Berat-Albania: a living museum

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Elbasan, 26 June 2022

This city is usually discovered from the North, located 100km south of Tirana, the motorists after having crossed a long fertile plain dedicated to agriculture see their horizon obstructed by hills themselves dominated by the mountains of Tomorit (2400m). These mountains generously supply the town with water, which is not always the case in Albania depending on the area. We reached the town of Berat by the eastern valley after a tiring and rocky crossing from the Ballaban ridges (perfect for walkers and mountain bikers, but not for cyclists, especially those with heavy loads).

Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, was identified at least 2500 BC as a strategic location to control access to two fertile valleys with perfectly irrigated plains. Apart from its architecture, which betrays the passage of all the Mediterranean civilisations (except the Normans), Berat reflects a religious consensus that could inspire other countries in the midst of fierce battles on this theme.

The timeless religious consensus

Christian neighbourhoods, Muslim neighbourhoods, Sunni mosques, Shiite mosques, Orthodox churches, all places that are opposed to any ostracism, because their name is only linked to the presence of a place of worship remarkable for its architecture, in no case does it symbolise a denominational ghetto. Everyone lives his or her religion and settles where he or she wishes to. We have noted this and verified it several times with different interlocutors. In companies, working hours are secular and the same for everyone, as are working days. Zoom in on the 2 mosques:

The communist era was generous, these buildings were spared as they were reallocated to a pingpong hall for the Sunni mosque and a market for the Shia mosque. The Iran-Iraq war, other wars, clashes among other reasons, to obtain confessional supremacy, here the two buildings are still standing... for over seven centuries. Unlike other countries, we hear in Albania calls to prayer sung by muezzins, it is musical, one call and not 20 as in Marrakech, it is beautiful and elegant.

Do not forget the Orthodox presences, small magnificent churches topped by domes, dating from the 13th century, with frescoes in a beautiful state of conservation. Each church is dedicated to a saint, and there is an atmosphere of great serenity and calm.

Apology for hard limestone ashlar

The beautiful walls of Sicily, Puglia, Calabria, we learned that Albanian craftsmen were behind all these restorations, these pavements. For a week, we have seen that the exploitation of limestone, its cutting, but also other hard stones, is the local speciality. There are cutting workshops in all the towns. Berat, in its historical part, is 85% limestone and 15% beams, wood, planks, shutters made of sun-aged natural wood. No surface is asphalted, given the slope and the history of the places, the adjusted or rough pavement, the ball or half ball, the steps, everything is in stone and restored as we have seen in the immense construction site of the 2 historic Muslim and Christian cities, restored with funds from the World Bank.

The surviving Balkan architecture of the thousand-year-old castle

The castle (the KALA) covers 10 hectares of the top of the KALAJA hill. It has existed since the 4th century B.C., as evidenced by a section of monumental stone wall, which serves as a base for several layers of more recent walls. 220 families live in or own houses, mansions, small palaces, well maintained or in ruins, the families having emigrated or not having the financing to ensure the maintenance or the rebuilding (Earthquake of 2009 did nothing to consolidate the walls).

What we are walking through under the guidance of our 3 generation native guide, Toni, are cobbled, grassy streets, walls, doorways, quadrilateral buildings, with the famous loggias overhanging the streets. We will learn that the Balkan structure is made up of a stone ground floor topped by a wooden floor, covered by a 4-sided or multi-sided roof covered with tiles.

What remains of the castle: ramparts, the beginnings of everything, a buried cistern:

A notable 17th century residence with a wooded patio under which we took shelter from the blazing sun.

The modern Berat

60,000 people, in buildings mostly built during the communist era, apartment buildings, small towers, ruined textile industries, nothing stunning, a public school that has become a hotel with a dome worthy of the Capitol in Washington DC, an architectural delirium of the 2000s in a neoclassical style like those found in all eastern cities. On the cool side, the landscaping along the river, where chicks meet in the cooler hours to chat. And always all the new roads with trees (lime trees, sycamores, hackberry trees, acacias)

Where are the women?

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