So after the waking up from my food coma from the previous day, Jane, Dean and I left the lovely hotel/winery and began the long drive to Tirana, Albania. After some discussion about the route to take, it was decided that the best route would be the main highways since there were so many trucks hauling grapes and other produce at this time of year, which would really slow down the trip. The route would take us north on the A1 and up and around Skopje into Kosovo (yep an entirely different country), then west to the Albanian boarder before turning south into Albania and eventually to Tirana.
So we left the vineyards behind us and drove north through mountainous regions of Macedonia before entering the high desert mountains of Kosovo. The boarder crossing only took minutes and we were soon on our way through the tiny country of Kosovo. (It is so small that you can cross from one side of the country to the other in an hour.) Our drive through Kosovo took us past the city of Prizren and to the Albanian boarder. The crossing into Albania took even less time than crossing into Kosovo. While the Kosovo guard checked my passport, the Albanians didn’t even check IDs or my passport. Jane and Dean laughed and told me it was pretty typical of Albania. Yikes!
The drive south to Tirana was interesting as we left the mountainous region and entered arid flatlands. We saw a particularly hysterical site on the freeway as we were leaving the mountains. A car was parked on the side of the freeway and a family was sitting on a blanket having a picnic. Seriously! ON. THE. SIDE. OF. THE. FREEWAY. And of course I did not have my camera out dammit!
Once we reached Tirana, it took forever to reach the hotel. The traffic was horrendous with no one paying attention to lanes and people seemingly parking their cars in the middle of the road. I am not joking. And no one seemed to care. In fact, we saw a cop standing near a car parked in the middle of the road and he was doing nothing about it. Gesh.
We finally reached Hotel Gloria where I would be staying for the night. The guys got me checked in and we said our goodbyes. Jane and Dean had been absolutely amazing companions for the past week. I will certainly stay in touch with them.
I ended up spending the night relaxing in the hotel. I had a small dinner in the hotel restaurant (which was recommended as a top restaurant in Tirana) and got a really good night’s sleep. On Friday morning I met my driver/guide Gesi Aliko, who would be travelling with me for the next two weeks.
Now Gesi’s English was good, but there was definitely things lost in translation. It was clear pretty quickly that I was going to have to be quite precise in what I said.
Anyway, Gesi and I started the drive north just after 9:00 a.m. Our destination, Shkodra, was only a couple hours north of Tirana. The drive took us into the Tirana suburbs and through a number of little towns. The road was rather bizarre as one minute we were on a four lane highway and the next minute the road would revert to a two lane country road. This continued for the entire trip to Shkodra. And as we drove, Gesi wanted to know about my travels so we talked best (too many to name) and worst (Moscow I am talking about you) places to visit and best and worst guides. (Remember the horrible human who masqueraded as a guide at Lake Titicaca?)
We also passed a lot of interesting scenery. As we drove, the lowlands gave way to high mountains and periodically the odd castle was visible from a hillside. And the appearance of a castle here or there is not at all unusual in Albania which is apparently “littered” with castles. The reason lies in the history of Albania. Albania has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, and over the centuries has been invaded by one country after another. As a result, castles were constantly being built on mountains and hillsides in order to protect the inhabitants from invaders. Most of the castle ruins in Albania contain a mashup of architectural techniques and materials starting with the llyrians who first invaded Albania some time between the 13th and 10th centuries B.C., followed by the Romans who invaded and took control of the county in the middle of the 2nd century B.C., the Byzantines who started taking control in the 4th century, the Bulgarians and Normans in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Italians and Serbs got their hands in the country as well, and finally the Ottomans lead a conquest in the 14th century.
Castles are apparently so common in this country that Gesi seemed completely unimpressed when I pointed out what I thought was another castle. “Yep. A Castle”. OK then.
Anyway, and perhaps ironically, the main reason for going to Shkodra was to visit the Rozafa Castle. The castle was built on top of the highest point on Shkodra at the intersection of three rivers, which allowed the occupants to control the access to the castle. The castle was a mixture of Ilyrian, Byzantine and Ottoman design and materials.
The map near the entrance showed how the castle was divided into three sections: the first courtyard, the main section and the fortress. We walked over raised cobblestones and through not one, but two entrances, the first from 15th century and the second include parts from the Illyrian period. Both entrances were both designed to slow down invaders with gutters lining the uneven walkways.
Once through the entrances we turned to the left and walked up hill on the cobblestone road into the first courtyard past the Venetian complex (a series of residences) and the tower of Don Zhon. We then climbed up Balshaj’s Tower and took in the magnificent views of the three surrounding rivers and the town of Shkodra below.
We walked up another hill and into the second courtyard. The second courtyard was the main residential area with barracks for soldiers, stores and even a prison. There were cisterns dotted around the yard, which were used to gather water. However, the best ruins of the second courtyard were the ruins of the 13th to 15th century Church of St. Stephen, which the Ottomans eventually converted into the Sultan Mehmed Fatih Mosque, between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many of the walls were intact and the arches were perfectly preserved. It was quite something.
Once we moved on from the church turned mosque, we we walked through an archway and into the third area of the castle also know as the fortress. This are included a three-story Venetian building known as the “Capitol”, which served as the garrison commander’s residence and also the residence of a Venetian ruler.
Now the interesting factoid about the last courtyard was that it included underground tunnels, which connected to other parts of the castle and secret passageways out of the castle.
We wandered around the courtyard looking at pretty well preserved stone cisterns, and a hammam (the Turks ruled here after all), and took in more beautiful views before we started our walk back. Now something I learned later was that there was a museum in the Venetian building and it apparently houses a mosaic form the 3rd or 4th century. I was a bit irritated when I found out and have no idea why Gesi didn’t tell me about it. I will make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Anyway, after the castle visit, we walked back down the hill to the car and the short trip into Shkodra. We checked into the really cool Tradita Hotel that is a converted residence built of stone in 1646. It is a really interesting building with a lovely little courtyard where dinners and drinks are served.
Since my afternoon was open, I decided to go explore the little town and the large pedestrian walkway area. I wandered around and saw the massive Emu Bekr Mosque (which has been rebuilt at least twice having been destroyed by an earthquake and raised to the ground when the communists (who ran Albania for years) banned religions.
Adjacent to the mosque was an Orthodox Church, which I thought was rather symbolic of how the religions and people in this area of the world co-exist.
I then had the good fortune to wander into a jewelry store. A number of people in this area of the world specialize in silver filigree jewelry designs. Atha’s family, including her father-in-law, husband and son (who is around 10 and learning the trade) make handcrafted silver filigree pendants, boxes, earrings and bracelets. The designs were really beautiful. Atha showed me a video of the three generations making the jewelry and the process that goes into making the strands of silver wire used to make the designs. It was really fascinating.
Anyway, after the visit and, of course some purchases, I wandered back outside and around the block to the Luigi Gurakuqi, who was a leader in the fight for independence from the Ottomans. I then wandered past the Mother Teresa statute (her father was born in Albania so they claim her as their own even though she was born in Macedonia) before walking back past the Luigi Gurakuqi statute and then a couple blocks more to the 2nd of April Monument that commemorates the date students protested the outcome of elections in Albania. The communist government turned the security forces loose on the students and four were killed on April 2, 1991.
With that bit of sobering history I decided to get out of the heat (33 degrees Celsius or just over 90) and have a late lunch and take a nap. I had been walking for almost 3 hours and was done in.