Berat, Albania: where for the first time I met a guy actually named Elvis!

From Gjirokastër, we headed north to the city of Berat. It is an old town which used to be very important, but much smaller.


The housing blocks you see in the valley, the new part of the city, were built to accommodate the influx of workers required when China opened a massive textile factory here, which required a workforce of 50,000! Today, the idea of China opening a textile factory in Europe is quite funny, but in these days, Albania was very close to China, having decided that the USSR was not communist enough!

The white building in the middle, which looks like the Capitol in Washington, is not a Government building but a private university. Albanians I talked to agreed that public universities in the country are under financed and professors are often underpaid and not very motivated. This results in a somewhat deficient higher education system. In recent years, dozens of private universities have opened up. You might think that they stepped in to provide top quality education to those who can afford to pay for it. Unfortunately, they are worst than the public universities and in fact simply provide a diploma to those who can buy it.


The old area known as Patrea.


And on the opposite side of the river, Antipatrea, of course, below the massive castle. The urban design, with houses packed on top of one another, is what gives the city it’s nickname, “The City of a Thousand Windows”.


Like most communist leaders of his generation, Albania’s ruler for over 40 years (1944-1985), Enver Hodja, liked to be worshiped as some sort of living god. Among other schemes to emphasize his alleged awesomeness, he had this beautiful mountain defaced with the inscription of his first name “ENVER” (very similar to what I saw in North Korea). A few years ago, artist Armando Lulaj spent 6 month changing the word to “NEVER” (you’ll have to click on the picture to see it).


Walking down from the castle was quite pleasant, with the trees giving me the impression of being in Italy. But the climb up would have been a great occasion to support the local taxi industry. Not particularly strenuous, but I got there hot and sweaty.


What is very different between this large castle and many others is that people still live inside. How many people live here is a difficult question, as many houses are vacation or week-end houses. However, there are no school and few jobs, so the majority of permanent residents are retired.


All this we learned from our guide Elvis, seen here explaining something to Ines and Marion. Compared to the visit of the Gjirocastër fortress, where we mainly looked at old rocks, here we got tons of interesting information for a very modest 5 Euros each (furthermore, most of the churches are locked, so without a guide you won’t even get in). As we arrived at the entrance of the castle, Elvis (apparently his real name) heard us speaking and approached us in excellent French. We could not refuse. He explained about his job as a guide that English is essential and in Albania, Italian is quite common, but his French – and I think Russian – gives him a big edge in the business.


He explained how Orthodox Christianity perceives the Ascension of the Virgin Mary and all sorts of other things I had never heard of (and probably will forget soon, but he was quite captivating so I listened attentively).


In this other version of the same scene, the Devil tries to hold her back and an archangel cuts his arms off. If you pay close attention, his face is not shaped like the others, it is not as elongated. The iconographer wanted to make the Devil look like a foreigner, i.e. a Muslim Turk. Berat was a major episcopal centre in its day and there were an incredible 40 churches inside the castle! Most are small, known as house churches. A lot were demolished in an 18th century earthquake and the remaining were closed and never maintained during the communist years.


In fact, during Albania’s version of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, communists pillaged the churches in search of valuable things. But communist ideology or not, the Albanians of the old days were a superstitious bunch and they first gouged out the eyes of the saints, to prevent them from bearing witness to the sacrilege!

At my request, Elvis also told us a lot about the challenges facing Albania today. The main one is corruption, the principle obstacle to development in so many countries. But there is hope and the government is apparently starting to take the issue seriously, as this is a condition for eventually joining the EU. One of the problem is that it is difficult for the government to get the support of the population. For generations of Albanians, the government has always been the enemy. Criminality is another problem. After the collapse of the communist regime, Albania fell into chaos and big-scale organized crime became rampant. Still today it is a major platform for the entry of drugs into the Old Continent, sometimes referred to as the Colombia of Europe. It also makes drugs, like in the small village of Lazarat, where the police avoided going for decades. According to the BBC, their drug production is worth the equivalent of half of Albania’s legal GDP. Again because of EU pressure, the Albanian government took control of the village only 3 months ago. It took 800 heavily armed officers. Again according to the BBC, the villagers fired rocket propelled grenades at them and even shelled them with mortar fire! 

Tomorrow I’ll write about the capital, Tirana. I won’t lie, I had low expectations, but I was both surprised and impressed.


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