Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tirana (in Brief) and Shkoder, Albania

What's Albania?!

Next up was one of the big unknowns of my trip - Albania.

Thanks to a paranoid and, well, dictatorial dictator - Enver Hoxha - the sliver of a country on the Adriatic Coast was completely shut off from the world for 40 years. No one was allowed in, and no one was allowed out. Rather famously, even airplanes had to divert to avoid flying over Albanian airspace. (Hoxha was deeply afraid that the world wanted to invade his relatively tiny country - to the point where he ordered the construction of hundreds of thousands of bunkers all over the country. In the event of an invasion, all citizens were expected to rush to these bunkers and defend their little piece of land to the death.)

As a result of this prolonged, self-imposed isolation from the outside world, the tourist industry in the country has been late in blooming. It's only been in the past decade that hostels and hotels have begun to spring up - and even now, it's not exactly the first (or tenth) stop for most visitors to the continent, even the more adventurous backpackers.

The Albanian language itself didn't help. Due to the vagaries of history and linguistic development, Albanian is almost completely unrelated to any of the other languages in the region - it's the last of its branch, off in its own linguistic cul-de-sac. Though I can't claim to understand Bulgarian or Macedonian, the handful of cognates (and my ability to read Cyrillic) meant I could at least muddle through when I wanted to understand a sign or notice in those countries. Albanian, on the other hand, is well... Different.

Here, for your edification, is a sample:
Zhdo njeri kan le t'lir mê njãjit dinjitêt edhê dreta. Ata jan të pajisun mê mênjê edhê vet-dijê edhê duhën të veprôjn ka njãni-tjetrin mê nji shpirt vllâznimit.
(translation: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Not Enver Hoxha's motto.)

Which is all to say, of all the countries I visited on my trip, Albania is almost certainly the least developed and the most "foreign." It felt a bit more "adventurous" - and frankly, I was a bit concerned for my own safety. During my research, I read reports of "lawless frontiers" and "drug cities" and extremely high traffic fatality rates and other fun things.

That reputation is perhaps a shame, as the country has some extraordinary natural scenery (as you'll see in my next post) and some very nice beaches and ancient ruins (though I can't personally attest to the latter two.)

Oh, and it's dirt cheap. That's always nice.


My first stop was the capital city, but I didn't really do anything here. I barely even took pictures, because...? I don't know what was going through my head. I didn't even see the amazing "pyramid" the old dictator had built before his death.

I did meet a pair of LDS missionaries (one of them from American Fork, about 5 miles from my hometown) and get accosted by a boy trying to sell pens. (I was hoping the former would save me from the latter, but alas... Goodbye $5.)

Oh yeah, and I unwittingly ordered fried tripe from a street restaurant. Put off by the weird look and texture, I poked at it a few times with my fork, took one bite, paid my bill, and left.

It was fun.

I took six pictures of this statue. And that was it for Tirana.

Shkoder City

After one night in Tirana, I took the bus up north to Shkoder, a city near the border with Montenegro - and the jumping off point for my trip into the mountains. (Side note: Did I mention that there are no bus stations or official bus stops in Albania? It's true. There are no bus stations or official bus stops in Albania.)

I stayed at Florian Shkodra Guesthouse, a few miles outside of Shkoder city. The hostel is in a lovely bucolic setting; the walk to the hostel is extremely pleasant as it offers panoramic views of the nearby Albanian Alps and of Albanian farm life.

The hostel keeper, Florian, was extremely helpful. He organized a mini-tour of the top sights of Shkoder City. The traditional Albanian breakfasts and dinners cooked by his family were also delicious - and completely filling.

Mesi Bridge and Rozafa Castle

The first stop on my little tour was Mesi Bridge - which (I would find out later) bore a striking resemblance to the much more famous bridge in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina. 
Mesi Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 18th century

Across Mesi Bridge

A view from the bridge.

Then we went to Rozafa Castle, located on the top of a hill right outside of town. 

The ruins of Rozafa Castle

More Rozafa Castle

The castle itself is very nice - all big and castle-y and stuff. But more importantly, it was almost sunset by the time we got there, and it turned out to be the perfect place to take in the surrounding scenery.

The view from Rozafa

Shkoder City

The countryside around Shkoder

I had the place almost to myself, so I was able to enjoy the incredible views of nearby Lake Skadar and of Shkoder itself in peace. 

One of the several rivers in the area - plus Lake Skadar in the background

Night falls on Rozafa

And why not use the opportunity to test my long-exposure photography skills? (Results: I'm not very good, but I had fun nonetheless.)

It was the perfect way to end a day, and I went back to the hostel ready for my trip into the mountains the next morning.


  1. Another fascinating place. So glad you explained why it is the way it is. What a country and what a language. Love your long exposure photos and the views from the castle. Can't wait to see pics of the Albanian alps. Quite an amazing trip you went on.

  2. Absolutely fascinating little mystery country that was totally closed during my travels in the region in the 80's and 90's. Glad you got to visit this pretty little corner of the earth. Thanks for sharing. 🇦🇱