Home to Onufri, the great Albanian painter of the 16th century, the city of Berat is a serenely woven poem around two hills.
Known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows”, Berat is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. It appears as if each house on the citadel hill is simultaneously looking over at the visitors below, as inviting them in.
As is the architecture, so are the people. It does not take long for the friendly locals to make eye contact, persuading you to buy fresh produce at their UNESCO World Heritage homes or eat at a restaurant in the old town of Mangalemi.
Mangalemi features beautifully stacked, Ottoman-inspired houses offering visitors more than a glimpse into a traditional Albanian dwelling.
Some serve local food, while others sell traditional costumes and hand-woven carpets (qilim).
According to a legend, the surrounding Tomorr Mountain was once a giant, who fought with another giant called Shpirag over the heart of a young woman. The fight turned into demise for both and the young woman drowned in her tears giving birth to the Osum River. This river now flows through the heart of Berat bringing calmness to the city.
A walk up on the cobblestone paths leads to the citadel, where a wealth of Onufri’s artistic creation waits to be admired inside the Saint Mary church, including a mural painting of Onufri’s son. A relic of byzantine architecture, the church boasts 106 icons and 67 liturgical objects created by Albanian iconography painters from the 14th until the 20th century.
Within the walls of the citadel lie a number of Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques. The citadel was burned down by the Romans in 200 B.C, but its walls have been fortified by new ones just like the people who always found strength to persevere and continue living in Berat.
The Little Church of St. Theodore, also within the citadel, has distinct wall paintings by Onufri. He is renowned for bringing individuality and realism to his religious paintings through emotional facial expressions. He has even been credited with creating a ‘shiny red’ that the French artistic masters call Onufri’s red.
As you descend down the steep hills from the castle, you will find the National Ethnographic Museum. Housed in an 18th century Ottoman building, the museum takes you through the everyday life of a local family. Similar museum-homes are spread across Albania and Kosovo; on a closer look, you will see many regional similarities in garments, designs and tools.
In some of these homes, the ceilings are covered in wooden artistic designs. Ancient tapestries and chests serve as decorations, taking you back to the ancient times. Such are the rooms of Hotel Muzaka, named after the famous 14th century Albanian noble family, which retook the town from the Ottomans and founded the Principality of Berat.
The best way to enjoy the breathtaking view of the old town of Mangalemi is from across the river while sipping coffee or tea. Quiet mornings in ancient courtyards surrounded by stone walls serve as a time to reflect on all the artists and painters like Onufri that have come before and given this city its soul.
(Photos by Rilind Latifi)