I guess one of the defining themes of my Balkans trip has been Old Towns so it felt right to visit a couple more in the south of Albania before I left this region. The towns of Berat and Gjirokaster both have UNESCO World Heritage status and are renowned for being two of the most beautiful towns in the country. They are both located in the south and whilst neither are packed with things to do, they are both really well preserved and worth a visit.
From Tirana, Berat is a couple of hours away on the bus. Albania has a real aversion to proper bus stations and Tirana epitomises this. There’s supposedly a big bus terminal coming at some point but until then there’s a load of temporary ones scattered across the city depending on which direction you’re heading in. For southbound buses, I headed to the bus station next to the Eagle Monument roundabout. Buses to Berat are regular (every 40-60 minutes or so) and I saw one with a Berat sign on the front which was just about to depart.
The bus pulled into Berat’s bus station (it actually has one!) around 2 and a half hours later. The station is located about a half an hour’s walk outside the Old Town or you can hop on a public bus which costs 30 lek. It didn’t take me long to spot what Berat is famous for. Situated on a river, Berat’s main draw is Mangalem, the so-called ‘1000 windows’, a series of tiny houses stacked on top of each other underneath a large hill, on which Berat Fortress sits. It’s a great view and, even better was that my hostel, Hostel Mangalem, was situated within this area. The hostel, more like a homestay really, was great. The host, Bert, was very attentive and his family were lovely. One thing I love about the Albanian hostels is that you get a hearty breakfast included in the already cheap rate in the hostels and this one was as delicious as all the others. I’d absolutely recommend staying here.
Berat hasn’t got loads to see but is a lovely, quiet little town with picturesque scenery. Its most prominent attraction (other than the 1000 windows) is its fortress, looming on top of a hill above the town. At just 100 lek (around 70p) entry, it’s well worth dragging yourself up the hill to sample the marvellous views at the top. The walk from town is signposted and takes around 25 minutes though the cobblestones will get pretty slippery when wet so it’s definitely a sunny day activity. This fortress, unlike many of the others in the region, has a functioning community within it. There are guesthouses, restaurants and souvenir shops as well as houses. This gives it a much more local feel and means it’s bustling with residents even when out of season. It also means it’s a lot bigger than the other fortresses and you can take your time meandering through the streets to get breathtaking views from every angle.
After visiting the fortress, the best way to experience Berat is by sampling one of its many restaurants or bars. It has a small pedestrianised area filled with bars and cafes which was great at night (one night there was a live orchestra playing) and there are a host of restaurants either side of the river. My favourites included Antigoni (with an amazing view) and Wildor.
After chilling in Berat, I headed off to chill some more in my final Albanian destination, Gjirokaster in the south. Another UNESCO site, this town is nestled within the mountains and features more of the glorious scenery I’ve come to expect in Albania. There were only two buses a day from Berat – 8am or 2pm. Given it was a 3 hour or so journey I decided to take the early minibus. It left from the same bus station I was dropped off at, just outside of town. Public buses run there from just by the road up to the fortress (30 lek). The cramped minibus ride involved being squished in next to a woman pushing 270 who decided to share the love by coughing and spluttering on me the entire journey. Somehow I’ve managed to survive. Finally, I arrived at Gjirokaster (the bus continued to Sarande) at a junction on the main road. From here it’s a 15 – 20 minute or so walk to the old centre though it involves an uphill walk on cobbled streets.
I stayed at Garden Guest House just outside the centre. Again, more of a homestay, it was great value for money (£7 a night for a double room including breakfast). There are one or two hostels scattered about also. The hosts spoke no English though their son was available on WhatsApp to answer any queries. Gjirokaster was much more higgledy-piggledy than the more refined Berat, giving you much more opportunity to explore and get lost amongst its winding streets. There are a host of traditional restaurants and souvenir shops in the centre but, like Berat, the town’s main draw is its big fortress.
This was probably my favourite fortress in Albania. Visiting fortresses in this region can feel almost as monotonous as visiting temples in South-East Asia but Gjirokaster has actually put the effort in. There were English signs detailing the history, there were cannons, a tank and even a crashed US Air Force plane. Plus, as ever, the views at the top were outstanding. For only 200 lek (£1.50) it’s definitely worth checking out. Again, it’s a slippery ascent up though the walk isn’t as strenuous as Berat’s and with an abundance of lovely, traditional restaurants and cafes down below, you know there’s a host of delicious rewards waiting for you when you get back down.
Whilst not as spectacular as some of the places in the north of Albania, Berat and Gjirokaster are well-preserved little towns which have a nice touristy buzz without being overrun. Berat especially deserves a few days, if only for its quirky architecture and lovely, laid-back cafe scene.