Read, Write, Run, Roam

Finding old-world hospitality in the ancient city of Berat, Albania


 Travel rule #1: do as the locals do. We ignored this rule in Berat. Most people were hiding from the heat or waiting to break Ramadan fast, but we ignored the 100 degree temperatures to explore the city.

Berat is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. It’s known as The White City or The City of 1,000 Windows, depending on the guidebook. The nicknames stem from the oversized windows on traditional white houses lining Berat’s hills. We later learned that Berat is also known as The City of Two Thousand Steps. Hilly steps, as it turns out. We were sweating like calves in a cevabdzinica.

We were there to see the sights, but felt like the main attraction ourselves. Strangers called out to us from their front steps or simply stared at the new people in town. A note to other traveling housewives: women walking alone will be stared at without hesitation. People were simply curious–or lascivious–and it was safe, but like nothing else I’ve experienced in the Balkans.

Muz and I walked up (and up) a path to see the 13th Century Church of St. Michael (Shën Mehill). We were sweaty and tired, but figured it would be worth the hike.

It was, naturally, closed.

Let us in!

At least I could get my lens past the gate…

Most of Berat’s churches and mosques aren’t open to the public; access requires knowing the person(s) with a key. We had read this fact, but thought high tourist season would be different. It’s not. We climbed back down the path and I wondered if coming out in the afternoon had been a giant mistake.

Yet the travel gods were smiling upon us. As we walked back to the old town, we passed a couple carving a stone plaque. I asked if we could take photos of their work, and they graciously said yes. Upon learning we spoke English, the husband summoned his daughter to come outside and translate his greetings. Thirty seconds later, he invited us inside his home for coffee.

I had heard that Albanians are known for their hospitality, but was surprised to be welcomed so quickly. I probably shouldn’t have been; Albanian hospitality is famous in the Balkans. Part of this attitude stems from the Kanun, an 15th Century (or older) set of Albanian laws and customs. Under Kanun, a man’s home was his fortress, protected by his honor. A guest in his home was also protected under this honor and treated with the highest respect.

Though the Kanun was outlawed by Hoxna, its rules regarding guests live on. Muz was served raki (home-brewed brandy, like rakija) and I received a sweet liquor and a bowl of preserved fruit (slatko). We talked about each others’ lives, the world in general, and how much Albania has changed in the last thirty years. The man of the house said that under Hoxna, he would have been arrested for inviting us in. His kind smile told us that even under those circumstances, he still might have welcomed us in his home.

We spent the next day exploring the city’s attractions, but our visit with this family will remain one of our favorite memories. We came to Berat to see well-preserved Albanian culture. We left grateful to experience it firsthand.

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