As our time in Greece and Europe winds down, I decided to take a trip around the Balkans for two and a half weeks. My two month lease ended, and it seemed like a perfect chance to visit some other historic cities. Since I didn’t have a lot of time, I planned this trip out more than any other in the past. Because of the relatively short distances, I planned to visit 6 countries in 16 days. These countries include, in order, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo. I’ll also be passing through Macedonia on the way back to Greece but most likely won’t be stopping for much time.
My first stop on this loop of a trip was Shkoder, Albania. Located in northern Albania, it’s the 5th largest city in the country. It has been an important geographical point, located very close to the Adriatic Sea, and on the Via Egnatia route that linked Istanbul with the sea during the days of the Roman Empire.
I was able to buy one bus ticket to get from Thessaloniki to Shkoder; however, one bus ticket apparently did not mean one bus. I left at 9pm from Thessaloniki on a bus full of Albanian immigrants who were returning home to visit their families. At about 11pm, we arrived at the border and had to get out of the bus for immigration. It was the coldest night that I had felt recently with temperatures down in the low 40s. At about 3am, we stopped at a small bus stop and a man got on the bus yelling “Shkoder! Shkoder!” I correctly assumed that I was supposed to follow him onto another bus, so I grabbed my stuff and quickly got off. At about 5am, just two hours later, we arrived in Tirana, the capital. We waited for about an hour in Tirana before about 10 of us got into a van which took us north. One by one, the other passengers got off the bus at different small towns on the way, until finally I was the only one on the bus. I told the driver where my hostel was located, and he happily dropped me off there directly in front of the Millennium Theater. A convenient finish to a pretty inconvenient ride.
I then found the Shkoder Backpackers Hostel tucked away in an alley, checked in, and took a nice three-hour nap.
Shkoder’s main attraction is the Rozafa Castle. Located just a mile and a half south of the city center, the fortress was an important lookout point for past empires. Built on top of a mountain, it overlooks the surrounding rivers and Lake Shkoder. The castle was built around 350BC by the Illyrians, the dominant empire at the time in Albania.
The castle’s name has an interesting story/myth. Three brothers were supposedly building the castle walls, but every night the walls would fall down and they’d have to start again from scratch. They decided that they needed to sacrifice someone in the walls in order for the walls to stay standing. They made a deal that whoever’s wife brought lunch to them first, she would be buried. The brothers promised that they would not tell their wives in order to make it fair. However, the two older brothers told their wives while the youngest did not. Of course, the youngest’s wife, whose name is Rozafa came up the mountain first. She was then supposedly put inside the castle walls but not without getting her request granted, that there be a hole in the castle wall so that she could continue feeding her baby.
The entrance to the castle was just 200 leke, or about $2. It also gives great views of the surrounding area, where one can see the city, snow-capped mountains in the distance, rivers, the lake, and many mosques.
Independence Day in Albania
The following day, November 28th, was the celebration of the day of independence in Albania. It’s also known as flag day, as people hang their Albanian flags outside their windows. The streets were decorated in red, the color of the flag. I asked around to see if they do anything for the celebration, and it really seemed like they treat it like a normal day without anything special. It’s a celebration of their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. People do get the day off from work, but nothing much else seemed to happen.
After visiting the museum of photography with several people from my hostel, four or us decided to jump in a taxi to see the Mesi Bridge. I had seen the Mesi Bridge in several photos on Google images and then saw the bridge several times on photos around Shkoder. Being about 5-10 miles outside the city, taxi was the best way to get to the bridge, and it cost just $3 per person for the round trip.
The Mesi Bridge is a beautiful bridge that was built around 1780. The myth goes that they built the bridge with the addition of egg whites, something they would use on only the most important structures. There is another bridge located just behind it, so the Mesi bridge isn’t used so much anymore. However, the design of the bridge, with the middle arch rising up higher than the rest, makes it unique and interesting to see.
Shkoder is an interesting city in that about half the population is Muslim and half is Christian, but they are able to live in peace. You see both mosques and churches around the city, and you hear both the Islamic call to prayer and church bells.
Our taxi driver to the Mesi Bridge was a very nice guy and spoke English well, so I had to ask him more about Albania. A few months ago, a large fight broke out in an Albania-Serbia soccer match. A flag representing all of area dominated by ethnic Albanians (including Kosovo) was flown over the field on a drone, a bold statement as Serbia feels that these countries are part of Serbia. A Serbian player grabbed the flag and threw it to the ground. An Albanian player saw this and attacked the Serbian player, which sparked a large fight. Many people from the crowd ran onto the field to join the fight. The Albanians were, of course, largely outnumbered since the match was in Serbia. The match was then suspended, as the tensions were too high to continue. This shows the hatred that still lingers between Serbia and other former Yugoslavia countries. Kosovo is trying to gain their independence whereas Serbia still recognizes it as its own. Kosovo is made up of many ethnic Albanians, so Albania sides with Kosovo.
I asked our taxi driver about the incident, as I wanted to get his viewpoint on the incident. I was surprised when he responded by telling me that this was the first time he had ever felt proud to be Albanian. “Our players, they stood up for Albania even though they were largely outnumbered.” This rivalry is still very much alive.
I spent just two nights in Shkoder, but it was probably enough to see the main sites in the city. I met some great people in my hostel that I was able to spend some time with. It was a mix of people including a few Canadians, a Taiwanese, several Australians, and a Brit. It was then time to head north to Montenegro.