Bus-ing Round the Balkans travel blog









I'm at the top of the mountain which is home to Berat castle. Below me in the valley lies the new town; ageing apartment blocks gaze back at me and the sounds of traffic drift up to me on the breeze. The sound of horns mostly. Across from the new town, on the opposing bank of the river, lies farmland and scatterings of smaller homes and buildings. Not the great stretches of mammoth fields like at home, but the smaller, higgeldy piggeldy patchwork I noticed during my furgon ride yesterday.

More attractive, but I suppose less efficient? Like the men who have been cutting back the long grass and weeds in the castle grounds using a scythe. Although I don't imagine you'd get so very far with a lawnmower up here. The sound of the scythe as it swishes back and forth doesn't interrupt the sense of tranquility either.

I'm sat on some steps in the shade of a ruined gateway; I've been here a while now. It suddenly dawned on me that I'm in Albania, and have been here nearly a week already. It doesn't quite seem possible and I can't quite wrap my head around it. Albania. How did I wind up here? And why are there not more tourists when it's so breathtakingly beautiful?

It's not the desolate, decrepit, creaking place that was painted for us when I was growing up (and still is in some ways). The place its people were desperate to escape from, a land without hope. Sure, there's plenty of ugly concrete construction - much of which has seen better days - but I could say the same about places in England.

It's not isolated from the rest of the world anymore, its populace isn't cut off. Yet it almost feels as though it is; it's not like the rest of the Balkans. Things look, sound, and are done differently (I don't just mean buses and public transport). It dances to its own tune.

It feels less commercialised, more organic. Ironically given its history it feels less centralised, as if everybody's doing things their own way. Or making it up as they go along (which is definitely how travelling by public transport here feels). Out in the countryside things are still done the old way - I've grown quite accustomed to passing people with donkeys, a sight I can't recall having seen anywhere on my last trip.

The journey up to Berat yesterday actually reminded me more of my time in East Africa. Especially when we passed through the town of Fier, and from there down narrow country roads. Fier had the same chaotic, frenzied feeling I remember from Rwanda. All the small, single storey, one room shops and businesses built from the same poured concrete style lining the road. The number of roads that are still just dirt tracks, or fade away into gravel at the edges, where people hurry back and forth or sell their wares. The potholes are pretty familiar too.

There's also a lot of old cars on the roads here, the vast majority of them being Mercedes. I read in my guidebook that Albania's ports became a smuggling hub in the 90s and the country filled up with Mercedes stolen from western Europe. I don't know how true that is based on a single source, but it does seem to tally up.

I eventually snap out of my reverie and get back up to continue my day's exploring. The walk up to the castle (kalasa) is a lot longer and steeper than it looked from the river below, but worth it. Another opportunity to stand atop a mountain and jump up and down with delight (I don't know why, it just happens).

Unlike any of the other hill/mountaintop castles and forts I've visited in the Balkans, this one is still home to a community living inside its walls. Just an ordinary neighbourhood... Of stone houses, secluded courtyards and cobbled streets.

Inside the dimly lit Church of the Dormition of St Mary there's a fluttering sound as I walk towards the front: a bat bursts out from behind the iconostasis, flies over my head and disappears somewhere at the back of the church. I can't help but grin.

This church is now a museum, which means I can actually go behind the iconostasis (the screen at the front of orthodox churches hiding the altar), armed with an information sheet explaining it all. Women aren't allowed behind the iconostasis in a working church, so I wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity.

I just have time to visit the Ethnographic Museum on my way back down to the Mangalem quarter. Located in a traditional Ottoman house, the lower floor functions as a "traditional" museum, exhibiting various artefacts and traditional clothing.

The upper floors are laid out as they would have been when it was originally in use as a home, with all the associated furniture and knick knacks. This was my favourite part; it felt as if I had stepped into a living, breathing home. And one so unlike any I had seen before.

It's all very distinctly Turkish, only not like anything I saw when I was in Istanbul. The buildings I visited there were primarily palaces and stately homes. A very different world.

I loved the open wooden verandah, bedecked with colourful rugs and couch seating. It was also interesting to see the Islamic influences. For instance, the room for hosting visiting guests had three "windows" covered with wooden lattices looking down upon it. If the guests included men who were not relatives the women weren't allowed to mix with them or be seen, but could watch the goings on from behind their windows. As I was finishing up my visit one of the museum staff members came up to show me the door hiding the steps up to their "hiding place", so that I could have a peek up there. Not for the claustrophobic I feel.

Interestingly - and unexpectedly, as I had tried to arrive without forming preconceptions - modern day Albania, at least in this region, is culturally very similar to Greece. The clothing, the food, the artisanry. It's actually easier to find a bus to Athens than to some places within Albania.

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