Berati is one of the oldest cities in Albania and one of the most attractive; the view of its white houses climbing up the hillside to the citadel is one of the best-known images of Albania. The citadel walls themselves encircle the whole of the top of the hill. Within them are eight medieval churches, one of which houses an outstanding collection of icons painted by the 16th-century master Onufri.
What to see and do in Berati
The citadel of Berati was first fortified in the 4th century BC by the Illyrian Parthini. At the same time, they also fortified the hill opposite, on the left bank of the River Osumi; the remains of the massive walls there, known as Gorica Castle, can still be seen among the trees. The pair of fortresses ensured that the whole river valley could be controlled and defended.
To get to Berati Castle on foot, the easiest way is to walk up Rruga Mihal Komneno (also known as Rruga e Kalasë, ‘Castle Street’) – the steep cobbled road through Mangalemi, one of the city’s protected ‘museum zones’.
Of the 42 churches that the castle walls once contained, only eight remain and, with one exception, they were locked up after the atheism campaign of the late 1960s. The exception was the Church of the Dormition of St Mary (Kisha e Fjetjes së Shënmërisë), a three-naved basilica that was built in 1797 on the foundations of a 10th-century church and which now houses the Onufri Museum, signposted from the inner entrance to the castle. The museum was redesigned in 2016 and the exhibition now covers two floors. Over a hundred beautiful icons, from churches in Berati and the surrounding area, are displayed. The earliest are from the 14th century, before icon-painters began to put their names to their work (this is because their purpose was to glorify God, not themselves).
Just off Rruga Mihal Komneno is a beautiful traditional house, built in the 17th or 18th century and converted in 1978 into Berati’s Ethnographic Museum. A visit to the museum is an excellent opportunity to learn about Berati architecture and find out more about people’s way of life until only a few decades ago. It was a family home until 1978; as in many other cases, the family was moved into an apartment to make way for the museum. They were eventually compensated for the loss of their property, but not until 2001.
Like traditional houses elsewhere in Albania, the ground floor was not used for living in, but for storage and household activities such as pressing olive oil or distilling raki. Part of the ground floor of this house has been converted to represent an Ottoman bazaar, with examples of traditional costumes and displays about the crafts traditionally practised in Berati, such as metalwork, felt-making and embroidery.
At the time of writing, this is the only museum in Albania that presents the lives and work of the country’s Jews. The museum was founded by the late Simon Vrusho, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Berati, and is run by his widow. It moved to its current premises in 2019; it takes about half an hour to look around and provides a good introduction to this little-known aspect of Albania’s history.
The exhibition consists mostly of nicely presented photos of Berati Jewish families and of local people who helped Jewish refugees during World War II. It also features the Kabbalist Sabbatai Zevi (1626–76), who came to Berati from Vlora, following his expulsion from Constantinople. Sabbatai was born in Smyrna (now in Turkey) and claimed to be the Jewish Messiah; his followers were known as Dönme (‘converts’). In Berati, he is believed to have been buried in Bilça, just outside the city, although some scholars maintain that he died and was buried in Ulqinj, now in Montenegro.
Berati’s historic mosques are located fairly close together near the modern town centre. The Bachelors’ Mosque (Xhamia e Beqarëve), on the main boulevard, was built in 1827 for the use of the city’s (unmarried) shop assistants, and its external walls are beautifully decorated with wall paintings. The Leaden Mosque (Xhamia e Plumbit), so-called from the covering of its dome, dates from the first half of the 16th century. It is mentioned by the great Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi (1611–82).
The oldest of the three – and one of the oldest mosques in Albania – is the King’s Mosque (Xhamia e Mbretit), at the foot of Rruga Mihal Komneno, the street up to the castle. It has a beautifully carved and painted wooden ceiling, and a large women’s gallery. It is possible to see inside the mosque immediately after prayer times; at other times it is usually locked, although it can be opened for group visits.
Three neighbourhoods of Berati are designated as ‘museum zones’, with restrictions on the alterations which may be made to the properties within them. Mangalemi and Kalaja (the castle) are two; the third, Gorica, lies on the other side of the River Osumi. The two sides of the town are connected by the Gorica Bridge, a narrow stone bridge built in the 18th century to replace the wooden bridge that had been used until then. A new road bridge in the western outskirts of the city has replaced the Gorica Bridge for most vehicles.
After the Ottoman conquest, Gorica became the Christian quarter; two churches survive there. There are information panels outside each of them, with a floorplan of the church and a map showing its position within Gorica. The opening hours below, also posted on the church gates, are more of an indication of intent than a reliable guide. It may be possible to contact a key-holder by calling the mobile number on these signs. The little Church of St Thoma is tucked into a corner of the cliff at the eastern end of Gorica, at the steps down from the footbridge. A shrine behind the church marks where a local saint is said to have left his footprint in the rock. The gate of St Thoma’s is a good viewpoint for the Castle and the houses of Mangalemi below it.
Travel to Berati
Berati is easy to get to from almost everywhere in central and southern Albania, with good bus connections with Vlora, Durrësi and Elbasani as well as Tirana. The buses from Tirana leave every 45 minutes, from 04.30 until about 14.30, from the North/South bus terminal. The journey takes about 2 hours and the fare is 400 lek.
In Berati, the bus station is a couple of kilometres north of the city centre, in the Kombinat district; taxis are always on hand to take passengers into town. The terminal building has a café and reasonable toilets. Rural buses to the villages in the Tomorri massif and to Çorovoda leave from the Uznova neighbourhood, opposite the Edjano petrol station at the junction of Rruga Antipatrea and Rruga Rilindja.
The most useful urban bus is Linja 1 (Uznova–Axhensi–Kombinat), with a flat fare of 30 lek. Its route runs via the main bus station, with stops at the foot of Rruga Mihal Komneni and in the main square, and Uznova, where the buses to Çorovoda and the Tomorri villages depart. On its way to Kombinat from the city centre, it even pulls into the bus station to let passengers off; in the other direction, the bus stop into town is a few metres left from the bus station exit, on the other side of the road.