One sunny day in early January, we drove our Albanian friend’s van (well, I drove and my wife was my ever-reliable co-pilot, which I consider kind-of driving), from Krujë to Berat (where we had a last-minute hotel reservation), with a short stopover in Elbasan.
One thing that I discovered on this journey was: contrary to a previously-held belief, Google-Maps isn’t complete crap. It directed us around backed-up traffic in Tiranë and probably saved us a good fifteen minutes. That alone is a fact worthy of some considerable note. But wait! although this realization may shock and awe, some of our readers, some other things happened on the trip as well. So read on, if you dare!
I was a bit surprised to find that, even with its reputation as one of Albania’s most polluted towns, Elbasan itself was quite tidy. Elbasan is an ancient city (chosen for it’s strategic location), with its history dating back to the 2nd century AD. This was an early Illyrian settlement, during which time, was called either Scampis, Skampa and possibly Skampini shortly thereafter.
For all of you history buffs out there, the ancient Roman road, known as the Via Egnatia ran through Elbasan castle & fortress grounds that connected Rome to the Eastern regions. In Albania, the trace of Via Egnatia begins in Durres and is divided into two itineraries, one that leads to the ancient site of Apollonia (which we will discuss in our next post) and the other through Elbasan, to Istanbul, and beyond. Somehow, this road is partially preserved and can still be explored!
“All roads lead to Rome.”~ Alain de Lille
Back to the story…
On this particular Saturday, there was a carnival in full swing out in front of what remains of Elbasan Castle (it originally had 26 impressive towers that were 9 m tall, but much of their grandeur has been destroyed due to the passage of time, unfortunately).
Friends, families and humans of all ages with their domesticated compatriots were out joyfully ‘Carpe-ing the Diem’ during a time when near everyone the-world-over was trembling in plague-fear behind drawn shades and closed doors, Elbasan-ites? -ians? were enjoying the sunshine with those they held dear. It was truly wonderful.
This is where pitchfork-wavers (usually from behind the safety of computer monitors) fly into an apoplectic, frothing, frenzied rage at the thought of such perceived irresponsibility.
But I don’t care, and neither did the carnival-goers at the time. Obviously.
After exploring some interesting things inside of the fortress walls, we had a quick cappuccino in a particularly cool stone-walled establishment called Cafe Kalaja, atop one of the castle turrets. But, alas, direct sun-exposure, blatant merriment, and the wanton disregard for human life eventually proved to be more than even our rebellious hearts could withstand, so we fired up the green getaway wagon and fled into the gently rolling hills as lackadaisically as our flexible schedule suggested.
Next destination: Berat
A short time later, before the unknown perils of dusk befell us, we arrived at Belagrita Palace. Yes, the very same hotel that has been previously but indirectly mentioned. The hotel that we would, later that night… sleep at. Dun, dun, dunnn! (Queue sinister smoke and eerie music).
Belagrita Palace is a 4-star luxury hotel located at the entrance to the city of Berat. We were welcomed by a lovely older Albanian woman who of course offered us a glass of local wine after our short and lazy journey (classic Albanian hospitality).
We then steeled our plucky resolve for yet another courageous mission: venture out into the historic and absolutely lovely picture-postcard town of Berat, another one of Albania’s Unesco Heritage Gems, and home to many fascinating things to see & do.
And there, to further prove our steadfast dispositions, stroll about a bit before devouring a positively gigantic and delicious pizza. Even interact with some of the welcoming, friendly, hilarious and thoughtful locals before once again mounting our faithful, green, petrol-powered steed to disappear into the darkness of night.
The next morning we awoke fully-alive and well-rested, warm and cozy in our bed, suffering nothing either sinister, nefarious or untoward. Indeed, just the opposite. But the day had only just begun. Now I must caution you, some of the following material may disturb our more sensitive readers, continue at your own peril.
As we were checking out of this beautiful new hotel, with its warm, welcoming and incredibly pleasant staff, we were informed, much to our surprise, that breakfast was included with our stay. And my God, what a feast!
We were plied with a stellar, multi-course feast fit for revered deities. Two tables had to be pushed together to facilitate the delivery of this Epicurean barrage (unfortunately we didn’t get a picture but trust us, this was something else). Course after course, the local organic wonders and cured meats came at us, delicious plate by the plentiful bowl, nutritious glass followed by the aromatic cup, artisanally crafted bread, whole and segmented fruits (but no pointed sticks), honey, syrup, and many fresh preserves. We nobly weathered the onslaught until at last, we could eat no more. Whereupon our defeated hunger was mercilessly banished, not to return for many, many hours.
Belagrita Palace, Berat, your unforgettable, unrivalled hospitality almost ruptured our stomachs and your beautiful hotel offered convenience at a price too good to be true, so, if you’ll have us, we’ll gladly keep coming back for more.
With light hearts and heavy stomachs we dragged our entirely satiated selves to the trusty chariot, slowly mounted our perches and set course for amazing Apollonia, an archaeological site of classical antiquity located in what was once southern Illyria, near the modern-day town of Fier.
You can find our next Balkan journey here.