Tour05 Berat and Durres

One of the old churches at the Castle in Berat, Albania

Alma, the owner of the B+B, suggested that we - Pete, a Kiwi backpacker and I - see Berat. We went to Berat by bus - it is about a two and a half hour bus ride south west of Durres. Berat is famous for its medieval town and for its castle with several beautiful churches.

Our guide at the Castle

We walked to the bus/train station in Durres, and just missed the 9 AM bus and so we didn't get to Berat till 12:30. It was raining, but not hard, most of the time we were there. The main issue with the rain was that it was hard to take pictures without getting water on the camera.

Berat, although it is major tourist place in Albania, has very few English speakers, so we had a hard time establisheing when we could get a bus back to Durres, and we had to sort of feel out way around the town looking for the places we wanted to see.

The Castle at the top
Part of the old city at foot of the bluff
And part of Pete's face at the bottom of this image of Berat

From the bus station, we went back the way the bus had come into town because we had seen the old town across the river. We could see the castle on top of a high bluff, and there was a sign the pointed to the , very steep, cobblestone road leading up to it. The bluff and the river are only a few blocks away from the bus station. We stopped on our way to pick up some very inexpensive pizza from a small shop, then walked towards the river.

At the bottom of the bluff, there was a mosque - we could see the minaret a bit up the hill - and a steep footpath leading up into a group of interesting looking buildings, so we wandered up there and found we were in a beautiful part of the medieval town. Because it was raining and because we had very limited time, we didn't go across the river to the other part of the old town. Instead, we climbed up to the castle.

That was a hard climb. Several cars passed us as we climbed, so I suspect you could get a ride, but I didn't see any taxis. At the gate to the castle we were charged about a dollar each for admission and asked if we wanted a guide. Our guide was very nice 20 year old woman who will, next fall, be going to university to major in English. She took us the museum which has lovely icons and a very nice church sanctuary with very elaborate wood carvings. It cost $2 each to go into the museum. Unfortunately, the electrical power was off - in the whole town - so we did not get a good look at many of the beautiful things.

Pete, walking on a wall at the Castle

Then we walked around a small part of the grounds of the castle, seeing two other churches and a really great view of the valley before we had to head back down to catch our bus. The castle ground, with several churches - the oldest was nearly a 1000 years old -and spectacular view was worth at least another few hours of exploring. We caught a 2:30 bus to Tirane that stopped in Durres, and got back around 5 PM.

A view of the valley from the Castle

It would have worked out better without the rain and if we had caught the 9:00 bus so we would have had an extra hour in Berat, but seeing the old town, and especially the castle, was worth the 5 hours on the bus. That ride also showed me how difficult it would be to ride my bicycle in southern Albania. The road, once we got past the expressway section that I rode north the day before, was not good; no shoulder. bad pavement, and lots of big vehicle traffic.

The expressway riding with heavy traffic that I've done in Albania wasn't fun, but it was pretty safe, Riding the roads coming up from the south would not be safe. There are two main roads from the south. Pete rode the bus up the other one on his way to Durres, and said it was just as bad. Albania is working to make their roads better, as I have seen by the mostly very good roads I have ridden here, but the roads in the south must have low priority. Albania and Greece do not get along and there is little to no commercial or tourist traffic coming into Albania over its border with Greece. Pete took a short bus ride to the border in Greece, walked across the border - there are no buses that cross - then had to take a taxi to the nearest town.

Alma says the road north to Shkoder is mostly very nice, but the road north of Shkoder, which goes some 25+ miles to the border with Montenegro is not as good. I expect all of the roads, except in Shkoder itself, to be better than the southern part of the road to Berat.

Infrastructure in Albania is bad shape, but improving, and the people are friendly, the signs are in the latin alphabet ;-) and, at least on the expressway, it is easy to find your way around. There seem to be more services available than in much of Romania and the roads that I have ridden were much better than most Romanian roads - they are good roads by US or European standards.

Durres - Roman ruins, palm trees, and expensive cars

Albania feel like it is chaotically being developed and improved with the idea that it has a great potential for tourism. It is a beautiful country and the coast has a good climate - Durres has big palm trees! - but fifty years under a harsh dictatorship has left a lot of damage, both economic and social. and that damage will take a long time to repair.

The beach at Durres

Although I have not always enjoyed riding here, mostly because of the wind, I have never felt unsafe. Albania is the country that I most worried about in terms of my physical safety on this tour. However, although it has a reputation as a somewhat lawless place. It doesn't feel that way at all. It feels friendly and relaxed. I've seen no evidence of crime - other than a lot of Mercedes ;-) - and lots of evidence of peaceful, if impoverished, life. I wouldn't leave my bicycle outside here - or in most other countries - and there are some beggars, although no more than in Turkey, but I have felt perfectly safe walking or bicycling here. As in the other southern Balkan countries I have just toured, the countryside is beautiful, the food is good, the people are friendly, and the cost of touring is quite low - about half of what it costs me to tour in the least expensive parts of the US. I look forward to touring the coast of Croatia in a few days, but I know I'm going to resent the prices there after being spoiled here!

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