Almost forgotten in the Balkan Peninsula, Albania, which was once considered to be the world’s most closed country, was the fifth country in our itinerary across the Balkans. From a list of over twenty countries that I have visited until today, this small country was definitely the most different from all of them.
There are so many interesting facts about this country that would probably make you want to visit on your next opportunity. For instance, did you know that Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist state in 1967? Or that there were only 3000 cars for an entire population of over 3 million people? What about the 750,000 bunkers that were built during the Cold War?
Well… I had made my homework before adventuring myself in these lands. I had read that the northern part of the country was considered to be one of Europe’s most dangerous zones, but not everything you read on the Internet is correct, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Albania is many times associated with the Mafia, careless drivers, landmines, cannabis, however, I felt safe everywhere… except when driving or when crossing the road on foot.
The City of Shkoder
The fifth most populated city in Albania, Shkodër, was the first Albanian city we visited. It is located in the northwestern part of the country, not far from the Montenegrin border, and it is home to Rozafa Castle, one of Albania’s biggest and most visited castles.
Something very peculiar makes Shkodër a unique city in Albania and Europe. There are no traffic lights. That’s correct. In the year of 1995 the population refused to pay for a traffic light tax in the amount of 2000 Lek because the town had no traffic lights. To this day the city remains the only large Albanian city with no traffic lights.
Where to Stay?
There’s a large choice of hotels and hostels downtown. Shkodra Hotel was our pick. It was very clean, the bed was comfortable, the staff was gentle and there was a free parking place right in front of the hotel. However, they didn’t accept card, only cash, which we later came to discover that is quite common in Albania, especially in the northern part of the country.
ATMs are very scarce when comparing this town to other European cities. Luckily, in Shkoder we found a machine right next to the restaurant where we had dinner. However, in the capital, Tirana, we had troubles finding an ATM that accepted MasterCard. Most will only take Visa.
Where to Eat?
Albanian Cuisine is one of the reasons to visit this ancient country. Whether you’re visiting Shkoder or just passing by, you shouldn’t miss Fishart Restaurant. If you’re into seafood I’m pretty sure you’ll love it. It is one of the best rated restaurants in town. For the equivalent of 24€ we had a whole table for ourselves, a sea bream, a sea bass, shrimps, drinks, et cetera.
Just like I mentioned before, it is imperative to have cash as most places will not take card.
After checking in at Hotel Shkodra and enjoying dinner at Fishart Restaurant we went on to discover the city center.
Bulevardi Skenderbeu is the main boulevard connecting the city center, named after Skanderberg, Albania’s most important hero, who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in what is known today as Albania and Macedonia.
At the end of the Boulevard, before reaching the roundabout, you can find a statue of the Albanian icon Mother Teresa, who was born in the capital city of Macedonia, Skopje. Despite having lived for many decades in India, she always considered herself Albanian by blood.
The statue marks the beginning of the pedestrian street Rruga Kole Idromeno, housing many restaurants, cafes and shops. Here you’ll also find Ebu Meker Mosque, the city’s largest mosque, and the Marubi National Museum of Photography.
We entered a small art gallery on the pedestrian street and we met Carlos, the person in charge. He was very friendly, telling us stuff about Shkodra, and comparing it to Tirana, the next city in our itinerary. I’m not a huge fan of art, but there were some interesting paintings depicting the city and the bridge over Buna River.
Strolling through this area at night with my girlfriend, I noticed that not many women are seen outside. For each woman there were like 15 of 20 men. She felt a little bit awkward, being one of the few women outside, telling me that everyone was staring at her, to which I replied “Nah, don’t worry, they’re just checking us out because we totally look like tourists, or they’re not used to see men with long hair… curious people that’s all”. It’s true. I didn’t feel threatened at all.
The next day we visited a few more points of interest. First we tried to visit the English Clock Tower but it was closed. Then we headed to a museum called “The Site of Witness and Memory”, one of the highlights of our visit to Albania.
Site of Witness and Memory
Indeed one of the highlights of our visit to Shkodra, this museum which can be found on the main boulevard, tells you the history of the city and the country during past Communist times. An admission fee of only 150 Lek (Approximately 1.15 Eur), is charged at the entrance.
The construction of this building dates back to 1930, but it was only in 1945 after the Second World War that it was transformed into the headquarter of State Security in Shkodra. In other words, it was a prison, where suspects were interrogated, tortured and sometimes killed.
Its entrance is unique. Colored in both grey and pink, it takes you to another room where the exhibit begins.
I knew nothing of Albania’s communist history before visiting this museum. In this site you’ll find a timeline of important events that took place in Shkoder and in other parts of the country, since the beginning of Cold War in the 40s until the fall of communism in 1992. You’ll also discover interesting facts and curiosities regarding these dark times that lasted for over four decades.
The 70 Lek expression is something I will probably never forget. Guards would usually use the expression “I’ll give you 70 Lek”, which literally meant to shoot someone. That was the cost of a bullet used by the Police in Albania.
After passing through the rooms you’ll reach the cells and chambers where prisoners were kept and tortured under the extreme regime of Enver Hoxha. A clear presentation of all the suffering that so many Albanians went through. Barbed wire and newspapers on the walls are a few of the objects you’ll find in this dungeon.
We walked back to the car and then we drove to Shkodër’s number one historic landmark, Rozafa Castle. Just as previously mentioned, this old fortress located on top of a hill, is one of Albania’s biggest and most visited castles, attracting a large number of visitors every year.
A small admission fee of 200 Lek (Approximately 1.50 Eur) is charged when entering the castle. Inside, there is also a small museum that you can visit for an additional fee of 200 Lek. However, we were more interested in the ruins and the panoramic views.
This fortress offers 360 degrees views of the surrounding area. You can see the entire city of Shkodër, Lake Skadar, and the confluence of rivers Buna and Drin.
Another historic landmark you can see from the top of Rozafa Castle is the Lead Mosque, constructed in the 18th Century and declared a Cultural Monument in 1948. Modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, it is named Lead Mosque, because its cupolas are covered in lead.
When we were done exploring the castle and shooting photos of the surrounding view, we got back on the road. It was now time to discover the next city in our itinerary, the Albanian capital city, Tirana.
Stay tuned for the next part of The Ultimate Balkan Road Trip