Discover Balkan - Shkodra

Shkodra is one of the oldest cities in Albania, founded in the fourth century B.C. as the center of the Labeat tribe of Illyrians. Throughout history Shkodra has been occupied several times: first by the Romans (168 B.C.), then Serbians (1040), the Venetians (1396), and finally the Ottomans (1479). The city returned to Albanian control as the feudal principality of the Balshaj during the 14th century and served as the municipal center of the Bushatllinj Pashallëk from 1757 to 1831. Shkodra is rich with cultural Heritage, the city itself as well as the people bear the pride that the large number of artists, musicians, painters, photographers, poets and writers born here strove to create. Shkodra’s main tourist attraction is Rozafa Castle. Rising majestically upon a rocky hill west of the city, the outcroppings and battlements paint a blazing picture against the setting sun. It is surrounded by the waters of three rivers; the Drini, Buna, and Kiri. Much like the town it protected, the castle has Illyrian origins. According to the historian Tit Liri "it was the strongest area of the Labeats". Like all ancient works, the castle comes with a popular local legend. Rozafa was the name of the bride of the youngest of three brothers who originally built the castle. The three men worked tirelessly by day laying mortar and stone but the walls always crumbled overnight. Consulting a wise man they learned that to expel the evil tearing at their daily work and protect their friends and family with a strong castle that would last through the ages, one of their wives needed to be entombed within the walls. The brothers made a heart wrenching pact not to alert their wives to this danger, and whoever brought her husband his noon meal the following day, she would be sacrificed. The elder brothers broke their word however, and it was Rozafa alone who came with food. When she heard the proclamation, she wept for her newborn son and husband, but allowed herself to become a living part of the walls so that the castle could be built. According to both legend and local folklore, the calcareous water flowing at the entrance of the castle is the milk flowing from one of her breasts, which she requested be left exposed so that she could feed her baby. She also pleaded for one foot and one arm to be left free, in order to rock her son's cradle at night and sooth him during the day. Historians tell us a less enchanting and more scientific background of the castle's characteristics. It reflects the dominion of the Balshaj family, but passed through enough other ruling periods that each left their own signs and markings on the grounds, including a distinct Venetian flare, some Ottoman architecture from the 16th and 17th centuries, and even a few modifications from the Bushatllinj family during the 18th and 19th centuries. Within the castle walls is a museum that a discerning lover of antiquities could spend a comfortable afternoon reading more of the history, and a restaurant has been added to showcase local food and traditional dress.
In addition to the castle, you might also want to visit other notable landmarks, such as the city’s History Museum, near the stadium and the renowned Marubi Fototekë.
Close to the city lies the Lake Shkodra, the biggest lake in all the Balkans with its surface area of 368 km2 (149 of which are Albanian waters). The lake is notable for its different banks: the southern bank is high and rocky while the northern one is low and marshy. For a leisurely cyclist or driver, two main tourist centers are the towns of Shiroka and Zogaj located on the shoreline. Famous for their fishing skills, each village hosts restaurants serving the most popular local dish, baked carp. Every 15th of August the Catholic pilgrimage of Shën Rrok, or Saint Rocco, is observed in Shiroka to celebrate the historic protector of the town. Tradition holds that after this date it is ill advised to swim in the lake's waters.
The Lake Shkodra enjoys warm temperatures, absorbing sunlight most days during the year. Swimming, sunbathing and rowing are popular for both tourists and locals. Besides these amusements the lake constitutes a very important natural ecosystem with 281 species of birds and 45 species of fish including carp, eel and shtojza.
The beach of Velipoja is only 22 km away from the city of Shkodra. The long shoreline is famous for its therapeutic sand. Possessing unusually high iodine content, many people have taken to burying themselves in it to relieve bodily aches and pains. Besides swimming and fishing, the surrounding scenery offers many interesting natural objects worth seeing, such as the small island of Franc Joseph positioned at the mouth of the Buna River, close to the Montenegro border.


The Valbona River Valley lies in the eastern part of the Albanian Alps. A national park of 8,000 hectares, it is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Albania. The park lies about 22 km from the alpine city of Bajram Curri. Before entering the valley you will find the spring (vrellen) of Shoshan. It is located only 3 km away from Bajram Curri. This spring rushes through limestone fissures on its way to the Valbona River creating an attractive canyon 2-3 m wide and 50 m deep. After entering the valley, you will pass several picturesque villages. The first, with alpine style houses, is called Dragobia, and it is where the valley narrows. Past Dragobia, at the foot of a the mountain where the Cerremi stream joins the Valbona River, is the famous cave where the national hero Bajram Curri was besieged and killed. The city than took his name. Valbona (or Selimaj) is located 25 km away from the city of Bajram Curri and is the most important inhabited center of the valley. It is full of traditional houses that create a picturesque view in symmetry with the natural wonders of the valley, which widens again at this point.
In Selimaj, there is a comfortable and traditional hotel, or you may have the opportunity to stay at a village home, for the inhabitants’ generosity and hospitality are well known. The zone is also known for its characteristic regional cooking, with specialties such as mazja, flija, (a many layered pancakelike dish cooked outdoors over open coals and steamed, often served with local honey), and pitja.
Beyond Selimaj, the road continues through the valley among marvelous views of nature with rich colors of both springtime and of the snow that covers the peaks of the craggy mountains. The final village before you arrive at the source of the Valbona River is Rrogam.
Rrogam is a remote village surrounded by virgin and intact nature. The whole valley has such rare colors and beauty that one may think a divine hand made it. On one side, you see the crystal-clear waters of the Valbona, and on the other the sharp but verdant mountain edges. Up until May you can enjoy the contrast of the clean white snow on the treetops against the blue sky. The flora of the national park includes a variety of plants and trees, the most wide-spread groves of which are the Hormoq tree. The rest consists of beech woods, arnen, walnuts, chestnuts, and wild apple trees. There are also many forest fruits such as blueberries and strawberries. The animals in the park include bears, wolves, wild cats, and even herds of wild goats climbing on the rocks. Down in the river there is the "marble trout", a rare fish found in the crystal-clear waters of the Valbona with an special and exquisite taste.
The valley, the park, and all the surroundings are known for heavy snowfall, which starts in early November and lasts almost until May. The average amount of snow in this region during the year is 100 cm. There are lots of outdoor activities in the national park, such as skiing, mountain climbing, fishing, excursions and trekking throughout the valley and streams (Cerremi, Kukaj), and canoeing along certain parts of the river. Valbona may also serve as a starting point if you wish to climb the Jezerca Mountain, the second highest mountain in Albania.


An alpine tour of Albania isn’t complete without a stop in the famed Western Alps, or Alpet Perëndimore. Here you will enjoy something unique: walk, breath, sleep and eat amidst the legends dating from Homer and through modern tales of our majestic mystery and intrigue. This tour gives you the rare chance to enjoy the heart of the Albanian Alps, Gropa e Thethit. The journey begins from the cultural capital of Shkodra and wanders 41 km away to the village of Razma. Situated on a blackberry hill at the feet o the Veleçik Mountain, Razma stands amid lush forests of pine and birch trees. Meadows and amazing alpine pastures abound, drenching any visitor with a keen eye in the beauty of the Balkans. Even in the depths of winter when the snow drifts to its highest level of the season, adventure tourists visit Razma. Several hotels already exist and others are being completed. Common activities on the excursions are mountain climbing, skiing, and weather permitting, camping.


The road turns from Razma to the village of Dedaj and then onto Boga, a village surrounded by the Alps and described by Edith Durham in her book "The Burden of the Balkans". It is here that the wealthy families of Shkodra, before the Second World War built their houses and villas to rest and escape the city. Boga is the perfect place for mountain climbing, skiing, and cave spelunking. Among the most famous caves, visitors often delve into the Cave of Mulliri ("Mill"), Akullore ("Ice Cream"), and Njerëzve të lagun ("Wet People"). The Cave of Puci is one of the most attractive, situated 1,087 m above sea level, 5 km deep and rich in stalactites, stalagmites, and wall veils, this cave branches into many different levels, fivealone are at the center. Passing through its curved galleries you can walk into with the next Cave of Husi.


After Boga, you can find one of the most popular tourist spot of the entire area, Thethi. Located 70 km. From Shkodra you must pass Qafa e Tërthores at 2,000 m. Above sea level before descending to Gropa e Thethit by crossing a stream bearing the same name. It is a journey camera ready, full of long views from the mountains, with water battling down craggily hillsides and trees struggling for sunlight on rocky slopes. The area is rich in attractive sights like the waterfall of Grunas, 30 m high, the amazing cold-water sources of Okol and the caves of "Birrat me rrathë" ("Round Holes") and Arapi. In the park people often amuse themselves by hiking, mountain climbing, skiing (especially on the eastern slope), fishing, even mountain biking and spelunking. Almost 90 percent of the park area is covered by beech tress, providing shade for many different types of flowers such as the Wulfenia Baldacci discovered by the Italian botanist Baldacci. Fascinatingly, this flower is found only in Theth. The fauna is just as rich as the flora, distinguished by the famed Golden Eagle and rriqebulli (lynx lynx). In the waters of the Stream of Theth marble trout make their home. While in Theth you can stay in local hostels designed to display traditional alpine architecture. The characteristic dish of the area is fërliku (baked meat) or sample one of a large varieties of local trout. If time permits, many travellers enjoy a short excursion to the valley of the Shalë River which brings them close to the heart of the Alps.


Another interesting spot of the Western Alps is Vermosh, part of the northern-most mountains of the country located 95 km from Shkodra in the region of Kelmendi (named from the Roman word “Clemens”, meaning gentle, simple, and good). The first thing to catch the eye along the journey is Qafa e Rrapshit where you can see the crystal-clear waters of the 57 Cemi River create a beautiful contrast with the surrounding landscape. During summer the ponds of the river are perfect for sunbathing and many visitors stop to lounge in the sun and enjoy themselves.
Vermoshi stands in an alpine field 1,100 m above sea level surrounded by high slopes. You can entertain yourself by trekking, mountain climbing, skiing, or fishing for mountain trout. The locals pride themselves that their cuisine is only truly enjoyable for visitors when accented by their own dairy products, so be sure to indulge. The full journey among the people of this Albanian region will give you not only the chance to live between a mythical atmosphere and the contemporary world, but will also let you enjoy the renowned hospitality mentioned by almost every foreigner who has been fortunate enough to visit.