For long, Albania has been a blank spot on most travel maps. Perhaps that’s to be expected with a country that has suffered through decades of dictatorship and that was closed off to the rest of the world until the 1990s. Nowadays, the tourism industry is expanding for every year as more people find their way here. However, the region that, so far, has received the most attention from the crowds is the southern coast. With the sunny beaches, warm weather and cheap prices of the towns and villages along this beautiful coast that’s quite understandable, I suppose. However, the relative lack of attention doesn’t mean that the rest of Albania lacks attractions. We have yet only scratched the surface of this fascinating country, but our visit to Shkodër certainly gave us a welcoming first impression.
Situated on the south-east shore of Lake Shkodër, a lake split in half between Albania and neighbouring Montenegro, Shkodër is a city with mixed identities. On one hand, Italian architecture and s Mediterranean vibe. On the other, brutal communist apartment blocks, large avenues filled with traffic and evident poverty. With both churches and mosques scattered around, the city is visibly also a religious melting pot. Even though we haven’t been to other cities in the country my feeling is that Shkodër truly is a genuine piece of Albania. The city lacks any real tourist attractions, but there is a pedestrianised street (Rruga Kolë Idromeno and Rruga 28 Nëntori) running through the centre. It is also in a radius of about 500 metres around this street you will find most restaurants in town. Apart from this, beautiful but relatively short, street there is little “to see” in the centre. This, though, is part of the charm of Shkodër, that this truly is a city of and for the locals.
Bicycling along Lake Shkodër
The second day of our visit to Shkodër we decided to explore Lake Shkodër by bike. The lake, at least the part to belongs to Albania, is also part of a national park, so there’s plenty of wildlife, mainly birds, and the surrounding mountains offers stunning views. If you bike, walk or drive along the boardwalk, we found bicycling great, towards Montenegro you’ll arrive in the town of Shirokë (7 kilometres from Shkodër) after about 30 minutes. Shirokë has several restaurants within its town limits, but the most popular, at least judging by the numbers of cars parked, is Blu Notte. This restaurant offers a premium view with a dining hall actually built on the lake. By Albanian standards prices are perhaps not cheap, but to get freshly grilled fish for 1000-1200 lek, is a bargain considering the view.
Rozafa – the fortress of Shkodër
On the way back from our biking adventure, still in the outskirts of town, we decided to head up the hill to the fortress of Shkodër. Rozafa, which is the Albanian name, is located 10-15 minutes by bike (35-45 minutes by foot) from the city centre, but located at the top of a hill it can be a struggle getting there (especially with two bikes). The entrance fee is 400 lek (for adults, prices are lower for students, children, etc.), but exact sums seems to be of lesser importance. As most similar fortresses in the region, Rozafa has that distinct Balkan to it. If you could only use one word to describe it, it would be raw. No fences, tall cliffs to fall from and a, at least seemingly, genuine experience of an old fortress that simply has decayed with time. If you compare Rozafa to the more well-visited fortress of Kotor, just 100 kilometres north, the Albanian cousin is a much more pleasant visit. While the Kotor fortress easily gets crowded when the cruise ships arrive, and the actual fortress is filled with reinforcement bars and concrete, the fortress of Shkodër is both bigger and less visited. To get the best experience, my recommendation is to arrive about 30 minutes before sunset. This gives you enough time to explore the fortress while in daylight and, most importantly experience the mountains reflecting the soft light of the blood-red setting sun.
To summarize, while I have only spent a total of two nights in Shkodër I truly believe that this charming city is worth spending even three or four nights in. Sure, there are other things to see and do in this region of Albania, but Shkodër definitely deserves your attention.