Gold and azure: Byzantine tourism in Albania
Gold and azure are not just the colors of an Albanian beach holiday; the country glows with Byzantine art ,which dominates some of Albania’s most visited attractions.
The unmissable ‘trinity’ of destinations for art-lovers – Korça, Voskopoja and Berat – are also some of the most attractive cities in Albania with plenty to appreciate in and out of the impressive churches.
The city of Berat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built against an impressive hillside against which Ottoman-era houses crowd. At the top of the hill is a citadel, which houses a total of 24 churches and chapels. The largest church is home to the Onufri Museum, which displays stunning works from this master of the sixteenth century. Even if you are no expert on Byzantine art you will be struck by the naturalism of the style, which includes landscape details in the background of more traditional compositions. You may also notice the striking pink color which Onufri was the first to introduce into paintings, but whose secret he shared with no one so it died with him.
Another of the centers of Albanian culture is the city of Korça. One of the town’s main tourist attractions is the stunning museum of medieval art, newly restored and reopened in summer 2016. The Byzantine craftsmanship which produced both minute and majestic paintings on wood showing the saints and scenes from the Bible. Some of the art works are from the immediate area; others are from Berat, Prespa or further afield. Restoration work was undertaken with the help of experts from the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki who have made golden robes glow once more, flames leap out in vibrant color and the eyes of mournful saints stare at you piercingly.
Others of the exhibits at the exhibition are from Voskopoja, a town near Korça, which is today little more than a sleepy village but is reputed to have once been the largest city in the Balkans. As well as seeing Voskopoja’s treasures at the museum, the town is worth a visit to see Byzantine art in situ. This was one of Albania’s important landmarks as the home of the only Balkan printing press outside Istanbul. Such wealth and influence is reflected in its seven churches covered in frescoes. Access to the churches is not always easy, but it is worth persevering with local key-holders and perhaps arranging to stay somewhere nearby in the stunning mountain landscapes to increase the chance of being on hand when churches are opened for services.
Travel in Albania is never just travel in Albania, and by including Berat, Korça and Voskopoja in your vacation you’ll ensure that you fully appreciate the country’s rich mosaic of colors and influences – from Rome, Constantinople and beyond.