If you’re a castle and ruins-aholic like me, then Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites are a dream. An unexpected hive of history; castles peak out over mountain ranges, Greek and Roman-influenced ruins face the Ionian sea.
The settings are as memorable as the remnants of the buildings they’re famous for.
I visited three of Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites – Berat, Gjirokaster and the Greek/Roman ruins of Butrint. Here’s a snapshot of all three.
Berat and Berat Castle
Berat’s Castle dates from the 4th century, though most of the structure is from the 13th. It’s a schlep up the cobbled hill from the main highway, and the castle is a neighbourhood in itself. The very pleasure is in ambling through the narrow streets, clambering around the walls, and admiring the outlook from 360 viewpoints.
For eats, a homely local restaurant sits on the right just after the castle entrance (turn right after the café umbrellas). You can be plied with local specialities, including raki, for a few Euro. Delicious. And/or intoxicating.
Berat and Gjirokaster share Ottoman-style architecture, featuring white buildings with portrait rectangular windows facing out from the hillside over the valley below.
It’s a pretty picture, and wandering through the town you’ll find examples of the pre-restored versions of these imposing homes.
- The bus from Tirana to Berat costs 400lek (less than €3) and takes around 3 hours. It’s not a fancy tourist bus, but it does the trick. It stops centrally in Berat.
- Berat Castle has an entrance fee of 100 lek (about €0.75). Other museums within the castle complex also cost 100 lek. The Ethnography Museum (not on the castle complex) is 200 lek (€1.50).
- There’s plenty of accommodation to be found in Berat. I stayed at the Hotel Belgrad Mangalem.
- The helpful folks at Berat Backpackers are a good source of information on onward buses.
Gjirokaster and Gjirokaster Castle
Gjirokaster has similar 17th century Ottoman architecture to Berat, with a setting even more dramatic. I discovered this the hard way, after kidding myself it would be easy to wheel my case a mile. After all, how hard can a mile be??? Up 30 degree incline cobbles – pretty hard! Mind you, the view is worth it (or it was after I’d collapsed in a heap at the top).
Gjirokaster’s accommodation options – unlike those in Berat – sit far nearer the castle, which means that once you’ve lugged your luggage up there (or for the more sensible, got a taxi), it’s not too much further up to visit the castle.
The castle welcomes you with artillery remnants in an arched vault; and follows up with an only marginally less impressive US fighter plane perched overlooking the city.
The bus from Sarande to Gjirokaster costs 300lek (less than €3). If you catch the one that’s going through to Tirana, it’s coach style and drops you on the highway that bypasses Gjirokaster.
- Gjirokaster castle costs 200 lek (about €1.50). The Ethnography Museum is the same price. There are other local museums to visit at a similar cost.
- Gjirokaster is the only place I visited in Albania where the locals asked me if I needed somewhere to stay, so you shouldn’t get stuck for a room. I stayed at Kotoni B&B; they can help with onward bus details.
- A taxi from the highway to the part of town near the castle is 400 lek. It’s money well spent (as I did on the journey back down the hill).
Butrint – situated south of the Albanian Riviera resort of Sarande – has a history that started Greek, went through Roman, and ended with Venetian. The city was abandoned in the late middle ages, but remnants of all its reinventions remain.
- The (roughly hourly) bus from Sarande to Butrint costs 100 lek (around €0.75) and takes around 40 minutes.
- The Butrint entrance fee is 700 lek for foreigners (about €5). It takes a good couple of hours to fully explore the site.
- There are zillions of accommodation options in Sarande. I stayed at the Flowers Residence.
If you fancy another dose of Castle in Albania, then Shkodra is another option. It’s been added to my wish list!