Shkodra is and always has been my favourite place in Albania. Despite its nickname “Little Palermo”, I find myself inexplicably drawn to it. Actually, it’s not inexplicable, it’s very obvious why I love this place and often find myself wishing I could live there.
From its rolling hills and the dramatic mountains that frame the perimeter of the city, to the placid lake and its countless rocky beaches, to its castle, friendly people, windings rivers, and delicious food- what is not to love?
Shkoder has long been known as a place for artists, actors, writers, poets, revolutionaries, rebellious souls and those with a great sense of humour- perhaps this is what draws me to it. Who knows.
My great uncle, Edward Lear was also enamoured with the city and its surroundings when he visited over 150 years ago.
He painted the rivers and bridges with the imposing Rozafa Castle overseeing it all as well as local people in the traditional dress of the time. He also wrote about his adventures:
“By the aid of a tractable Kawás, I drew throughout the whole day unremittingly from various points below the south side of the castle, whence the view was very imposing, and near a wondrous old bridge across the Boyána, constructed of pointed arches of irregular width, and having somewhat the effect of the columns in a Gothic cathedral, suddenly resolved on spanning the stream, some with little steps, some with long.”
He also described the locals and some of the food he ate there- thankfully, the wine has improved a lot since 1848.
“A small bit of salt cheese, and some very bad wine, was all the food I could obtain; but the loss of luncheon was compensated for by the increasing interest of the costumes of the peasantry; their scarlet and crimson capotes, short coarse kilts, long black hair, dark faces, and immoderately long pistols, gave them an air of romance and savageness I had not yet seen.”
This is how he described the castle:
“At three P.M. I set out with Signor Bonatti on a visit to the Pashá of Skódra, to whom Mr Blunt of Saloniki has given me a letter; and after a visit to some of the merchants in the bazaars, we climb the steep castle-hill, whence the line of the lake and mountains are surpassingly lovely. The castle occupies the whole of the summit of the hill, and by its area, walls and numerous decaying forts within betokens greater extent and power in by-gone days.”
And the clothing of the local women:
“Purple silk and velvet, elaborately embroidered in gold and silver, form the outer garment, the patterns worked by hand with the greatest taste; two or three undervests covered with embroidery, full purple trousers, innumerable chains of gold and silver coins and medals, with a long white veil, complete the costume, excepting several coloured silk handkerchiefs, which are sewn inside the outer vest, and have a tawdry and ill-arranged look, when compared with the rest of the dress. This gay attire is only worn on great fete days, or marked occasions, such as marriages and christenings.”
Things have definitely changed a lot since then, but to me, the city retains all, if not more of its charm. Shkoder has an energy about it- something that is palpable and felt in every street. Whether its the bustling boulevards full of nice shops, or the run down and crumbling slums on the outskirts, this city is vibrant and alive.
As I walked down the pedestrianised street one October evening, I stopped to enjoy a street theatre performance. Even the drizzle and the rumbling skies did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the performers or spectators. I recalled a previous visit to the city where I saw buskers playing traditional music who were joined by passers-by with a flute, vocals, and eventually, impromptu dancers as well.
Many of the old buildings here have been lovingly and tastefully restored, not like Tirana where they are demolished to make way for apartment blocks that are perpetually destined to remain empty. There are of course several empty villas here- forgotten, abandoned, damaged by a large earthquake in 1979 and not considered worthy of reconstruction. They sit in corners and alleys, a reminder of what once was and the families who once lived there but have long since departed.
Like any other city in Albania, the streets are lined with coffee shops, but here people seem more relaxed, more laid back, and even more liberal in their attitudes.
This is also a place where religions coexist in peace. The mosques and churches call out to worshippers, sometimes in synchronicity, and while many Albanians are not religious, they sit and enjoy coffee and wine with little care for what others believe.
We stayed at Shpija Gjyshit, a new hotel and restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the Buna river. From the terrace, we enjoyed a perfectly cooked Tomaawk stake, complemented with the salty cheese that Lear refers to, and excellent wine.
The view was incredible as we watched the sun depart, only to be replaced by thousands of twinkling lights in the inky blackness.
The next day, we ventured into the city again, this time to visit the Marubi Museum of Photography. Located on the main street, it provides an insight into the history of Shkodra through early photographs. It is a veritable treat that offers an unimaginable window into the past of this great city. Portraits, group photos, candid shots, and images of political and social events by Dede Jakova chronicled the period of the early 1900s and throughout some of the communist regime. The work of Marubi upstairs provided an ethereal snapshot of the way things were during an even earlier time.
Shkoder is not a place that can be visited and enjoyed in a day or even a weekend. It’s a place you need to visit during different seasons, different times of day, and throughout the timeline of the ever-changing world. Each time you visit and under each different condition, you will discover something different to admire.
From the sprawling mountains leading to Theth and Tamare to the lavender fields of Koplik, the shores and coves of the lake, right to the boundaries of Lezhe County, Shkoder is an Albanian gem that once visited, cannot be forgotten.