Berat given facelift as tourism becomes key year-round industry

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 12, 2018 13:01

Berat given facelift as tourism becomes key year-round industry

TIRANA, Sept. 12 – Road and tourism infrastructure at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Berat, southern Albania, is being given a facelift thanks to a World Bank project supporting urban and tourism development in the country.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since a decade, Berat is having one of its characteristic cobblestone streets leading to the landmark castle repaved, upgrading infrastructure at a time tourism has emerged as the main business in town.

The reconstruction of the ‘Mihal Komneno’ pedestrian cobblestone street and the ‘Tabia’ view point on the way to the local ancient castle is being carried out as part of a larger World Bank-funded project supporting four tourism centers south of Albania, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Berat and Gjirokastra, as well as Saranda and Permet.

The US$ 71 million project will help create jobs, increase incomes, and support local economic development by improving urban infrastructure, enhancing tourism assets, and strengthening the capacity of institutions to support tourism at local level, says the World Bank.

The Berati projects underway are focused on upgrading road and underground infrastructure to the local ancient castle, the main tourist attraction in the hilly town, nicknamed the “city of a thousand windows.”

"With the support of the World Bank, we are working on two important projects in Berat. The rehabilitation of ‘Mihal Komneno’ pedestrian cobblestone street and the reconstruction of the ‘Muzak Topia’ street whose works are scheduled to start soon" says Eris Zenelaj, a contract manager at the state-run Albanian Development Fund.

Eugen Kallfani, the director of the Berat regional directorate of cultural monuments, says the reconstruction of the cobblestone street is well aligned with the development priorities of Berat and preserving the town’s cultural and historical heritage.

"The stones and skills used to lay the street perfectly reflect the preservation of old tradition and techniques," he tells the World Bank in a video documentary.

Local government officials expect the number of tourists in Berat, a two-hour drive south of Tirana, to be visited by a record 100,000 tourists this year.

“The region of Berat is home to 486 cultural heritage monuments which has had an extraordinary impact especially on the cultural tourism flow in the past two to three years. Talking numbers, we expect some 100,000 visitors to visit Berat this year," says Kallfani.

Mishela Kazazi, a tourism expert at the municipality of Berat, says tourism in town is becoming year-round and that she is optimistic the new rehabilitated streets will boost tourism in Berat and increase tourist numbers at the castle neighbourhood.

The Tabia view point in the southern part of the castle offering a panoramic landscape of Berat is also being reconstructed as part of the project that involves rehabilitation of both the traditional and the urban streets, including the upgrade of water supply and sewerage systems as well as street lighting.

"We believe that this street will bring us many benefits, as we have participated in public hearings for this purpose. I think that will bring added value for our city. New hotels, hostels and restaurants are being built and the rehabilitation of this street will also bring new serious investment," says Valter Mio, the manager of a local hotel.

Built on the banks of the Osumi River over 2,400 years ago and home to an ancient castle that towers over the city, Berat is among the main tourist destinations in Albania, unique city for its overlapping houses.

The cobblestone layers have engraved every street in Berat and the stone pathways that surround the castle, making it resemble a decorative hand-woven carpet.

"My grandfather and father used to be cobblestone masons. We have preserved this skill generation after generation to conserve Berat history as a city built on stones," says Xhorxhi Fani, a cobblestone mason in Berat.


Development alternatives

A recent study on the integrated urban development of Berat has identified three alternatives for the city, says the Albanian Development Fund.

The first alternative sees Berat as a regional administrative center and a center of cultural events and services. The second one sees Berat as a green-blue environmentally-friendly and healthy city. The third alternative is focused on Berat as a city of cultural heritage and a regional tourism center. All three alternatives are based on strengthening the role of Berat as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the establishment of a vibrant environment that enables economic development based on culture and tourism. Packages to upgrade local infrastructure have been proposed for each of the alternatives in order to improve connection and mobility among the historic neighborhoods of Mangalem and Gorrica to the Osum river and urban space around the local cultural facility, the library and the squares.


Emergency restoration needed

A UNESCO site since 2008, Berat has in the past few years had much of its road infrastructure and main tourist attractions such as the 18th century seven-arched stone Gorica bridge, a 13th century orthodox bridge and a museum of icons named after Albanian 16th century iconographic painter Onufri.

Heritage experts say that dozens of protected monuments of cultures, several of which abandoned, are in urgent need of intervention and careful restoration has to be made in order to preserve originality in the characteristic houses, some of which have been turned into guesthouses.

Since 2008, Berat has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list as a rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period. Located in southern Albania, Berat bears witness to the coexistence of various religious and cultural communities down the centuries. It features a castle, locally known as the Kala, most of which was built in the 13th century, although its origins date back to the 4th century BC. The citadel area numbers many Byzantine churches, mainly from the 13th century, as well as several mosques built under the Ottoman era which began in 1417.

Berat bears witness to a town which was fortified but open, and was over a long period inhabited by craftsmen and merchants. Its urban centre reflects a vernacular housing tradition of the Balkans, examples of which date mainly from the late 18th and the 19th centuries. This tradition has been adapted to suit the town’s life styles, with tiered houses on the slopes, which are predominantly horizontal in layout, and make abundant use of the entering daylight, says UNESCO.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 12, 2018 13:01