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Albania: Berat Citadel

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Berat Citadel | Albania | Europe

[Visited: August 2012]

When our bus was driving along the river Osum in the late afternoon, we knew we were about to arrive in Berat when we spotted the citadel. High above the valley floor and the Ottoman bridge on our right, it seemed detached from the mundane streets below, where people were going for a stroll and going about their daily routines. The citadel breathed history, and after a night in a private home, we set out before sunrise to take advantage of the relatively low temperature to climb the steep, slightly slippery cobble stone street. We noticed that women were walking down the street, while men were going up and wondered what the reason would be. When we arrived at the main gate, the sun was casting its warm light on the old stones of the outer wall of the citadel, and the two large gates allowing entrance to the top of the hill. Once inside, we understood why men had been going up: reconstruction works were going up, and the men, too, were taking advantage of the cool air to get something done. We walked clockwise around the citadel, walking down to the sturdy wall, walking up narrow streets again. Not just a historic place, the citadel still is home to people, with the advantage of having much more pleasant night temperatures than the houses in the more modern parts of Berat. Some houses looked very pretty, while others were abandoned. We soon noticed grapevines everywhere, moreover: they were full of ripe grapes, and we could not resist to indulge on the sweet fruit.

Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): The minaret of the Red Mosque at the inner citadel

When we reached the far end of the citadel, we climbed a small platform on the ramparts, from where we enjoyed views to the bottom of the valley, the bridges, a market below, the modern part of Berat stretching out below us, and the small Gorica neighbourhood on the other side of the river. From here, we climbed the other side of the citadel, following the wall, until we reached the inner citadel. Here, there are many sights in a small area. The Red Mosque, so called because of the reddish colour of the surviving minaret, but with only the foundations of the original building remaining. You can climb down to see a large cistern, obviously very important in days gone by. From atop the wall of the citadel, there is a free view into the Osum river valley, the towns and villages, and the mountains on the other side. We noticed huge letters saying Never on the mountains, and wondered whether previously, the N and E had been swapped, thus forming Enver, the name of the previous dictator of the once tightly closed country. At this point, Vasil, a local guy who was very enthusiastic to show us around and could not hide his excitement, giving us the sensation of being a boy, despite his grey hair. He would jump up the crumbling walls to show us spots to enjoy the views, pointing at things worth seeing with trembling fingers. While his intentions were good, he soon started to get on our nerves, and when we had seen the orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity a little below the citadel, whose cupolas were catching the early sun, we made clear we preferred to continue without him. Fortunately, he took it well, and we cruised the narrow, deserted streets. We found several more churches; the citadel had been mostly a christian site, but all of them were closed. A group of French tourists passed by, and to our surprise, a local guy accompanying him opened the door of the St Mary of Blachernae church. We were allowed to come along, which we happily did; this allowed us a peek inside the richly decorated walls of the church which were unfortunately damaged, and seemingly getting worse. Still, the impressive painted saints contrasted with the relatively plain exterior of the church.

Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): The main entrance gate of Berat in the early morning

We now walked back towards the main gate, and exploring the citadel of Berat had made us thirsty, so we took a breakfast break at one of the open places. The sun was now getting fierce, the light terrible, and we decided to walk down again. Later, when the conditions were much better, we again walked up the same street, and now concentrated on the western side of the citadel walls where the sun was sending always softer light on. We were lucky: an Italian group now was allowed into the St. Nicholas chapel we had only seen outside, and the Albanian guide urged us to come inside, too. This one was probably even more beautiful than the one we had seen that morning. A pity that some of the faces of the religious figures represented through frescoes on the wall had been vandalized giving them a strange appearance; according to the guide, by the nazis, but this was hotly contested by the Italians who thought it must have been done during an iconoclastic period in Berat. To me, the damage looked relatively recent. We left with the group, and walked where we had walked before that morning, but in the reverse direction; to our luck, also the Church of the Holy Trinity was open now, but its interior disappointing. We entered the inner citadel again, walked on top of the wall while the sun was about to disappear behind the mountains in the distance. Someone was sitting on top of the minaret of the Red Mosque, and I just had to follow suit - the opportunity to climb it had escaped me that morning. The narrow, spiral staircase was not as dark as I had expected, and the view over the citadel a true 360 degrees. The sun now behind the mountains, the light was squeezed out of the sky, and it was time for a well-deserved Albanian dinner.

Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): The orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity at the citadel of Berat
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Saint depicted on a fresco inside the St Mary Blachernae Chapel
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Late afternoon light on Ottoman style houses in the citadel of Berat
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Ruins of the citadel wall close to the main entrance gate
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Looking up the crenellated wall of the citadel of Berat
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Ruins inside the inner citadel of Berat
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Building in the inner citadel with mountains in the background
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Exterior view of the St Mary Blachernae Chapel
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Red roofs on the St Mary Blachernae Chapel in the citadel of Berat
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Courtyard and sideview of the Church of the Dormition of St Mary, now the Onufri Museum
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Streets in the citadel of Berat are cobble stone
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): Stone mosaic floor in one of the remaining churches in the citadel of Berat
Picture of Berat Citadel (Albania): The original iconostatis of the Church of the Dormition of St Mary, currently the Onufri Museum

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