Friday, September 16, 2011

Essential Travel Destinations # 1 - Berat, Albania

Every country has at least one standout travel destination that features in all the tourist brochures and is considered the finest example of the national culture, architecture or landscape. In this new section called 'Unmissable Destinations' I'll highlight some of the finest attractions in the region of Central and Eastern Europe which should be on everyone's itinerary.
Berat is a remarkable town on the Osum river in south-central Albania. Packed full of distinctive white-washed Ottoman-era houses, the town luckily managed to slip through the communist period with its historic character still intact thanks to its status as a protected museum city under Enver Hoxha's regime. A huge medieval citadel known as the Kala sits perched on a clifftop above the town, providing superlative views of the surrounding Tomorr mountains and the surrounding countryside.
A collection of unique Ottoman buildings wrapped around the foot of the hill give the town its nickname of 'the city of a thousand windows', since they feature rows of large windowpanes which appear to be stacked on top of one another as the buildings climb up the steep hillside. The old town area known as Mangalem has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and is now carefully preserved.
The lower town contains a number of historic mosques which are worth visiting such as the leaded mosque, and an Ottoman-era Han, a traditional traveller's inn. The city was founded over 2000 years ago, but the current name of 'Berat' is thought to be derived from the Serbian name 'Beligrad' (White City) which is how it was known during the Middle Ages.
An ethnographic museum is located inside a traditional Ottoman house and features displays on daily life in Berat through the centuries. Another worthwhile museum is the Onufri museum located inside a former church; it includes a fantastic collection of medieval byzantine icons by the 16th-century Albanian painter known as Onufri. Just inside the main gates of the Kala is an excellent restaurant which makes a good spot for lunch while exploring the fortress.
A number of restaurants in the lower town can also provide traditional Albanian meals. The easiest way to travel from Tirana to Berat is by furgon (minibus), which costs about 500 Lek. Buses also make this journey. The best place to stay is at Berat Backpackers, a hostel (currently the only one in the town) located across the river and up the hill from Mangalem.

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