Lisa and I caught a bus after breakfast from Himara to Berat, a small village in the interior of Albania on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The drive here was spectacular, if not almost terrifying. The trip started along the coastline, but the Albanian coastline is like none I’ve ever seen before. Huge steep mountains rise up about a kilometer from the shore. Before we crossed the mountains, the vegetation consisted of mostly dry shrubs. After winding our way up Llogara Pass on small roads we crossed into the the other side of the mountains, which offered even more spectacular views. The mountains were instantly lush with trees and other green plants. The peaks were so high the mountains hung in the air, cooling an otherwise miserably hot drive. The valley below was just as gorgeous, with little houses scattered along the base, most of which (as per usual in Albania) looked like someone had just given up building them halfway through the process. I really wish I would have been able to stop many times along the drive to snap some beautiful photographs. It seems that every time I feel a deep longing for a place (whether I see it either in person or in photos), it is an area with wonderful mountains and lush, green plants. If I were to ever willingly choose to settle down anywhere in the world, it would surely be one of these locations.
We had to switch buses in Vlora, then again on the outskirts of Berat to get closer to our hostel. I can’t remember the name of the hostel, even though I’ve repeated it many times. Magdalen, I think. Something close to that. No, Mangalem. Anyway, the hostel is cute and close to the center of town. It is run by a family who are all very considerate. The grandfather is a bit much to handle, though. He spent half an hour in our room trying to learn German from Lisa, acting like a school boy. He keeps yelling at me for the dumbest things, but he doesn’t speak English so his son has to translate it every time he scolds me. I took off my sandals before entering the hostel, as per common courtesy suggests. Apparently they weren’t facing the right way (had to be east), which he said for for Christ (they are Orthodox Christians). About an hour later I was out on the balcony, and he scolded me again, this time for NOT having shoes on. Finally I just decided that I’m going to do things intentionally against his directions, just to piss him off. I am a PAYING guest in his house, he needs to keep these stupid particulars to himself. Of course, I realize it has nothing to do with me, other than I am a guy. He hasn’t said a single word to Lisa or the other two British girls in our room about any of that nonsense. Still, I’m going to purposefully arrange my shoes in the most ridiculous way in the future. If I could form them into a hammer and sickle, that would be ideal (Albania was involuntarily communist for a while, like most of east Europe).
After checking in Lisa and I wandered up to the castle. It was…more worth the 100 Leke entry fee than the half-hour climb to reach the summit of the mountain. But this castle is unique in that there is still a small village inside, where people live and sell trinkets to tourists. While wandering through a cute old lady leaned out the window and (in Albanian) yelled: “mister, come have some coffee!” So Lisa and I went into her home and were greeted quite graciously. She went to fix up some coffee and told us we could have some fruit from her trees. I had never eaten a plum before, so I bit into one and was pleasantly surprised. Then Lisa said: “you have to open them up first, because sometimes there are insect eggs inside.” So, AFTER having already taken a bite, I opened mine to find eggs as well as fully-formed larvae. That won’t be happening again anytime soon. After coffee she sold Lisa a jar of fig marmalade, and told us that – with the coffee – we owed 700 Leke. This nice old lady just scammed us like a couple of tourists!
Descending the walkway once again, we found a restaurant nearby called Restaurant Lili. It had been recommended by several other travelers, but it was also the highest-rated restaurant in Berat. Oh, what a pleasant surprise that turned out to be. The restaurant is run out of a house by a family of four. The dining section is on the patio, and the father brings cold water and bread before going over the pictures in the menu. The food was indescribably delicious. I ordered tomato ricotta and Lisa had the risotto-stuffed tomato. After dinner the owner brought rakia to the table and we toasted to good health.
I should have probably mentioned rakia before. It’s the moonshine of Albania. Everyone here seems to make it themselves, out of grapes. It’s a very strong liquor, but it’s intended to be sipped. Everywhere you go, people offer you rakia as a gesture of kindness. Hostels, restaurants, random people when you walk by their house. This country sure loves its rakia.
After dinner Lisa and I walked around the city for about an hour. They light up the bridge at night with blue lights over the Osum River. The main pedestrian thoroughfare is less than 200 meters from the hostel, so we walked that until we decided to turn back. We returned to the hostel and met/talked with the two girls from England. Lisa is going back to Tirana tomorrow. I am going to stay in Berat for one more night, then head back to Tirana. Most likely after two more nights in Tirana I will be leaving Albania for Macedonia. I have a pretty good idea of where I will be first in Macedonia, but that’s another story for another blog. Right now, it is time for sleep. Cheers!