The Keeper of Keys

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck
While in Tirana, we came upon a clock tower just east of Skanderberg Square.

Our first instinct, as always, was to find a way up it, longing for photos of the square we could get from above. There was no one manning the door so we turned to a tiny gallery just beside it, poked our heads in, and asked the single employee if she knew how we could get inside. She reached for a set of keys on the wall just beside her and we made our way back to the tower. In a few seconds we were climbing the dusty stairs to the top. We had entered without any payment, only giving the tower’s keeper the promise that we would close the door on our way out.

A few shards of broken glass were scattered on the narrow platform at the top. We circled it to check angles for light and view, snapped a dozen photos, and then just stood soaking in the busy street scenes below, staying much longer than we ever intended.

It’s in these moments where we find such pleasure as travelers – relishing in the discovery of those places that seem so deliciously secretive. Just us, right there, right then.

It’s in these moments where we find such pleasure as travelers – relishing in the discovery of those places that seem so deliciously secretive.
Tirana Tower
Tirana Skanderberg Square
In Berat, we found another keeper.

The town of a thousand windows is one of Albania’s two UNESCO sites and a relatively popular destination for tourists. (Consider though, that the word “popular” must be applied extremely loosely – we were the only two foreigners on our bus from Tirana and we saw only a handful of others.) Our frequent strolls were met with stares and odd looks, perhaps the familiarity of our faces being a factor given the endurance of our presence. While the highlights of this compact city can easily be seen in one day, we stayed for three.

Berat is a tiny city, but one that we enjoyed walking many times over, up onto the cramped cobbles between hillside homes, navigating the slick mossy steps and stopping for photos of the odd bright door amidst the repeated walls of off-white. On one outing I got caught up in a complex conversation of hand gestures with an elderly woman peddling various jellies and pomegranate wine, and she expertly succeeded in getting me to pay far too much for a recycled soda bottle of the latter. (I have developed a distressing indifference to adorable children selling their wares – knowing that making a purchase does more harm than good – but I can never resist a cute grandma.)

Berat is a tiny city, but one that we enjoyed walking many times over.

Berat Sunset
White City of Berat
Berat Doors and Stairs
Berat Promenade Day
Bridge in Berat
Road to Berat

But it was further up the rocky hill to Berat Castle where we met Toni. The cost to enter the castle was minimal, and after we paid it, Toni offered us an exclusive tour for ten euros more. Knowing nothing of what we were about to see and skeptical of how much information would be on display inside, we accepted.

Thankfully we did, because Toni had the keys.

“People call me the king of the castle,” Toni said, “but that’s just not true. I’ve lived here all of my life, so I have a set of keys.”

Constructed mainly in the 13th century, the fortress has sustained a considerable amount of damage over the years but still remains a formidable sight given the elevated location and characteristics of its architecture. Even past conquerors and tyrants, acknowledging its importance, sometimes chose to leave it unharmed (the Ottomans, for example, destroyed many churches throughout the country but left some in Berat).

And it was at those churches where Toni pulled out his keys to remove the padlocks that barred the doors. Light filtered in to illuminate the vibrant frescoes and delicately patterned floors inside the tiny buildings. Those of which may have been no more remarkable than any others we have seen, but I believe the covert nature of our viewing them made the hues brighter and the details more intricate.

At Toni’s insistence, we were allowed to take photos, but not share them publicly. So instead we share this collection from around the fortress, which also still has a population and tiny economy within its walls.

Toni offered us an exclusive tour for ten euros more. Thankfully we accepted, because Toni had the keys.

Cannon in Berat Fortress
Life in Berat
Churches in Berat Fortress
Berat Stone Walls
Berat Fortress
Cobble Streets in Berat Fortress
View of Berat from Above

Tony the Keeper of Keys

Pete with the King of the Castle.

There are few places left in the world, and even fewer in Europe, that offer such spectacularly fresh experiences with no formal tourist-herding control in place. I expect that Berat and Albania won’t be this way for long – soon the keepers will be replaced by turnstiles and visitors will no longer have the luxury of ample space and time.

For those of you with even an inkling of wanting to travel to Albania, now would be the time to do it.

where we stayed

We stayed at one of the highest rated hotels in town with a perfect location right on the boulevard (for an unbelievably low price). We were comfortable and very well taken care of at the White City Hotel.
12 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • April 30 2015

    Well Heck, now I want to go there! Another addition to our List. Absolutely knock-out incredible photos!
    Shirley recently posted..The Yellow City

  • Ellen Bentley
    April 30 2015

    Thank you for the Berat picture-fest tour and hotel recommendation. I saw very few electrical cables, other than on the hillside house(s). Are many of the European cities’ power cables underground? Where/how is the energy generated? Is solar in the distant future? Is Wi-Fi easily available or do you have another method of uploading?? Are you using tablet or laptop? Many questions and thank you for posting the photograph lesson(s).

    • May 7 2015

      Hi Ellen….I’m sorry I don’t have much knowledge on Europe’s power system, and I’m sure it varies vastly by country.

      Wifi on the other hand…I know about. 🙂 It was actually quite good in Albania, better than what we had in Germany before we got there!

  • Shivya Nath
    April 30 2015

    How serendipitous and what stunning photos! I’ve been thinking of Albania for a long time. Time to finally make it happen 🙂

    • May 7 2015

      You really should go Shivya! I’m sure you would enjoy it.

  • April 30 2015

    Experiences like this is what makes Albania so special.
    And I think you’re right – anyone thinking of going there should go now!
    Megan recently posted..Living art in Hosier Lane

  • May 1 2015

    It looks lovely almost as if it could serve as a filming location for Game of Thrones!
    Murissa recently posted..Sunday Pranzo: A Lobster Feast in Boston

  • Ah, love the sound of that – the keeper of the keys. You snapped some great shots. Albania sounds lovely – totally non-touristy for now…
    Sand In My Suitcase recently posted..Getting our spring flower fix at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden

  • May 6 2015

    Thanks for cementing my desire to visit Albania even more! Stunning images, too – as ever 🙂

  • Sounds like y’all are getting some spectacular behind-the-scenes information. Love the double-sunburst shot.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Using Journalism Skills & Expert Content to Build Your Brand

  • December 9 2015

    Adore these pics! Berat is easily one of my favorite places I have visited! And these photos prove why.

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