Albania in December – headed north to Shkodër

When you travel due north from Tirana in winter, you start seeing snow-capped mountains before long. And the next-biggest city and gateway to the mountains is the city of Shkodër.

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Very close to the border to Montenegro and lying on the edge of Lake Shkodër (or Lake Skadar), it took us barely 90 minutes driving from the capital to reach. Of course I didn’t do much of the driving, preferring to sleep in the back of the car…

It was noticeably colder here than in Tirana and because we arrived at the ungodly hour of 8am, the first thing was to find a café and unthaw while the sun did its thing.

The unthawing apparently also applied to the people, because despite initially gruffly asking me why I wanted to take a photo, this kiosk owner became very friendly upon hearing where I was from and willingly posed for me.

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There’s been a lot of renovation work done on the pedestrian zone of the town – more so than I’d seen in Tirana. Work crews were busy laying new pavement in front of the historical “Cafe Madh” (large cafe), which is quite derelict today.

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At the same time, there also seemed to be a lot more of the pre-communist building stock left.

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The Christian Orthodox Cathedral of Shkodër was a welcome change in pace, tucked away from the main pedestrian street.

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We only had a few hours in the city, since it was December 31st and we would be celebrating New Year’s in Tirana in the evening. So before heading back to Tirana we drove up to the castle Rozafa. Surrounded on two sides by the river Bojana – which carries the outflow of Lake Shkodër – and its tributary the river Drini, the castle overlooks these two important communication routes and the city.

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The picture above shows the panorama unfolding left to right from West (the lake and toward the border of Montenegro) roughly to due East (the mountains toward Kosovo).

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Even though the extensive fortifications one can see on the hilltop are mostly of Venetian origin, the site itself has a settlement history going back farther than the Illyrian stronghold captured by Roman troops in the second century BC.

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This quick visit to the north really left me with a decisive longing for the snow-capped mountains of the north. While we won’t make it back this winter, the winter 2013/2014 or the summer after that should see us taking a more extensive trip there.