‘I can’t believe we only paid two pounds for that,’ Josh said as we disembarked the bus two and a half hours after leaving Tirana. ‘It costs me the same to get into town at home.’ It was true, now in Albania our trip had hit a silly level of cheapness. We’d arrived in Berat, Albania – a stunning UNESCO World Heritage town, the famous ‘city of a thousand windows.’
Hang on. The city of a thousand windows? I mean, I know Albania’s up and coming, but they’re impressed by windows? An average of one window for every sixty residents? Or is it a knowdown, levelled at Berat by smug Tiranans – the city of only a thousand windows? ‘Our 7,300 shit all over that!’
I asked for an explanation from Makis, our host at Ana’s Guesthouse, and received a good one. ‘We don’t actually call it that. The idiots at Lonely Planet just mistranslated it.’ Well, so, apparently, did the idiots at UNESCO, but there you go. Berat is in fact known as the ‘city of one window upon another’, or something similarly unpoetic once put into English.
Whatever they call it, Berat is beautiful – and so, I was starting to think at this point in the trip, is Albania. Dramatic mountains, rolling valleys, lakes and Mediterranean coastline. If only anyone had heard of the country for more than gangsters and dodgy pyramid savings schemes, it would be awash with tourists. For now, it remains largely undiscovered.
Tourism to Albania is increasing, however. This is reflected by the fact that there are now plenty of hostels around, whereas when Berat Backpackers opened seven years ago it was only the second in the country. It was founded and is still run by a drunk Englishman of slightly dubious character. When he runs out of cigarettes or rakia in the middle of the night, he crawls over the road to his cleaner’s house, bangs on the door until she wakes up, and then sits smoking and drinking her supplies in her kitchen until the early hours. Without realising the plan involved dragging this poor elderly lady out of bed at 2am, Josh and I joined in this excruciatingly uncomfortable experience on our second night. ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine – she’s my Albanian mum,’ he assured us, as she wandered groggily around, preparing Turkish delight for a group of embarrassed foreigners she’d never met before and who hadn’t even properly learned the word for thanking her.
Albania unfortunately seems to retain other elements of this chauvinistic culture. The café-bars on the main boulevard in Berat are almost exclusively male; they are packed in the evenings when the town throngs with crowds milling about, wandering aimlessly up and down the riverfront. This remarkable tradition, which occurs every night from 7.30, is a relic of the communist era. At that time there was nothing to do for fun, and in any case gatherings of more than three people were banned, so everyone would just get out and stroll about for two hours. It must be great exercise.
It’s hard to exaggerate what an awful place Albania must have been during the communist era. The country had virtually no interaction with the outside world between 1945 and 1991, and yet it existed in more or less a state of total war for decades. Makis took us on a tour of the military tunnels which were carved painstakingly into the hills around Berat. While severe rationing was imposed on civilians, the army is said to have kept enough food underground to last for 20 years, which it replaced every five years. Opression and totalitarianism were as brutal here as almost anywhere in the world.
The communists parched ‘ENVER’ (the name of Albania’s communist leader) in huge letters into a mountain outside Berat. It has faded but it’s still there, only the first two letters have been swapped, so that the word ‘NEVER’ now serves as a reminder of Albania’s wish not to return to the old times.
Berat was a particularly beautiful and interesting reminder of the turbulent history of this part of Europe.