Balkan Odyssey Part 13: Shkodra, Albania

Sometime there are disappointing travel days and this was one of them.

My goal was to get from Prizren, Kosovo, to Shkodra, Albania. To do so, I woke early and went to the Prizren bus station where I was hoping to grab a minivan across the border to Kukës. It was told, however, that minivans did not run that route, just shared taxis. I’m not sure if this was true, but since I couldn’t find a minivan that was actually heading into Albania, I ended up grabbing a taxi (20 euros) with another traveler and headed west.

I transferred to a minivan in Kukës, Albania, a rather drab town on the shores of Lake Fierza-a reservoir created by the communists to power the Light of the Party Hydro-Electric plant. The communists sure loved their dopey industrial names.

The journey took almost four hours as we passed through numerous miles of sparsely populated mountains, some of which were simply covered in waist-high shrubbery while other sections were blanketed in amazing pine forests. About half way through the journey as we were approaching the town of Puka, I hit my highlight for the day. Apparently the town name is conjugated on road signs because we came across one which read, “Puke 15 Kilometers.” Shortly thereafter, and I kid you not, some ten year old kid in the minivan lived up to the town’s namesake and lost his lunch out the window of the minivan. For some strange reason, I was the only one who found this funny.

A few hours later, I was deposited on the side of the main highway to Tirana where I flagged down my last minivan for the day and headed northwest. By mid-afternoon I had reached my final destination.

Shkodra turned out to be my least favorite Albanian town. Although it is situated near Lake Shkodra, the picturesque expectations I had in my head were quickly erased by urban sprawl and decrepit buildings. The city has almost no charm or character and is cheapened by the malaise that affects so many border towns. Montenegro is still about 12 miles away, but Shkodra is usually the first stop for those crossing the border. Sadly, this is all that many tourists see of Albania. Visitors to Montenegro often make the quick jaunt over the border to check out Albania and my guess is that most come away rather disappointed. The above photograph looks across Lake Shkodra and into Montenegro. The city of Shkodra is just to the right of the shot.

A better feeling for the town can be seen just behind this studly statue of Isa Boletin, an Albanian nationalist who fought against the Turks in the early 20th century. Although the town has a few nice streets, most of it is lined with buildings such as these.

Certainly the nicest street in Shkodra is this one, just east of Hotel Colosseo. Dhjetori is lined with old Ottoman houses and art galleries. Sometime in the future it will have cafes and ice cream shops and become a great little walking street that will inject some character into this town. Anyone looking for somewhere to invest?

The town’s main tourist attraction is yet another castle on a hill. Rozafa Castle was built by the Illyrians and modified by subsequent conquerors. Today it is a series of walls, ramparts and a few ruined churches. Wild grass covers the interior and farmers bring their animals here to graze. It’s quite fun climbing amongst the stone ruins and checking out the great view. The only disappointment was the taxi ride there. After surviving my whole time in Albania without feeling like I got ripped off, the taxi driver charged me $6 for the three kilometer ride–hardly a surprise when you consider that Shkodra is the only town in Albania I visited that is accustomed to tourists. I know, I should have walked. I was short on time, however, and was worried that the castle would close before I could get there.

I traveled through a large swath of Albania before finally coming across such an outstanding example of socialist realism artwork left over from the communist era. Such statues and their sturdy, looking-to-the-future gaze were typical throughout the socialist camp. This particular one, The Five Heroes of Vig, commemorates five martyrs who died for the communist cause in 1944.

Personally, the whole visit to Shkodra was worth it for me when I came across this beast of a steamroller. It was abandoned on the side of the road, perhaps decades ago, but still evokes a sense of sturdiness and power. They just don’t make machines like this anymore.

As for accommodations, I treated myself to the nicest hotel in town, The Colosseo. I paid 60 euros a night for the best accommodations I had in all of Albania. It’s central location, however, means a bit of street noise and the dreaded morning call to prayer at 5 a.m.

So, that’s it. I’m aware I’m not giving the greatest endorsement to this town. I will admit, however, I only spent 24 hours here; some places take a lot longer to warm up to than others. This might be the case with Shkodra. Or, my first impression might have been dead on.

Yesterday’s Post: Kosovo!!!
Tomorrow’s Post: Bunkers, Bunkers, Bunkers