But the life that springs up in, on, around and under them make Berat even more worth visiting. If this town is a Museum, you can see the reflection of a at least a thousand people in the glass around the display.
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