A Lasting Impression:
I'm aware the newer border with Montenegro near Ulcinj is now open but I was happy with the way I arrived in the country. On a swealtering day in mid July, I started the day off in Budva and hitchhiked a few cars to a police checkpoint near Petrovac, I decided to follow the sign to Podgorica and began a long walk up a steep and windy road. Realising I had no water and that I was incredibly thirsty, I longed for a coca-cola or even better a beer! The chance of this happening let alone a car stopping seemed unlikely though, eventually I sighted a small empty farmhouse on the hill and refuelled from a water pipe! Perfect, then I decided to stop walking and hide under the shelter of the first trees so far along the road whilst talking to a shepherd. Half-heartedly sticking my thumb out whilst lieing down, a gentleman stopped and spoke brilliant English and took myself and a Slovenian guy I'd met on the road to Podgorica. He was heading to Albania and later onwards to Turkey, as was I. We decided to team up and spent the rest of the time listening to the driver's stories of how unsafe Albania was and how everyone has guns whilst driving around the amazing scenery of Skadar Lake (which is shared between Montenegro and Albania). Not put off, we stocked up at a local market in Podgorica and then hit out on the road to Shkoder. Plenty of old Mercedes with Albanian plates heading that way and one finally stopped with us, we explained we didn't want to pay and he seemed fine with it. With about 7 people in the car and numerous chickens in with our backpacks in the open boot, we drove off... he then started to talk about dollars and sooner or later decided he didn't want to take us, screeching his car to a halt and almost driving off before we had the chance to snatch our bags from the open boot!
Almost there.. Step 2, actually get to Albania! Still several km's from the border we decided to wait it out at the last petrol station which was fortunately incredibly close to where we'd been dropped off. After chatting to another old mercedes driver, he agreed to take us to the border for a small fee but wouldn't take us over it. No problem, after bribing police to let us through with whatever was in the car, we were on our way again. Got out at a few 100m's from the border and walked to it, have a nice chat with the border guards and I'm to pay 10 of whatever my currency is. (it actually said this on the wall and the embassy site at the time) The border guard likes football and asks if I want any tea, I tell him no and that we want to push on to Shkoder, so he stamps my passport and invites me to the local bar and introduces me to two oldish guys. Beers appear on the table and then some shots of raki (the Albanians drink it straight, so they can get drunk when they're supposed to sober up in the morning I presume!), all this and I still haven't paid for my stamp. The old guys agree to take us in to Shkoder at request of the border guards and nothing is ever said about the 10 quid. We make the way there, wobbling all over the road in an old Mercedes (ubiqutous at the time and most probably stolen from Germany, serves them right for winning World Cups with bad football!) with bullet holes in the windscreen, apparently from a little fun in Kukes (notorious for it's armed bandits at the time). Anyway, nice guys - we had to call in at a random warehouse to fill up about 300 bottles of beer which were previously empties in the boot.
On arrival in Shkoder, I had to find somewhere to change money. Initially this wasn't too easy, we asked in a shop but the only person there was a 3 or 4 year old child counting money. Another customer came in and started to talk to us, then took us to a cafe where finally someone took us for a stroll to what looked like quite a classy little travel agents (by Albanian standards), at that time it was said that the locals were a bit unlawful and liked their guns but the only thing I got shot with was a super-soaker from a teenager who pointed to the sun. I appreciated that, actually. People were helpful everywhere and the woman in the local supermarket always offered me a sample of something with no pressure to buy, when I questioned what it was, this actually finished with copious amounts of cheese being purchased so I suppose her technique worked!
So down to the nitty gritty...
How do I get there?
Obviously not everyone wants to hitchhike with drunk drivers, so you can pay a couple of euros from either the border with Ulcinj or the one that I crossed at Han i Hotit (60km north of Shkoder) to be taken by a drunk taxi driver instead. Bargain them down though, or you'll pay loads. Plenty of minibuses and buses going from Tirana and also several from Pristina via Kukes.
Where do I stay?
Well that could be tricky, places either tend to be very basic or very pricey. Best thing is to ask a couple of locals and have a look at some hotels, people are friendly and the owners of the hotels are very unlikely to rip you off. I always paid about 5-6 euros in Albania. I think the maximum was 8 but it was actually incredibly classy!
What do I do?
Plenty to do in Shkoder, beautiful surroundings and Rozafa Castle is where Shkoder's history started on top of a hill where to rivers meet. It's 3km to the south of the centre and the main not to be missed point - truly amazing.
Strolling around the historic streets which are rather empty of tourists and give you a feeling of being in Eastern Europe towards the end of communism and a Cowboy film at the time is unbeatable. The Marubi Photo Collection, is also a must see - they are stored in a random flat in a flat block along Rr. Muhamet Gjollesha. With more than 250,000 photos of everything between 1859 and 1959 this is one of if not Europe's most prized photo collections. Marubi was an Italian who fled Piacenza for Shkoder for political reasons, he painted and worked as an architect, in 1858 he took the first ever photo in Albania and made a career of taking photos of well known people.
He then hired and adopted an apprentice by the name of Mikel Kodheli. Kodheli (who became Kel Marubi) then superbly documented Albanian life and became a powerful figure in the National Resistance and was able to document great historic info of the time because of this.
His son, studied in Paris and later worked for the family business before donating all the work to the Albanian State in 1974. The collection is in mint condition, perfectly dated and is protected from further damage after having work on it by UNESCO.
Shiroke and Zogaj on Lake Shkodra are definitely worth a visit. Shiroke is only a couple of km's out of Shkodra and is therefore the more developed of the two but the centre is still relatively peaceful. Zogaj is 6km down the road and a competely muslim village, untouched by the modern world and left in a former century! Unbelievable tranquility in this fishing village.
Add to this a whole host of interesting churches, mosques, museums, statues, towers, monuments and of course the once great bazaar and you have a wealth of possibilities. Shkoder is a superb destination for the adventurous traveller and very cheap too!
Shkodra was initially set up in 4th century BC when the Labeats (an Illyrian tribe) set up shop here, it then became the main place of the Illyrian State under King Gent and later under the princedom of Bushatllinj. It then fell to the Venetians and the rest of the history is not too dissimilar to that of Durres which I reviewed earlier in the day! Great archeological sights can be seen at the medieval ruins in Sarda (15km from Shkodra) which was the residential place of the famous Dukagjini Feudal Family.