One of the best parts of travel is experiencing a new destination and a new culture for the first time. We like to step off the beaten tourist path, and push our own boundaries a bit. With that in mind, from our base in Ulcinj, Montenegro, we visited Shkoder, Albania. For no real reason other than we’d never been to Albania before, and because we could. We watched the movie “Taken” again to prepare ourselves, and off we went.
The Albanian border is about a 45 minute drive from Ulcinj, on reasonable roads. Another 20 minutes past the border is the town of Shkoder, on Lake Skadar, making it a perfect day trip. There are buses that travel between the two cities, but renting a car is the best way to go given the infrequency of the buses.
From the moment you cross the border, Albania feels different to southern Montenegro. It’s really the little things – the bright colours of houses and mosques, the cows being herded along the “highway” (highway being a complete exaggeration of the size and quality of the road), the occasional horse-and-buggy going down the road (yes, seriously!), the swarms of bugs (biblical locusts?), the slightly more run down feel, and the even crazier drivers.
Shkoder isn’t really somewhere you go to see specific “sights”. The city centre is colourful, very busy, and interesting to wander around. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, and the Rozafa castle on a hill just outside of town gives great vantage points over the city and nearby lake. The attraction of visiting Shkoder for us was more to get a taste of Albania, which is not nearly as developed as Croatia or Montenegro and therefore can feel like a step back in time.
The City of Shkoder, 4th Largest City in Albania
Shkoder is a mid-sized city that is gradually becoming more modernized. Just driving around the city takes a certain level of nerve (high!). The streets are filled with crazy drivers, oblivious cyclists, carefree pedestrians, and even the occasional horse and buggy. We thought Montenegrin drivers were crazy (they are!), but Albanians take driving to a whole new level.
For a quick visit, the area around the pedestrian street of Rruga Kole Idromeno is the best place to go. Street signs are pretty much non-existent so just turn right at the major roundabout in the direction of the large white mosque. Tourism is still very limited here, so don’t expect to hear much, if any, English spoken. We were able to find one restaurant, strangely called San Francisco Restaurant, that did have English menus and at least one English speaking waiter.
The pedestrian street has plenty of bars and restaurants, and the only souvenir shop, selling anything and everything with the Albanian double-headed eagle on it. Nearby are the Xhamia e Madhe mosque and Nativity of Christ orthodox cathedral, which are about as close as you come to tourist attractions in the city centre.
The Marubi National Museum of Photography, which is supposed to be cool, has recently moved to a new location on the street. But at the same time, they raised their entry price by seven-fold since Lonely Planet wrote about it in its latest Eastern Europe guide, decreasing our desire to check it out by an equal amount.
Rozafa Castle towers above Shkoder and the surrounding countryside. There has been a fort on this site for over 2000 years. The castle costs 200 leke (about $2) to enter. There is a museum, but it closed just before we arrived, so we just explored around the grounds.
The footprint of the fortress is quite extensive, but there is little in the way of signage other than a floorplan identifying different ruins of buildings.
The location, however, gives fantastic views back over the city, the Buna river, Skadar lake, and towards the mountains in the distance. This was a highlight of our day trip.
5km north of the city centre is Mes Bridge, another famous attraction (and we use the term “famous” loosely). The bridge was built in the late 1700’s and is one of the longest Ottoman bridges remaining in the region. It was cool for a photo op, with the mountains in the background.
Was it worth the trip?
Yes, definitely! We enjoyed the trip just to try something new after a couple of days in Ulcinj. It was interesting to see a city that is still relatively untouched by mass tourism, a situation that the Government of Albania is actively trying to change. And if nothing else, it made the drivers in Ulcinj seem tame in comparison.
- There are buses from Ulcinj, taking about 1.5 hours. However, the schedule isn’t great (i.e. scheduled departures from Ulcinj at 06:00, 07:00 and 16:00). A rental car is by far the best option.
- It is possible to take a bus or taxi to the border, cross as a pedestrian, then pick up another taxi on the Albanian side. We did see a couple of taxis on both sides of the border
- The border itself is a bit of a pain, taking at least 20-30 minutes in each direction. The wait to come back into Montenegro was much longer of course, you know with the risk of people trafficking weapons, drugs, women (!), etc.
- The exchange rate is approximately 100 Albanian Leke to US$1. However, you can only exchange into or out of Leke inside Albania (no other country will take their currency!). ATMs do exist in Shkoder, but are few and far between. Any Leke you withdraw or exchange for, make sure you spend them or exchange them back before leaving the country. Many retailers seem willing to accept Euros.