getting Out Of Didge
Traffic in Tirana on a good day...
For every reason to steer clear of Tirana, there exist two to go to Berat. An undiscovered jewel three hours south of the capital, Berat welcomes you with both the same Albanian hospitality as before, but in more majestic and sanitary surroundings.
Mysteriously, much more trash seems to find its way into bins and dumpsters that appear out of nowhere. While indeed ditches and the riverbank are defiled with non-biodegradable garbage, it is only a fraction of scenes further north. This permits the eyes to concentrate on Berat’s real attraction: the white-faced village communities perched on both mountainsides of the valley and the imposing walled castle with town located within.
The two hundred or so dwellings that make up the castle village are home to about 1,200 residents, who enjoy life in a quaint, sheltered, and sublime existence. A walled community unto itself, it is a veritable treasure chest of winding and extremely slender white stone streets and staircases. Grape arbors with copious clusters of purple fruit connect the timber roofs covered by orange ceramic tiles and form natural awnings above the curvy slopes. Cool, gentle winds dry the perspiration from my brow and I enthusiastically climb and descend the
Brining Home Groceries?
Galloping across the river. Later, this man answered his cell phone...
uneven, pebbled steps. Local residents seated on their doorstep greet me as I wander by. They smile at me sincerely. The most beautiful little girls in ponytails pop their heads out of a second floor window and call out to me, “Hello!” It is undoubtedly the only words in English they know. I stop, charmed by the gesture, wave back to them, and say hello. Boys the same age sprint up to me and give me high fives, a sort of “Welcome to the neighborhood” sort of gesture. They wave at me and this makes me think how pure Berat is. Centuries old and jarringly silent, delving into this part of Berat is a firm reminder of why one ventures to such destinations. Try getting this in Belgium, or Rhode Island for that matter. For the kala, or castle, is an irreplaceable community that leaves a lasting imprint of its allure to where you stand staring at it in absolute jaw-dropping fascination. Within the fortress, not a single postcard stand exists but the one at the entrance. There are no shops, no motor traffic of any kind, no touts, nothing to spoil the treat of a town that it is.
Nice to know I'm welcome...
Where else can such beauty, history, silence, and innocence come together in one place? And how long will it be until Berat becomes tarnished by shiny tour coaches and package tourists? It will be a while. But, visitors are trickling in slowly. In fact, I had to share the town with one other Englishman, whose presence disturbed me to no end. He was a college student in Oregon and now complains about how expensive Albania is to travel through. This perplexes me, his being English, a country where I cannot go out for a Friday evening without a small fortune in my pocket. It is easy to be selfish here and relish in the wonder of a location so striking and remote, that I am among the very few that will ever appreciate Berat before it publicly opens its doors to the rest of Europe.
Berat reawakens following the burning afternoon sunshine. Residents take to the streets in typical Southern European style until nightfall. This prompted me to hike up through another neighborhood of long-standing homes. As I climbed around bends and turns, I passed a medrassa, mosque, and other women bringing large bags of groceries home one of
My dad would love Berat...
two ways possible. Most go by foot. But if the load is too much to bear, someone in the neighborhood will arrange a donkey to haul the goods up to their door.
My walk ended at the highest point on the hilltop among only a few homes. I paused to look back down to take in all of modern Berat; the evening strollers all scampering about like ants on the way to their next task. Off to my left was seated a woman of about seventy in a red sweater deeply involved in her knitting. Our eyes met. We said hello and then that same awkward language barrier set in. No matter. After asking me where I was from and my showing her on the map that I carry, we got along just fine. For the next twenty-five minutes, with the assistance of pen and paper, charades, and some very strange sounds to emulate pets and vehicles, I learned of her three grandchildren, one son in Toronto, their ages, occupations, likes, and dislikes. We must have looked like children in grade school. She placed a cushion under where I sat to lessen the discomfort of the concrete platform-like porch that
Entrance to Walled Town
No postacard stands or touts. Lovely...
offered an uninterrupted view of the city below. She brought me coffee, water, and raki, a local liqueur. There we sat, an American man and Albanian woman, a generation apart and two unintelligible languages between us, without a care in the world, perfectly content. She then summoned her family by phone. One by one they arrived. First came the daughter, thirty-six, with three children. Lastly and much later on came Bilbil, the children’s father, then his brother. Bilbil, the patriarchal figure of the family, sent his future daughter-in-law off for beer, and I hunkered down for what was to be a joyful and lengthy conversation about Berat, my family, and theirs. A Greek by birth and Albanian citizen, Bilbil speaks a smattering of Italian, which just sufficed. He is a strong-willed man who gets frustrated easily. For example, one of his children, eleven years old, just started to study English. Petrified when I asked his name, the young boy fell mute. Bilbil verbally scolded him, as if to say I send you to school and you don’t even learn anything. Do you want to grow up and be a taxi driver like me? He forced his child to reply and
Doesn't get any better...
he did, reluctantly. I got his name, age, and that he likes to play soccer.
The entire family joined in and held group discussions amongst each other whenever I made a comment or question. Then they argued and debated in Albanian. Then Bilbil would produce a response for me in Italian, or very poor English. It was like Family Feud, and we all wanted to make it to the bonus round. Two liters of beer later, I thanked them, bid them good night and promised to come back the next night to say hello. It was a promise I intended to keep.
As I gingerly steeped down the empty streets into the darkness, daypack over my shoulder and t-shirt once again dry, I reveled in my personal discovery and how warm these people had been. I banked to the left and laboriously tried to retrace my steps to get back to the center from where I began my climb. I managed this, but not before being startled by a snorting noise behind me. I turned around thinking I was being followed and immediately went into self-defense mode, for I was otherwise alone and rather lost. As I turned around, I
saw the moonlit image of two saddled donkeys at the crest of the cobblestone stairs staring back at me as if to say, “What are you doing here?” They did not move other than to feed on the grapes suspended right in front of their mouths and clap the ground with their hooves. For perhaps thirty seconds we looked at each other, completely still. The moonlight was so intense from behind that I could see the color of the ripening grapes. I heard no other sounds, but their teeth chomping on the grapes. They then turned away to ignore me and I did the same to continue my return back to a world so far from the brief dreamlike snapshot I had just lived, now forever etched in my memory.
It is effortless to look beyond modern Berat’s rough edges to watch and understand its methodical tempo. Like in the rest of the Balkans, unemployment prompts men of all ages to pack cafés throughout the daytime. Or they lounge at brick walls to play chess, dominoes, or backgammon. Others with a few lekë (pronounced lek) to spare waste it away at a gambling hall. It, too, is overflowing with men
Guest For Dinner
If there's food, I'll be there...
at all hours of the day and evening. Locusts chirp from the hills above. Peace Corps volunteers share the computer terminals at the Internet café. I think to myself that Berat is by no means the ultimate post for enduring hardship. I see Aurelio rather often and we pass hours on end at his café or go to dinner. When he is away, his staff tends to me. When his staff is temporarily missing, his customers take a seat and entertain me until he arrives. The hospitality in Albania is never-ending. I have even had to decline invitations from others because I cannot make it from one point to the other in time. At any rate, get-togethers for meals or coffees know no concept of time. While excusing yourself early to attend another social engagement may very well work in pretentious Connecticut (it is even common practice), it is unheard of here and beyond offensive.
Informing Aurelio of my intentions to leave Berat for the coast, he invited me to lunch at his house the next day. No chance of refusing, for it would be highly insulting (and frankly, I could forego the coast and stay in Berat one more
day, anyway) I said I’d be glad to. His wife prepared a risotto dish stuffed with shellfish. This came with sides of salami, cheese, a salad, and two bottles of wine. Lunch with his wife, little baby, and eight-year-old daughter lasted three hours and conveniently so during the hours when Berat is without electricity. From his front porch, I looked up to the castle, appreciated the effort his family put forth to keep an orderly place to live, especially the front yard. Aureilo, too, grows grapes, now ready to be eaten from the vine. My father, who makes his own wine and has maintained grape arbors for almost thirty years, would love Berat.
Gasping for air and sopping wet from the climb back to Bilbil’s house, I emptied my pack full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas for his family. I also brought a cumbersome watermelon. They were delighted at my gesture even though I had no other idea what to bring them. But a watermelon? What was I thinking? It felt as if I was dragging five sandbags up the hillside! I had to pick a watermelon? It would be an hour until my shirt dried out in the
At Dinner With Aurelio
Nothing the man wouldn't do for me...
still-warm, late afternoon breeze.
We recommenced our conversation from the night before, this time with photos to fill the gaps. One cousin arrived who lives in Pisa, back to see the family on vacation. So, with him interpreting from Italian to Albanian and back to Italian, we communicated even better. His mother asked me into their home and to stay for dinner. This thrilled me to no end and for two hours I was inundated with cheese, smoked sausages, bread, fresh vegetables, and that burdensome watermelon. There home is very tasteful and well furnished inside and belies the cracking and uneven exterior. I tried to excuse myself several times, but their only come back was to fill my plate with more mountainous portions of food. I had a blast with them. At the end of the evening, I gave everyone at the table a lapel pin and a hug. Stuffed to the brim, I rolled my way all the way down hill into the center of town back to Aurelio’s to tell him about my phenomenal experience.
The extra day in Berat had much more of an impact on my journey than other times when I decided to prolong
No description needed...
my stay elsewhere. This time, it indicated that the end of my journey was nearing, and it was time to plot a route north back to the origin of my journey, Ukraine. I must give myself a few days to spare, in the event unforeseen circumstances impede my way back: strikes, border closures, and missed connections can wreak havoc in this part of the world.
It is the third time in three years I have been enveloped with this somber feeling during the closing stages of these two months. I now move about Berat slowly and methodically, fully aware that this age of exploration and spontaneity is over. Tomorrow, I leave and will make my way as far as I can, perhaps out of Albania, into Macedonia. Just the planning to get out of Albania requires much discussion, argument with bus drivers, and enormous patience. No one is sure how it’s done, but has heard of various routes that can take me by taxi eventually to the Maecdonian border. Maps are clear, but bus connections and stops are not. From there, I will have to go through Belgrade, probably Budapest, and determine a train route to Ukraine from there. I
Abandoned cement bunkers are amassed near international borders...
really have no feel for how much ground I will need to cover each day, but I want to move aggressively. I am pensive and melancholy that I cannot go on through Orhid, into Bulgaria, and turn over every stone in Romania. But that is for another trip. I am not tired unlike previous years. I am usually plagued with the emotional fatigue of lifting my pack and repeating the routine of looking for accommodation, seeking out connections, and familiarizing myself with a new destination.
I depart Berat with a woodcarving Aurelio bought me. It is just one more act of generosity in a country whose people are far too short on all other resources. Of the seven countries I have seen a part of, I regret the most not dedicating more time to Albania. It may be country completely underdeveloped and initially difficult to accept, but it is one where its overwhelmingly friendly welcome will have you coming back. And, yes, I will come back to Albania.
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