Wandering around Berat’s old town is like stumbling across a medieval mirage. Tiered, snow white, Ottoman houses cling to gentle slopes either side of the River Ossum. The smell of freshly baked bread wafts out of smoke engulfed chimneys and beautiful, large wooden doors decorate narrow, cobblestoned alleyways – each barely wide enough for two donkeys to pass.
Berat’s stunningly well-preserved historic quarter is quite possibly the finest example of a classical Ottoman town anywhere outside of Turkey.
When medieval traveller, Evliya Celebi arrived in Berat in 1670, he found a flourishing town, home to poets, scholars and writers:
“It is a huge open town, entirely outside the walls of the fortress. It is situated in a large area along the bank of the […] river to the east and south of the upper fortress and is covered in vineyards, rose gardens and vegetable gardens. There are 5,000 one and two-storey stonework houses with red-tiled roofs. They are well built and attractive houses with gardens and are spread over seven verdant hills and valleys. Among them are over 100 splendid mansions with cisterns and fountains and an invigorating climate.”
Known in antiquity as Antipatreia, Berat is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world – the first settlers arrived in the fourth century BC. The town’s picturesque ‘hanging’ white houses reportedly inspired its later name – taken from the old Slavic, ‘bel-grad’, to mean ‘white city’. Its legacy today is down to the Ottomans who conquered the town in 1417 and built mosques, bathhouses, schools, tekkies, and of course, the famous white houses. The Ottoman efforts are the reason Berat was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Its historic houses are rightfully deemed a “rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period”. UNESCO also recognised Berat as a place that “bears witness to the coexistence of various religious and cultural communities”. Celebi reports meeting Greek and Albanian Christians living side by side with the local Muslim population when he visited. Sadly though, the once thriving market he witnessed is no more:
“Through the entire bazaar flow streams of water which ensure such cleanliness that a man could sit down on the road and let himself be enraptured by the surrounding beauty. The lads in the shops are like royal princes, never struck by the light of the sun. Most of the shops on the two sides of the streets have wooden roofs. Here it is that friends, companions and lovers spend all their time chatting up the boys as they work, and there is no shame in it either.”
Today, the city’s heritage is focused around three main sites. Firstly, the neighbourhood in and around the 4th century BC, Kala Castle, high above the main town. Here several churches dating from the 13th century can still be visited, and it is the ideal place to take in the impressive panoramic views across old Berat. Beneath the castle, dissected by the Ossum River, are the town’s famous photogenic neighbourhoods. On the river’s south side is Gorica, the traditionally Orthodox Christian part of town, and on the north is Mangalem, the old Muslim quarter. Hidden within these three areas are several of key historic monuments.
The beautifully decorated Bachelor’s Mosque sits at the foot of Mangalem and is a wonderful example of 19th-century Ottoman art – heavily influenced by western European styles. Around the corner is the Xhamia e Mbretit or King’s Mosque, built shortly after the Ottoman arrival by Sultan Bayezid II in the 15th century. Also believed to date from the 15th century is the Teqe e Helvetive – a Sufi lodge built and still used by the Helveti (Khalwati) order. For a truly classical experience, head for Berat’s Ethnographic Museum, which is in a beautiful 18th century Ottoman house that is just as interesting as the exhibitions inside.
Visiting these is one thing, but nothing quite beats spending a night in your very own Ottoman ‘house’. Although many of the rentals are reconstructions, their location high up in the hills, combined with your daily trek through those narrow, medieval pathways, guarantees an authentic Ottoman experience.
Where in the world: Berat is a town in the centre of Albania, straddling the Osum River. It is directly south of the country’s capital city, Tirana.
In and out: The best way to get to Berat is to fly into Tirana, and then take either a shared minibus taxi – a furgan – or a bus directly to Berat. If you are visiting from any of the other towns like Elbasan or Vlore, a shared furgan will be your best bet.
Top tips: Berat has a healthy, observant Muslim community and the best way to meet them is by heading to the Lead Mosque. The road, Rruga Antipatrea, leading from the hillside Ottoman houses to the mosque is also a good place for fast food outlets that are explicitly halal, such as the Piceri Medine.