Close to the border with Montenegro, Shkodra in Albania is the point of entry for the sublime natural landscapes in almost every direction from the city. East is Drin River that flows through canyons, right to the west is the Adriatic Sea and its sandy beaches, and northeast are the Albanian Alps where the country’s tallest peaks can be conquered. For history buffs there’s plenty to catch the eye as Shkodra has been on a key trading post for millennia, and both the Ancient Greeks and Romans settled here. Inside Shkodra you can acquaint yourself with Albanian history and culture, visiting mosques, cathedrals, workshops and photographic archives.
1. Rozafa Fortress
Every civilisation in Shkodra’s history has used this strategic spot on a craggy hill next to the confluence of the Drin and Bojana Rivers. There was an Illyrian stronghold here 2,500 years ago and elements of it were adapted for later fortresses. The Romans also left their mark, but most of the ruins are from Venetian times when the castle was sacked after a siege by the Ottomans in 1478. The castle saw action right up to 1912 when it was defended by the Ottomans against Montenegrin and Serbian forces.
2. Shkodra Historical Museum
This museum is in a sensational location, on a steep hill overlooking the city. The building is a former Venetian merchant’s house, even including authentic stone fortifications. So the Historical Museum has the dual appeal of housing culturally-important artefacts and being historical in its own right. The exhibits are compact and provide detail about ancient activity in the region, the Byzantine era, Ottoman times, right up to the oppressive regime under Enver Hoxha. In the garden seek out the original Venetian stone well and the remnants of a Roman tomb.
3. Marubi Photo Collection
Pietro Marubi was an Italian photographer who fled to Shkodra in the mid-19th century for political reasons. He had supported general Giuseppe Garibaldi, who himself had to flee for America after the failed siege of Rome in 1849. In the course of his career Marubi took some 500,000 photographs, which are archived or on display at this attraction on Muhamet Gollesha. They document 19th-century and early-20th-century life in Shkodra in the most vivid way possible, capturing the dress and social norms of the time. The archive was later curated by the local Kodheli brothers, who adopted techniques and continued taking photographs until Kel Khodeli’s death in 1940.
4. Lake Shkodra
This expansive lake, the largest in the Balkans, forms a natural boundary between Albania and Montenegro. You could rent a bike in Shkodar to get out there, or catch a bus to the western edge of the city and complete the remaining five kilometres on foot. Not far from the border with Montenegro is the Lake Shkodra Resort, which a campsite with chalets and camping grounds offering tent rental right on the shore where the lake is set off by the Albanian Peaks in the distant background. You can hire kayaks here or set off on a hiking trip around the beautiful perimeter of the lake.
5. Shurdhah Island
A day trip southeast of the city is Lake Vau-Dejes, formed when the River Drin was dammed. In the summer you can catch a boat out to Shurdhah Island, almost 400 metres in length and covered with dense vegetation. Climb on shore for an small adventure, discovering the last remaining fragments of Sarda, an ancient city. This was an Illyrian settlement, and later a Roman citadel. In medieval times it was a city famous for its 365 altars and being the seat of Bishops of Sarda and Sapa. Eventually the city was destroyed by the Ottomans, and when the dam was completed the ruins formed an island near the left bank of the Drin.
6. Lake Koman Ferry
Just over an hour east of Shkodra awaits an idiosyncratic experience you’ll never forget. A voyage on the Lake Koman ferry will give you plenty of material for a true traveller’s tale. It’s a passenger transport connecting Koman with the town of Fierze, but what makes it essential is the way you’ll experience the cinematic scenery surrounding the lake and interact with the locals. The ferry will make regular calls to the shore, taking on farmers and livestock, and at times the vessel will seem precariously overloaded as you pass through mountainous scenery that tumbles down sharply to the water.
7. Albanian Alps
If you’re undeterred by their fearsome name, the Accursed Mountains near the borders with Kosovo and Montenegro offer the most exhilarating natural scenery in Albania. If you drive up the gravel road to Theth you’ll reach the gateway for Maja Jezerce, which is Albania’s highest mountain at 2,694 metres. As you’d expect this is a very remote part of the country, so it’s important to be prepared before setting off on excursions. But with some internet research you’ll be able to get in contact with local businesses offering hiking support, as well itineraries for trips in one of the most dramatic locations you’ll ever visit.
8. Venice Art Mask Factory
This combined workshop and museum is run by Edmond Angoni, an Albanian artisan who emigrated to Italy in the 90s to master the Venetian art of mask-making. Since then he’s made a successful career designing masks for a host of productions and movies, the most famous being Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. In recent years he has set up shop in Shkodra and employs many locals in his workshop. You can browse Angoni’s wide array of costume masks, made anything from metal to papier mache. You’ll also be able to see how these masks are created, and get the chance to try designing and building a mask of your own.
9. Shkodra Cathedral
Also known as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, this building was ordained in 1867. One of the remarkable things about the cathedral is that it’s a catholic building in a country with a Muslim majority and where many Christians practice Eastern Orthodoxy. It underlines how Albania is such a meeting point for world religions and emphasises the rebirth or religious freedom after the communist era ended. In 1990 the first Catholic congregation since 1967 was held at St. Stephen’s, and in the early 90s it welcomed both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.
10. Ebu Bekr Mosque
Shkodra’s main mosque, Ebu Bekr is named after the Ottoman statesman Ebubekir Pasha, who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. In its heyday the mosque had a respected Madrasa, or religious school, which attracted Muslim scholars from across the region. After the Rozafa Fortress this mosque is Shkodra’s main landmark, and its tall minarets are a useful reference point for way-finding in the city. Despite its Ottoman origins Ebu Bekr underwent renovation after the fall of communism in Albania, giving it a modern appearance.
11. Mes Bridge
Spanning the Khir River five kilometres northeast of Shkoder is this magnificent Ottoman bridge. For starters the environment is almost idyllic, framed by the hills of the Maranai Nature Park, and with evergreen vegetation on the banks of a shallow river that draws swimmers in summer. The Mes Bridge is Ottoman Albania’s largest river crossing, 100 metres-long and dating back to 1770. The river has been crossed at this spot for as long humans have been here, and was on the trade route between Shkodra and Pristina in Kosovo.
A few kilometres south of Shkodra, next to the Adriatic sea, is this compact city that was established in antiquity as the Greek port of Lissus. You can amble around the ruins of this settlement at the town’s archaeology park. Lezha’s prime attraction is the mausoleum of Skanderbeg. For newcomers to Albanian history Skanderbeg is the national hero, Prince of Kastrioti, whose military genius has been praised for keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay in the 1400s. The memorial is a modern portico covering the ruins of the Church of San Nikolas, where Skanderbeg’s tomb is preserved and his weapons are on display.
The border is so close that it makes sense to widen your horizons and hop across to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. The best reason to make the trip is to get a feel for the culture and life of a city that is off the map for many tourists. Podgorica has an easy-going Mediterranean atmosphere, with lively streets, cafes and restaurants. This is best experienced in the Stara Varos, the Old Turkish Town, which has those classic narrow paved streets with lots of twists and turns and sights like a stone Clock Tower from the 1600s.
Also in Montenegro, Ulcinj is on the Adriatic coast and sits on the opposite side of Lake Shkodra to Podgorica. In this region where boundaries are often difficult to delineate it won’t be surprising that Ulcinj is 80% ethnic Albanian. Make the short drive to this coastal resort to visit the beaches that have started to gain international recognition. The are more than 30 kilometres of coastline to explore and 25 different beaches to choose from. One of the best has to be Velika Plaza, a long, wide sandy beach with rolling surf, which can be reached by bus from the centre of Ulcinj.