Smiled upon by saints

How many claims to fame can one ancient city have? Gemma Deavin finds out.

Berat is not your typical Euro-summer destination. It's midday and the heat rises off the tar as if from a blowtorch. My mind fills with images of the glistening Ionian Sea 100 kilometres to the east. For a place known as the "smiling town", it feels empty and desolate.

However, Berat is also famous as "the city of a thousand and one windows". I look up to see the endless rows of white-washed Ottoman houses nestled into the hillside. Each structure sparkles with the reflection of at least a dozen tiny windows bouncing the sun back into the limestone valley.

On the cusp of the Albanian central mountainous region and the south-eastern lowlands, and 122 kilometres from Albania's capital, Tirane, Berat is more than 2400 years old.

The woman in the small tourist office across the road looks overheated and continues tapping on her computer until I ask for directions to the guesthouse earmarked in the guidebook.

"Up the hill, turn right, then left and you will see it," she says flippantly.

A group of children are perched on the stairs sucking ice-blocks from the small supermarket across the shiny white stone street.

Inside, we find our host sitting in the cool, heavy-walled restaurant area.

"I am Tomo, I will show you room," he says. Usually in the habit of scrutinising our options, today we drop our bags with the first rush of cold air from beneath a heavy wooden door. "You be happy here?"

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Very happy.

We leave the cool to see Tomo for some lunch and collapse into chairs under a fan spinning so fast the wafer-thin paper table cloth pinned down on all sides is levitating towards the ceiling.

A donkey and cart, sporting King Arthur-like wooden wheels, rolls past on the street below. The owner is moving at the same plodding pace. I get the immediate sense this is a place where history hasn't been left too far behind.

The guidebook tells me there were once two handsome young men - Tomorr and Shpirag - living in the region. Both had eyes for the "Lady of the Mountain". Unable to choose between them, the men were forced to fight for her love.

As she watched the duel, the young woman wept to the gods, urging them to stop the fighting. They froze everything.

The men were transformed into mountains and the Lady of the Mountain drowned in her tears. These tears now flow as the Osum river - the emerald-green body of water dividing the town.

They must have been strapping young men. Berat is at an average height of 455 metres above sea level. Unfortunately, there's no sign of an elevated breeze today. By late afternoon the sun's fire subsides and we can venture on to the streets. It has only been three hours but I sense the atmosphere is different. There are now at least five people outside.

Other characteristics become apparent, too. It is clear this is a town of religious coexistence. There are three main groups: Sunni Muslims, Bektashis and Orthodox Christians. The skyline backs up the story; 40 Byzantine churches and 30 mosques are nestled side by side throughout the maze of narrow cobbled streets.

We arrive at the main square as men with high pants and big tummies reopen their hardware and fruit and veg stores. Men with cigarettes, cards and cold drinks in hand fill the footpath cafes. Men roast corn in open drums on the side of the road. Men ... are everywhere.

In the park skirting the river, groups of men gather around chequerboards. All are wearing neat peak caps. Young boys negotiate the narrow pathways on their bicycles at breakneck speed. Slowly, the sun disappears, slipping below the mountain's ridge. There is a buzz in the air. And it's growing.

Before long we're standing at the spot where we stepped off the bus six hours earlier. The sky is a cool lilac colour and the air is milky warm. The once-empty main street is teeming with life.

I can see hundreds of smiles. And the rest of the family has come out to play. Women, children and teens join the "boys' club" streets. It feels like a festival.

They don't call it the Promenade Boulevard for nothing. Here, at sundown, people walk the street several times, catching up on the day's news and meeting friends. It has the same kind of heaving look, on a much smaller scale, as the start of the City to Surf in Sydney. Bobbing heads and a mass of colour.

The next morning, in a bid to take advantage of the early cool, we tramp up the steep, narrow laneways leading to the old citadel on the south side of town.

It's 8am. On the climb we are met with wide smiles and nodding gestures from the locals. They know better than anyone, now is the time to be out and about.

The streets are paved with white marble. It is smooth and slippery underfoot. I stumble more than once, feeling as though I am doing Michael Jackson's moonwalk down hill. We are almost at the citadel, or castle-quarter, and as we reach the top, a Mercedes covered in the frills and streamers of a wedding celebration joins us.

It's Sunday and we discover the citadel is the No. 1 place in town to get that happy wedding snap. At first we spot one or two couples. Most sport magnificent "meringue" creations with enough sequins and lace to rival any ballroom dance contestant. The temperature is rising every minute and the heavily clad make-up, synthetic dresses and stilettos are starting to take their toll.

By 10am there is a steady stream of brides and grooms tottering around the laneways with photographers and cameramen following their every move. They stop, pose, steal a kiss and move on. In Sydney it might be the candid, hand-in-hand beach shot everyone's after. In Albania, or at least Berat, the half-ruined bastion of history, is the backdrop at the top of everyone's list.

We take our leave from the wedding festivities and spend a couple of hours skirting the walls, marked by 24 turrets. An elderly couple has set up a small drinks stand in a cool archway leading to a large open dusty field at the very top. I feel the promised cool breeze that comes with elevation for the first time. Urban centres sit like giant grids in the surrounding unforgiving plains. The citadel, built in the third century BC, feels like a different world.

Crumbling walls are juxtaposed with immaculately maintained houses running neatly together along the laneways - laneways that have seen many reincarnations throughout the years.

Over the past 2000 years a fly on the wall in Berat would have also seen invasions by the Romans, Bulgarians and Serbians. In more recent years it would have seen the life of an Ottoman Empire province, the capturing of the town by Greeks, Austrian-Hungarians and Italians in World War I and the 20th century's communist regimes.

Prehistoric findings even suggest the town territory has been a settlement since the Bronze Age, from about 2600BC-1800BC.

Also famous as a crossroads for saints, it is thought that St Peter stopped in Berat on his way to Rome during the middle of the first century and that St Paul spent time here on his way to Apollonia.

With its depth of history, it's easy to see why Berat is, on top of everything else, also known as the museum city. While walking the walls, we find ourselves eye to eye with iconographic work depicting Saint Mary holding baby Jesus in her right arm, an exception from all other iconographic art canons, and John the Baptist.

These, among many others, hang inside the Onufri Museum, which is housed in St Mary's Church, dating back to 1797.

The 106 icons and 67 liturgical objects are some of the world's most ancient.

Berat is also the source of some of the world's most ancient religious manuscripts. The oldest, the Purple Codex of Berat, dates back to sixth century AD.

The manuscript, with 190 sheets, contains parts of the gospel of Christ's apostles, Mark and Matthew, and is written in capital letters in diluted silver and gold on a dark purple parchment. Only four other such codices exist - in Vienna, Patmos, Zurich and Rosano.

The other famous Berati codex, the Golden Codex, is the town's largest sacred parchment, with 413 sheets. Its gold and silver covers give way to scriptures of the New Testament written in gold script.

Both are kept safe in the Central State Archive in Tirane but it is remarkable to walk the white stone laneways where they were once so artfully crafted.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Lufthansa flies from either Hong Kong or Singapore to Tirane, via Munich, seven days a week. Sydney to Hong Kong or Singapore connections are serviced by Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines or Virgin Atlantic. Return fares start at $2353.

Once in Tirane, you can reach Berat (122 kilometres away) by hiring a car and driver and taking the national road south as far as Lushnje before taking a left to Berat. Buses for Berat, Lek300 ($3), depart from ish-Uzina Enver. Minibuses, Lek350, leave from the Bread Factory, near the new ring road.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Tomorri is in the centre of town with double rooms starting from $65. Phone +355 32 34462, see hotel-tomorri-berat.com.

A good budget choice is Mangalemi Hotel, with rooms for $15-$30 a night. It is in a historical wooden house with a rooftop terrace and restaurant. Email hotel_mangalemi@yahoo.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See albaniatourism.com.

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