As I don’t know anyone who’s been to Albania, I really didn’t know what to expect from our visit here. However, as there was a direct bus from Ulcinj in Montenegro down to Shkoder, it seemed as good a place as any to start and get a feel for the country.
Shkoder is used by a lot of people as a base before going on organised hikes up to Theth or Valbona National Park in the Albanian Alps. However, as a town itself there was plenty for us to see and do during our stay. Here is our top five:
1) Rozafa Castle
I’m sure building castles at the top of hills helped win a few wars back in the day, but it certainly doesn’t help the poor sod eight-hundred years later who wants to pop up there for a gander. However, despite the daunting hike up a steep hill, the views from the top of Rozafa Castle were definitely worth it.
The castle gives a great panoramic view of both the lake and the city itself; we came here on a first day which was a great way to orientate ourselves in a new city. The castle differs from others that I’ve seen due to the different types of architecture that can be found here – there are areas that are set out in Venetian style as well as Ottoman style.
Oh, and here’s the cherry on the cake. 3 euro’s each to get in and we had the place to ourselves due to the fact that mass tourism hasn’t got to Albania yet – winning!
2) Cycling the banks of Lake Skadar
Although Shkoder has a growing economy, not everyone here has a car, so cycling remains a popular way to get around. Our hostel offered bike rentals so we jumped at the chance to get some much needed exercise and explore the town. The roads here were flat and there are cycle lanes on most of the main roads so it wasn’t too sketchy.
Shkoder shares the enormous Lake Skadar with Montenegro; having seen it from a high view point in our Great Montenegro tour a few days ago we got to have another look whilst cycling along it, finding a nice place to stop for lunch on the way.
3) Shkoder Old Town
Another perk of our hostel was the tip-based walking tour and this gave us an opportunity to see a fair bit of the town. There are two very cool mosques in the area, the more famous Ebu Bekr Mosque and the cool looking Xhamia e Madhe mosque, which glows up at night.
This part of town also includes a monument to Mother Theresa; although she was Macedonian she spent part of her early life in Albania and she is still regarded as ‘one of their own’ by the Albanians.
4) Shkoder Park
The park in Shkoder old town is a nice way to spend a relaxing afternoon, with plenty of shade going for those who want to avoid the mid-afternoon sun. As well as water fountains and a stack of eateries on the perimeter, the park seemed to be a good hangout for a lot of the locals, with many groups of local men hanging out and playing a version of backgammon together.
We’d observed similar things to this across the Balkans, including people in Sarajevo playing giant chess in the park. Shkoder is definitely a town which has a good community feel and playing a game of backgammon in the park with your mates seems as good a way to spend the day as any.
5) National Museum of Photography
Shkoder is the arts capital of the Albania, and the National Museum of Photography here is well regarded. I’m not particularly a culture vulture, but during our stay the Museum had a big opening for a new exhibit so we thought we’d pop down for a look.
It was a well-attended exhibit; there must have been some celebrities present as TV crews were following a couple of people around, as everyone else milled around in their Sunday best. I even managed to nab myself a glass of wine J
The rest of the museum was really cool and had some very old photo’s here from years gone by, including some of the first photo’s ever taken.
Overall, whilst we had intended to use Shkoder as a base for hiking, we were happy that we instead chose to spend our time exploring what the town had to offer whilst getting used to the excellent Albanian hospitality. What a gem of a country!