One of the things that sets Albania apart from anywhere we’ve been so far is the way locals have looked out for us. Hospitality is a huge deal in Albanian culture and guests are treated with tremendous respect. I’d read that a lot when doing pre-trip research, but didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until we got here. I know it sounds jaded, but sometimes as a tourist it can feel like people are only being nice to you because they want something (money, mostly) from you. Albania’s not like that at all - the people are genuinely hospitable and helpful. From the lady on our bus I mentioned in our last post to all the random people who stopped to help us with directions and beyond, everyone treated us like old friends and seemed to be looking out for us every step of the way.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in Berat, a small medieval town nestled in the foothills of south-central Albania. We booked two nights there based only on a cursory Google Image search and some positive words from our hostel-mates in Sarandë. Our $10/night guesthouse, Hostel Mangalem, had a 9.9 (out of 10) rating on HostelWorld, so we figured we were in for a decent stay. Our expectations were far exceeded and despite the fact that it’s a tiny town with few actual attractions, we left wishing we could have stayed longer.
When we got to our guesthouse, we were greeted by the hostel owner Berti and his elderly parents. Despite the fact that neither of the parents spoke English, it didn’t stop us from bonding with them. The mom made us breakfast with homemade jams and strong Turkish coffee every morning, and the dad would wave at us whenever he saw us out and about in town. Despite the fact that we didn’t share a common language, we were able to communicate in gestures and smiles and lots of hugs. Berti was great too: he gave us countless food and drink recommendations, even going so far as to walk us to one of his favorite restaurants on a random side street with no other tourists, and translated for us when the waiter didn’t speak English. It really felt more like visiting long lost family than staying at a hostel, and that’s just the way they do things in Albania. Because they were so nice, and because the bunk beds were the comfiest we’d slept in the entire trip, we honestly spent most of our visit just hanging out around the hostel. As I said though, Berat is a very small town so we still managed to see all the key sights during our two and a half days there.
Berat is known as the ‘Town of 1000 Windows’ because of all the old Ottoman-style houses in the Mangalem district of the old town. They’re all built into the side of a steep hill and face the same direction, giving the whole area a charming stacked appearance. Mangalem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also happened to be where our hostel was located (hence the name), and while it’s beautiful to look at, it was ridiculously hard to get around. Since the old town is built into a hill, the whole area is connected by these tiny steep stone paths that can barely qualify as walkways, much less roads, yet they all have street names and show up on Google Maps! Just climbing a couple ‘levels’ uphill to dinner is a serious workout, and because the whole area is so old, many of the paths just end in gravelly dead ends that look like they could crumble at any moment. Coming back after dinner is even harder not just because of all the delicious local wine you’ve inevitably consumed but also because the polished stone paths are ridiculously slippery - one wrong step and you’re sliding, not walking, back home.
At the very top of the hill is an old (2400+ years) fortress, and what sets it apart from similar sites across Europe is that a number of people still live within the old fortress walls. There are even restaurants and cafes up there! Just like in the rest of the old town, the whole path up - which, I remind you, is ridiculously steep - is lined with slippery cobblestones. We hiked up there one morning and it was crazy to see these little old ladies shuffling along beside us like pros as we huffed and puffed and tried not to sprain our ankles or fall on our faces.
Once you reach the top of the hill, you have free rein of the whole fortress. It’s mostly just crumbly ruins but there are lots of old fortifications and towers and cannon holes to explore. There are some really crazy areas where you can climb out onto old crumbling ledges with nothing below you but air - no guard rails or anything. Sadly, like much of Albania there’s trash and debris scattered around the fortress. It’s a sad fact of life here and it was painful too see such a beautiful and historic site defaced with so much crap. Still, it was incredible to be able to walk wherever we pleased. In most countries you’d be limited to certain areas or there would at least be signs posted keeping you away from the most dangerous bits, but not in Albania. That’s part of the magic of traveling here: for better or for worse, stuff isn’t regulated or restricted the way it is in other more well-touristed countries.
Something else that definitely qualifies as uniquely Albanian was our final dinner in Berat. Berti, the hostel owner, told us that Lilli’s was the best restaurant in the city but warned us that we’d have no luck getting in as there were only a few tables. He wasn't kidding. When we arrived, we thought we had taken a wrong turn because we had just walked into a home kitchen. But soon a kindly man came out to seat us and we realized the restaurant was literally just run out of an actual house. It turns out the whole family is in the business: the mom and daughter make the food, the dad is the owner/waiter/all-around star of the show, and the grandparents make the wine and the raki. Occasionally their pet dog and cat would pop up around the courtyard, and we could hear a couple sheep making a ruckus nearby. The food was fantastic, of course - traditional dishes heavy on the cheese, meat, and veggies. At the end of the meal we shared some homemade raki with the owner, and left with that same feeling of familiarity we’d gotten in the hostel. It was like we’d had dinner at a relative’s house instead of at an actual restaurant. That’s just Albania for you.
Although we didn’t get to spend a ton of time in Berat - only two nights - we’ll definitely cherish the memories of our time here for years to come. We came in knowing nothing and left feeling like we belonged. Sometimes it can feel artificial and shallow meeting all these single-serving friends in our travels, knowing you’ll never see these people again, but Albania - and Berat especially - was a breath of fresh air. The experience is authentic and the people are genuine. It’s not something we see everywhere so this place felt truly special.