Being based in Montenegro gives me the opportunity to do loads and loads of discovering, especially on my one day off a week. Only quick trips where I can go and return in the same day, but still plenty of options left to explore. One of those is a short trip over the border to take a quick peek at what once was hidden for the rest of the world: the country of Albania.
While I already treated everybody on the lush green landscapes in Montenegro, a country filled with mountains and lakes, stunning beaches and crystal clear water as far as you can see, when thinking of Albania, no specific landscape came to mind. Not any ‘must-see’ I secretly added to my to-visit-list or any cities I would love to get lost in. I had simply no idea what to expect. What I saw, was a country in development. Few big roads, unfinished houses. Sheep roaming the streets, making crossing the street quite the adventure. Lots of street vendors, trying to sell fresh produce from their gardens. Or fish in a bowl, caught only minutes before. Sovjet-style building blocks with obligatory laundry, brightened up with colorful flowers everywhere. A mix and match of religions that seem to live peacefully next to each other. A city screaming out a lot of poverty and hope and courage for a better future at the same time. People still talking to each other, playing boardgames on the sidewalk.
Visiting Shkodra, the third biggest city in Albania, I didn’t go far away of the border and still, crossing it felt like stepping back in time. You can still feel the country recovering of being locked away for decades under a communist regime. Why bother visiting then, would you think? To see different cultures. Different landscapes. Beautiful nature. A main reason why we travel anyways. One of the most beautiful views of Lake Skadar, seen from a huge medieval fort, is another reason. Mosque and Catholic Cathedral, forming a city’s main meeting point, doesn’t matter what your believes are. The country is developing, so still incredibly cheap. Sun-drenched as well. Cheap, a lot of sun, loads and loads of nature waiting to be discovered and a small step back in time. Ideal for a visit according to me.
The fortress of Rozafa
Towering over the city, you can already spot it from a distance: the fortress of Rozafa. Now in ruins, once gloriously watching over the biggest Balkan lake and the rivers Buna, Drini and Kiri. According to the legend, the three builders needed a sacrifice to make sure their construction would survive the centuries. While deciding who, they came upon an agreement: whoever’s wife would be the first one to bring them lunch the next day, would be sacrificed. Of course, two of the three builders – what would you expect – told their wives what would be waiting for them on arrival, only the youngest one stayed fair and didn’t say a word to his wife about the agreement. Rozafa, the youngest builder’s wife, was the first one to bring them lunch the next day, dooming her fate in doing so. People say that the water running down the walls of the fortress is actually the milk of Rozafa’s breast, which was left uncovered after they immured her into the thick stone walls, so she could still breastfeed her baby son. And yes, they named the fortress after her. Seeing the wild flowers and swallows flying over what’s left of those big, heavy walls might make you forget the horrible background of the castle at least a little bit. For me, this is the most memorable part of visiting Shkodra: stone and what’s left of stone, lush greenery and little wild yellow flowers, completed with a view to die for.
To catch a city in a single day is impossible. I won’t even try it, especially since I didn’t have much time to explore it by myself. Shkodra is the third biggest city in Albania and still, I have no idea if the city has more to offer than a mixture between religions and concrete building blocks. A big white mosque with elegant minarets, dominating the city center. A catholic cathedral, forming the epicenter of Roman Catholicism in Albania. Charming little streets, connecting the two with each other. A brand new museum, showing a collection of pictures dating back from the time Albania was kept closed for the rest of the world. Buzzy streets. People trying to do business on the streets, wether it is cleaning shoes or selling home grown vegetables. I should visit again, to discover more and give myself a broader image of the city.
How would I describe a visit to Albania? Interesting. Eye-opening. A culture clash. I sincerely hope I’ll get the chance to explore a bit more in the south, the capital Tirana and Shkodra again. However I will need more than a day to do so.