Berat: a window on Albania

Berat, the city of a thousand windows and a UNESCO world heritage site since 2008, could stand as a metaphor for Albania. Windows can be open or closed like the country’s recent history. Glass can be smashed, churches and monuments torn down – or they can be preserved. It was due to Berat’s cultural importance that the city’s medieval churches, frescoes and historic mosques were largely spared from the atheism campaign under Albania’s communist leader, Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985.

One of Albania’s oldest cities, Berat traces its roots back to the Bronze Age. A fortified castle dominates the hilltop and overlooks the modern town and the River Osumi valley. Around two hundred people still live in stone houses enclosed by the citadel’s snaking walls. Eight churches have survived, some are hard to detect as their simple facades blend in with surrounding houses, keeping them hidden in plain sight. Our guide magically acquires a key to the tiny church of Saint Mary of Blachernae so we can admire a mosaic floor and sixteenth century frescoes by Nikola Onufri, son of Albania’s greatest icon painter.

Completing a circuit of the walls and citadel means treading on layers of history. The eighteenth century Dormition of Saint Mary church, for example, is built on the foundations of a tenth century one.  This building is now the Onufri Museum and is packed with precious icons and frescoes. We learn that the shiny colour used in his paintings is known as ‘Onufri’s red’.

Our viewing of the frescoes is cut short by the arrival of the US ambassador and his party. We’re encouraged to shuffle along faster as burly guards, dressed in black, take up surveillance positions at the entrances. No hard feelings, though - later on, we bump into the ambassador, who is leaving the Mangalemi restaurant as we arrive, and he courteously wishes us a good meal.

Berat earned its UNESCO listing for the stunning, preserved Ottoman buildings of the Mangalem quarter. They cluster, row upon row, on the hillside, gleaming white in the daytime sun, illuminated and twinkling at night – a mecca for photographers. At twilight, café terraces near the river overflow with customers, mainly men, sipping coffee, beer or raki while the wide promenade is crowded with friends, families and couples out for an evening stroll. Night falls on a city where people seem relaxed and at ease.

It wasn’t always so. Back in the late twentieth century, Albania’s people were forced to withdraw from the world and live in seclusion. Enver Hoxha espoused an extreme form of Stalinism, broke links with the USSR and, later, lost the support of China. Many scars from those times remain: a visible one scored into the side of Mount Shpirag overlooking Berat where, in 1968, the name ENVER was spelled out in rocks and painted white. Every morning the first thing citizens would see was their leader’s name towering above their city. When democracy was established in the 1990s, efforts were made to destroy the sign but the rocks proved resistant, even to dynamite. An attempt to burn off the lettering with a flame thrower led to the deaths of two soldiers. So, the project was abandoned waiting for nature to take its course until a local man hit on the novel solution of switching the first two letters. Now the sign on the mountainside reads NEVER.

As I type these words, my spellchecker nags me to do the same: change ‘Enver’ to ‘never’. If only life were that simple!

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Keep an eye on my website helenmk7.weebly.com for more blogs about Albania and news of my forthcoming novel After Leaving the Village.

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