My ‘fast & furious’ Western Balkans Trip – 3 Countries in 6 Days (Part 2)
Day Two: Albania (Elbasan – Shelcan – Berat – Apollonia – Vlora)
Early next morning after breakfast (which I have to say was quite unimpressive and this proved to be rather the norm at many of the hotels in Albania), we transferred a short distance southeast of Elbasan to the village of Shelcan to see its (literally) hidden gem – the St. Nicholas Church. It was closed but my guide went to the keeper’s house just next door and he came over to let us in.
The church’s exterior is quite unassuming, but the interior frescoes are just stunning and amazingly well-preserved. They are attributed to Onufri – a 16th – century local icon painter who studied in Venice and, influenced by the Renaissance, broke with the strict canons of Byzantine religious art by introducing bolder colors and vivid realism in the saints’ facial expressions. I especially loved the three-faced image of the Holy Trinity – it seemed to exude something divine and diabolical at the same time…
The keeper of the church – an absolutely adorable old man, kindly invited us to join him for a cup of Turkish coffee at his house. He spoke no English, but with my guide translating, he was eager to chat and to tell us about his family and everyday life. It turned out that morning coffee in Albania often comes with a big shot of rakia – the strong fruit brandy which is the national drink of many Balkan countries. Sipping rakia and chasing it down with Turkish coffee at 9 AM – what a remarkable start of my journey…The setting on his porch was so idyllic – with all the greenery around us, the fresh morning air, and the silence disturbed only by the clucking and bleating of the neighbors’ animals.
Back in Elbasan, it was time for a quick visit to the citadel. It is believed that a Roman trading post was established here in the 2nd Century BC on the Via Egnatia – the ancient road which connected the Eastern Adriatic coast with Byzantium (now Istanbul). Even though the Romans fortified the settlement with defensive walls and towers, its location in a wide and open river valley made it vulnerable to the attacks of Slav and Germanic tribes in the 6th – 7th centuries and gradually led to its full destruction. It was not until the 15th Century AD that the invading Ottomans re-discovered the stronghold’s strategic importance and rebuilt the fortifications which they used as a base for their conquest of the region. The fortress they built had 26 towers and 3 gates, parts of which still survive. We managed to get to the top a building across the street (it was under construction) for some neat aerial photos of the southern part of the wall.
We later continued with our drive south and towards Berat with a brief stop at the village of Belsh to admire its lake. The area is very rural and some of the roads are in terrible condition, but the ride is quite scenic – we passed several small lakes and herds of grazing sheep with their shepherds on the way.
Berat’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the country’s highlights. With its cobblestone streets and traditional whitewashed houses with tiled roofs and windows overlooking the the Osum river and seeming to climb the hill under the medieval castle, it is easy to understand why it was nicknamed ‘the town of a thousand windows’. Even during the Communist period, Berat was designated a ‘museum city’ which ultimately saved the castle and the unique mixture of Christian and Ottoman architecture.
We first drove up to the gate of the citadel which is quite well-preserved and offers great views over the city. People still live within the walls and there are several restaurants (we had a wonderful lunch at a family-run place here called Klea) and small shops as well. One of the churches here – St. Mary’s, houses the Onufri Museum where a number of works by the famous icon painter and his students are displayed.
Later that afternoon, we continued to the ancient site of Apollonia where we met a local guide who took us around. Built on a hill overlooking the plains, Apollonia was founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC and later flourished under the Romans to become an important center of trade and education. It was an autonomous city-state which had its own local government and minted its own currency. It is believed that the future emperor Octavian studied here and had to rush back to Rome to claim power after Julius Caesar was assassinated.
Apollonia’s decline began in the 3rd century when its harbor started silting up as a result of an earthquake and the once thriving city was later abandoned. Nowadays, only a small part of the ancient site has been excavated and some of the most interesting finds are on display in a museum in the nearby St. Mary’s monastery.
We had a lovely seafood dinner at the San Giorgio Restaurant and spent the night at the Hotel Partner which was surprisingly modern.