A weekend in Berat, Albania with kids
When we were still in the beginning stages of researching Albania for a possible move here, Berat is one of the cities that popped up the most often.
“The city of a thousand windows”, we read. I was so intrigued by this country that had such beautiful, ancient, and mostly unheard of villages like this.
I can now say, Berat is one of the most enchanting villages we’ve ever stepped foot in. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site. I’ve often heard people describe places in Europe as “stepping back in time”. I’ve felt that before, as well, but still had to block out the noise of ugly modern things (like a garish McDonald’s across from Windsor Castle), but here in Berat, it truly does feel like stepping back in time. It’s wondrous.
We spent a beautiful Fall weekend there this past month. We arrived in the dark on a Friday night after school, as we so often do these days, and were greeted with the sparkling lights of the countless windows that were stacked like Legos upon the hillside. Google Maps landed us on the Main Street and the view that we recognized from all of the online pictures, towered above us.
Our hotel was somewhere up there, along the mountainside village, we knew. We were tired, it was getting darker, so we started schlepping up the steep, uneven stone steps in search of our hotel. We couldn’t see signs, had no idea where we were going, so we called the hotel. Soon after, a smiling and lovely brunette 20-something from the hotel arrived and led us up several more winding steps to our incredible hotel which was nestled on a narrow street deep within the winding village streets.
She showed us to our room, told us to settle in and meet her on the terrace for a snack. We walked out to the terrace where she gave us a large bottle of still water (she must have surmised we weren’t European. Ha!) and a beautiful display of fresh fruit. It reminded me of fruit trays you see in pictures of medieval banquets, set on a rustic wooden tray. We absentmindedly munched on grapes and persimmons, oranges, and pomegranates as we took in our ancient and magical surroundings. “Fruit in America doesn’t taste like this”, Scarlett piped up. “No, it does not,” I agreed. I’m not sure if I’d ever actually tasted a persimmon before that night. If I had, I doubt it would have been nearly as delicious….or memorable.
Our room was gorgeous. The decor was clearly antique and the room beautifully designed. Stone walls, green velvets chairs, antique wooden floors, and a stunning, sparkly chandelier.
The next morning, we woke up and a new person sat at the front desk, as we wandered out, ready for a new adventure. “Good Morning,”How are you?” “Did You sleep well?” he asked us. He then led us back out to the beautiful terrace and this time our table really did resemble a medieval feast. Fresh yogurt, fig jam, honey with fresh bread (all homemade of course), perfectly fried eggs, tomatoes, olives, and cucumbers, Albanian cheese drizzled with olive oil, and another beautiful wooden plate piled with gorgeous fruit. Juices, coffee, water. How much are we paying for this my husband whispered. “Like $50 or $60 dollars,” I said. “I can’t remember. “That’s it?” “Yeah,” I said. I KNOW. I love Albania.
We decided to explore the town a bit, and just down the hill from our hotel, we found a beautiful store with hand carved wooden art and beautiful water colored paintings of Berat. We got our usual magnet, and watercolor as we do in each city, but these were really so unique and special.
Next, we found our way up to Berat Castle. As with most trips in Albania, we have a vague idea of where we’re going, get stuck on tiny roads that we are unsure how to get out of, get lots of strange looks from the locals as we barrel through, and eventually find our way to where we are going (usually that is).
We met a man named, Toni at the gates and he offered to give us a private tour. He was kind and we instantly liked him. Sure, why not. It turns out that there is no other way to explore this place. Not really. It’s called a castle, but it’s massive. It’s a fortresss with a village inside. Ancient Byzantine churches, homes, and little markets along the way. Toni, it turns out has the keys to the kingdom…literally. “I was born inside these walls,” he told us, “so I just have the keys to the churches and everything”.
These are original paintings from the 13th century. They’re just incredible.
Stopping along the way to buy local honey, jam, and fruit.
Not only does he know an incredible amount about the history of Berat, he was so open and kind and loved answering all the many questions I had about Albania in general. He loved helping me pronounce words I was learning (correctly), and we genuinely had an incredible time with him.
“After we became free from Hoxha (their former dictator),” he told us, “some Albanians made trouble. But that was just some. Most Albanians are good,” he said. “That’s been my experience as well,” I told him. “I know what it feels like now to have certain people (or presidents) make you feel ashamed of your country,” I told him. He laughed. “Yes, I know,” he said, “yet, I’d love to visit America.” “I hope you do sometime,” I told him. “There are good and bad people everywhere,” he said. I agreed. Nobody likes to be stereotyped for the bad ones we agreed.
We visited the museum inside the walls. It’s amazing to see the art inside. Don’t skip it. Read about the artist, Onufri that is featured, and his incredible red/orange paint here.
After the museum, we said goodbye to our new friend. Exchanged info and took off to the lunch spot he told us to go to. It was directly across from the castle and had the perfect view and yummy, traditional Albanian food.
The kiddos were worn out by this point, so my husband and I have started a tradition of taking turns exploring on our own while the other chills with the kids for a while. It’s been a good thing for all of us. We both checked out the mosque and the Greek Orthodox Church in the town, visited shops and cafes, and enjoyed some silence.
That afternoon as a family, we wandered over the bridge that connects the two neighborhoods, and took photos by the beautiful Osumi River and of the iconic “thousand windows”, then headed out for dinner.
We tried to get into Lilli Cafe for dinner. We showed up early, as did a German family and another couple from Montenegro. Unfortunately, the owner told us it was full that night. If you go, make sure to get reservations! I’ve heard from others who’ve gone that it’s wonderful.
Luckily though, we went to our second choice, Piccolo Grande Amore, which was delicious, relaxed, and had fabulous, friendly service.
In fact, every place we went in Berat had incredible service. People went out of their way to help us have a memorable experience in their beautiful town. And they succeeded. It was a wonderful weekend adventure. If you come to Albania, you really can’t skip Berat. It’s truly a place unlike any other.