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Travelling Albania’s lakes

I didn’t want to go to Shkodra that morning. In fact, I didn’t want to go anywhere. What swung it was that I didn’t want to stay in bed either as, after having lain in it for over a day, I now had creasing backache. That coupled with the fact that time was ticking on meant that I forced myself out of the Hotel Alpin feeling weak and miserable, so much so indeed, that I even took a taxi to the place where the bus left from about half a kilometre away. By the bus I consumed a burek and a dhallë (salty lassi drink) which made me feel a little better and indeed, by the time we pulled into Shkodra itself I felt fine. That’s what food poisoning is like; it comes, leaves you feeling like shit for a day, and then it leaves. And mine, thank God, had left.

The drive was nothing spectacular, the road following the plains with the mountains far to the right. We followed the railway line for large sections and every time I saw it I half wished that I was travelling by train instead, (because I prefer railways), and half not, (because this was an Albanian railway). Aside from that, the only point of interest was in the town of Lezha where we passed a set of unimpressive ruins topped by a ridiculous classical canopy, obviously built to both protect them from the elements and draw attention to them. I was immediately reminded of pictures that I’ve seen of Stalin’s birthplace in Gori, Georgia, where a humble peasant’s hut is covered (and overpowered) by a similar structure. Question was what was so important about these ruins to merit such protection? A dip into the guidebook soon revealed the answer: the ruins were the remains of Lezha’s mediaeval cathedral which, more importantly, was the place where that hero of heroes, Skanderbeg, was buried.

You hear Skanderbeg’s name and see his image all over Albania and everybody holds him in the highest regard. Born Gjergj Kastrioti, he was a tribal chieftain in the 15th century who managed to achieve the almost impossible in uniting the continually warring Albanian tribes and then defeating the omnipotent Ottoman Empire in battle again and again and again. Indeed, in his entire career he only ever lost two battles against the Turks and when he died in 1468 Albania was still free and united. It was not to last however and the Ottoman attacks continued until in 1479 the last Albanian fortress, Rozafa Castle near Shkodra fell. One might think therefore, that all his efforts had been in vain, yet many historians believe that his effective stalling of the Ottomans for almost forty years when they were at the peak of their powers meant that Italy escaped Turkish invasion; an Italy that was not only the spiritual heart of Western Europe but also the breeding ground for the Renaissance that spawned the Modern World. It is one of history’s great ifs…

Shkodra was a city that I had heard much about prior to my arrival, largely due to one of my students being a native of the place. In class he would regularly launch into long eulogies its beauty and friendliness before then thinking twice and warning me that it was a poor, dirty place, nothing special, please sir, don’t get your hopes up.

It was the latter impression that seemed the more accurate as the bus dropped me off at the roundabout in the centre of town. The Five Heroes monument in the centre was being demolished to be replaced by what looked like a collection of pipes whilst I was hassled from every angle by taxi drivers wishing to ferry me to Montenegro.

The cheapest hotel listed in the guidebook was also the one that, by chance, I had been dropped right next to and so I ventured into the Hotel Rozafa to see if they any room for a (not-so) little one. As it turned out, room was one thing that they had plenty of; the Rozafa was an enormous eight-storey block with far more rooms than guests. Nonetheless, the one they found for me was on the fifth floor and the lift was broken.

Hotel bedroom


Still, I needed the exercise and the views were great, and despite the fact that the place obviously hadn’t been renovated since the advent of democracy, I knew that I had chosen wisely. One hears so much you see, of the hotels of the communist era, huge hulking places with unfriendly staff who cared not if you stayed so that as a consequence these hotels were always virtually empty. My travels however, all in a post-communist era, had always been in rather pleasant, small-scale hotels or guesthouses like the Alpin or Gjirokastra where the staff did want your money and so smiled at least. At the Rozafa however, time had stood still and I appeared to be the only guest in its eight floors of rooms where the electricity would cut out unexpectedly and air-con was a concept for the future. The icing on the cake though, was the Albturist rug in the centre of my shoddy room. It was a shithole, yes, but by God, it was also a living history lesson!

And very cheap.

Communism revisited in Shkodra, from the Albturist rug (left) to the fact that mine was the only light on in the entire place (right)

After dumping my bag I went back down the five flights of stairs to grab a bite to eat, (first proper meal since the Juvenilija pizza!), and then to see the sights of Shkodra. My first impression, I soon discovered, had been misleading. The city was in fact, quite pleasant with an altogether different atmosphere to the other Albanian cities that I’d visited. This was partially due to the Italian factor – Shkodra was Venetian-owned until 1479 and most of her population have either emigrated to Italy or learnt her language. The historical heart of the city, Fushë Çelë, looked as if it had been transported brick by brick from across the Adriatic and if my stomach had not been quite so unsettled and my memories so vivid, I might have been tempted to stop for a pizza.

Most of all though, it is religion that makes Shkodra seem so different. Religion takes very much a back seat in Albania. By European standards it probably always has, the Albanians are notorious for changing their faith for more earthly rather than spiritual reasons, but after the harsh atheism of the Hoxha era, then religions minor standing has been all the more guaranteed. Except that is, in Shkodra. The city is the centre of Albanian Catholicism and has several large Catholic churches as well as the obligatory new Orthodox church and several impressive new mosques, the largest being an Egyptian-financed one in the park opposite Hotel Rozafa that has a distinctive, Ottoman-cum-Art Deco design. In Shkodra religion seems to play a part in daily life that it has long since retired from elsewhere in the country.

In the Fushë Çelë I met a charming elderly gentleman who informed me in grammatically-precise English that he had trained as a medical doctor in Budapest in his youth. I spoke warmly of that city and its thermal baths which pleased him and he walked with me to the Catholic cathedral. En route he informed me that Shkodra was the centre of Roman Catholicism in Albania and that most people there were Catholics, including his wife, although he himself was Orthodox, not that that was a problem, for above all, one is an Albanian.

The cathedral itself was an enormous 19th century building with a new bell tower at its side. Inside it was spacious and pleasant, and for me the highlight was an enormous painting by that altar that depicted the laying of the first stone with an interested crowd of priests, Ottoman officials, foreign dignitaries and the faithful looking on. Later on, the curator of the Rozafa Castle Museum informed me that the man laying the stone had in fact been the chief imam of the city and that the cathedral had been financed by both Austria and Italy as a direct result of Ottoman reforms relating to millets and religion that I had just been reading about in Misha Glenny’s book. He also explained that the tower was new as the communists had demolished the original due to it being such a potent symbol of religious belief but the church itself had escaped destruction by being converted into a Hall of Sports, its central portion being used as a handball stadium with banks of seating on either side.

Following my tour of the city itself, I took a taxi out to see Shkodra’s main attraction, the spectacular Rozafa Castle. My driver, an enthusiastic Catholic named Gjergj mixed Italian, German and English with abandon and held some strong opinions on his Muslim neighbours. Whenever we passed a mosque he would exclaim “Tutti Musulmani! Tutti sheiser! Albania is Bosnia! Albania is Afghanistan! Tutti xhami! Tutti sheiser!” before crossing himself whenever a church reassuringly came into view. Interestingly, this was the only expression of religious intolerance that I encountered whilst in Albania.

Rozafa Castle was shaded by Gjirokastra’s Citadel but that was about the only criticism that one could level at it. Every side commanded spectacular views whilst the ruins themselves were of great interest. They are largely Venetian and Ottoman and indeed Rozafa was the last Albanian fortress to fall to the Turks back in 1479 which gives us some indication at both its significance and strength. Largely deserted and given over to wild flowers these days, I enjoyed seeking out stairways that led down to underground chambers or out onto the ramparts or climbing over the fascinating former mosque and cathedral.

It is at the far end of the castle however, where most of the action is. There, built into the walls, is a delightful restaurant where I enjoyed a coffee looking out over where the rivers Kir and Drin converge before heading next-door into the old Venetian ammunition store which now houses a museum.

That museum was good in itself; the building was done out sympathetically and there were several items of interest including some old Ottoman cannonballs that had been fired during the 1479 siege and a scale model of the castle and city during the 18th century. What made it for me though, were not the displays but the curator.

I never asked his name, but this man was remarkable. In fluent English he told me all about the castle’s history from the legend of its foundation, (when a woman was bricked up in the wall with only her breast exposed so that she could feed her baby), to the time of Hoxha, (who I learnt had banned Edith Durham’s books on the region – one has to ask, why???). He answered all my awkward questions and we talked at length on the Balkans, the Tanzimat Reforms of the Ottoman Empire, on why the city of Shkodra had been moved from around the foot of the castle to its present site some several miles away, (apparently the river had kept changing its course and flooding the old city). Finally I thanked him for making his country’s history and culture come alive for me, but he replied that he was merely doing his duty. Alas, that laudable sense of duty was something that had been absent in every other curator I had come across, most of whom had not even given me a ticket for the fee paid, the money going into their back pockets instead…

The 'Leaden Mosque'

Below Rozafa Castle, at the heart of what was once the city of Shkodra and is now but a sleepy village, is the Leaden Mosque, (so called because of its roof), which dates from the 18th century and, as well as being one of the finest mosques in the country, also boasts two significant claims to fame. The first concerns the visit of Edith Durham which I had just read about in her book ‘High Albania’. When that famous English adventuress stepped foot inside in 1912 she became the first foreign non-Muslim female to enter a mosque in Albania. She states in her book that it was said that the building had formerly been a church dedicated to St. Mark, but in my opinion, the building appears wholly Muslim, although a church may have stood on the site previously. The mosque’s second claim to fame is less cheery: during the country’s first democratic elections in March 1991, worshippers were fired upon by the Sigurimi (secret police) in an attempt to intimidate them into voting for the regime.

The mosque today betrays little of that disturbed past. It is a beautiful building but alas, closed when I visited. In the field behind it I spied a row of bunkers and I decided to do something that I’d been eager to do ever since entering Albania, namely take a look inside one of them. To my surprise, the interior was very small indeed; hardly enough room for a man to turn around in and it must have been very claustrophobic to be sat in one for any length of time. I wondered at the reports by many Albanians that these bunkers served an unintended secondary purpose as illicit meeting places for young lovers. All I’m going to say on the matter is that it can’t have been a very comfortable experience…

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