Going Up The Country
It was hot. The weather was changing and changing fast. It was time to get out of Tirana and get back into a more ‘natural’ and cooler environment, so we decided to head north to Shkoder.
Shkoder, a tourist destination, is about a 2.5-hour bus ride from Tirana with a population of around 77,000 in northwestern Albania. It is considered the gateway to Lake Komani and Theth – both very remote but beautiful – but most importantly cooler. We can almost smell the natural beauty.
Bus! Oh, Bus! Where Art Thou?
The day before we were to leave Carrie said: “Hey, we need to walk to where I think the bus station is located.” “What?” I responded with a bit of shock. “What do you mean ‘think’? Google it!” “Nope,” she said. “That won’t work.” She went on to explain to me that the term ‘bus station’ means something completely different in Albania than in most places. I learned that there really isn’t a defined, stable, place with a permanent structure. What passes as a bus station is either a dusty parking lot in various locations throughout the city or at a large roundabout on a busy boulevard. Local knowledge was a must, so we imposed on our landlords, Ergis and Megi.
As is typical of the friendliest people on the planet, Ergis and Megi offered to pick us up and deliver us to the proper station.
So, at 9am on the day of departure, we were dropped off at a dusty parking lot filled with an interesting assortment of vehicle types, with an equally interesting assortment of men scurrying about yelling, what we assumed to be, the destination of their assigned vehicle. Absolutely none of which was comprehensible to us. Our host, Ergis, after a few conversations with the hawkers, said: “This is your bus. Get on this one.” “Who do we pay? Do we need a ticket?” Carrie asked. “Don’t worry. Just get on the bus.” was Ergis’s response. Being folks capable of following directions, on the bus we went, with our luggage tossed underneath in the ‘baggage spot’. The ‘system’ for paying was to wait until we were underway, then when the driver’s assistant came by, we were to tell him how far we were going and then he tells us the
price. OK, easy enough. Actually, it was very effective.
Accommodations Should Always Come With A Smile
Two and a half hours later we were dropped off at the Shkoder ‘bus station’, a large roundabout near the heart of the tourist area, and only a short walk from our guesthouse, the Shkodra.L Hotel. Not sure what the dot L was about, but hey, what’s in a name? Again, we were greeted by our hosts as if they had known us for years. We could not leave the place without being given a bucket full of food or advice on what to see. Breakfast was included and consisted of enough food to feed half the population of Arizona.
The City: Touristy But Fun
Now, our main reason for going to Shkoder was to get to Lake Komani and Theth (Carrie will cover Theth in our next post), but Shkoder is no slouch.
With a recently renovated old town district, which included a very cool promenade, as well as
beautiful Mosques and churches, Shkoder was charming and fun. Three don’t miss sites are Lake Shkoder (the largest lake in Southern Europe), the Rozafa Castle, and the Marubi National Museum of Photography. Although I said ‘don’t miss’, we did miss Lake Shkoder, I’m ashamed to say. We heard it was beautiful, so when you go, let us know what you think.
The Fabulous Marubi Museum
Located right smack in the middle of the promenade was the Marubi National Museum of photography, so you can’t miss it, and you don’t have to be a photography buff to love this place. Plan for 2 to 3 hours, minimum, to properly enjoy the museum. The multi-talented, photographer-sculptor-architect-painter, Pietro Marubi arrived in Shkoder in 1858 and began documenting the events in the region via his ‘magic box’. And there were many significant historical events to document. His family continued in his footsteps for generations, documenting everyday
Albanian life as well as revolution after revolution. In 2016, the museum was nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award by the European Museum Forum. This is one of my favorite museums in the world. Small by comparison to most, but it packs a real punch in documenting a very interesting slice of time in a very dramatic and engrossing way.
Hey, Where Is This Damn Castle?
The Rozafa Castle was easy to get to, well sort of anyhow. We asked a local where the bus stop to the castle was located. Told the driver’s assistant that we wanted to go to the castle and after about 20 minutes, when at the proper bus ‘stop’, he told us when to get off. Or instead you can use this handy dandy bus route map that Carrie made. As he was telling us to dismount, he was also pointing wildly at something across the street. What we saw was a small cafe (they’re every 100 feet in Albania – truly a coffee culture). We saw no signs for the castle, no entrance was apparent, no parking lot to house the hoards of tourists that we were
expecting. We must have looked completely befuddled because one of the coffee drinkers started pointing to a path between a row of houses. We were still looking befuddled, and so, using sign language he said (because Albanians are the friendliest people on the planet), ‘follow me, I’ll show you the way.’ A short hike later we came to a road, at which point he told us that we could either take the long way up a paved switchback road or go straight up this dirt path directly ahead of us (because castles are always located on a mountaintop). We chose the shortcut. Although it was a bit steep, it wasn’t very difficult at all. Fifteen minutes later we were back on the road near what appeared to be an entrance to the castle.
Where Have All The Tourists Gone?
Still, we saw no signs and only 2 cars. As we came up to the gate we saw a man standing by the entrance. We paid him our entry fee at which point we finally saw a few more tourists including an Albanian family currently living in Canada. As the day progressed we probably saw a total of 50 people. The point is that Albania is just in the beginning stages of understanding how to deal with and entice tourists.
To be honest, the site was a bit neglected and parts were still being excavated when we were there. With that said, what we could explore was very much worth the trip and the views of Shkoder and the entire valley were amazing.
Mario Molla – The Mayor Of Lake Komani?
Continuing the theme of ‘Geez! We’re still trying to figure out how to handle this tourism thing’, let’s talk Lake Komani. Lake Komani was formed in the early 1970s by damming the river running through the Drini valley. The hydroelectric power produced is enough to make Albania a major energy exporter. The result is a huge lake surrounded by near-vertical young mountains. Carrie found out through Megi, our landlord in Tirana, that a guy named Mario Molla pretty much runs everything that happens in and around Lake Komani. He actually advertised himself as an eco-tour company providing guided boat trips on the lake.
Supposedly, he had a place across the street from the theater in Shkoder where one can find info on his services. We never did find that, but with the help of our Tirana landlords, Megi and Ergis (Albanians-the friendliest people on the planet), we were finally able to secure a tour on the lake. It turned out that a public minivan picks you up across from the theater and drives you the 1.5 hours to the lake. Mario then arranges whatever transportation he can secure to get you back to Shkoder. What we learned was that Mario is a pretty busy guy: running the ferries that run from the dam to Fierza, then a bus to Valbone. So it seemed that the eco-tour thing was really only a side business. But nevermind all that. This lake was amazing.
Bouncing Around The Lake
Our trip started near the dam, at the ferry terminal, in a small open boat. It turned out that we were the only customers that day, so we had it all to ourselves. Our boat captain/tour guide was born in the area and lived most of his childhood in one of few villages surrounding the lake, many perched high on the mountainside. About halfway through the trip, we left the lake and headed up one of the river’s tributaries, where the water turned to a milky colored turquoise, almost glacier-like. At the end of the tributary, we stopped for drinks and food at an in the middle of nowhere establishment. It was a great time and well worth the effort of getting there.
In The End, Worth The effort
So, life isn’t always easy, although as much as I bitch about all the hassles, you would think that I expect it to be so. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort to see special places before they become tourist traps. This area of Albania is one of them. It’s worth the time and effort and you’ll meet the friendliest people on the planet. I’ll try to be less grumpy next time. (More photos below)
Hike Drink Live Laugh (Apero Time)
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