After leaving the village of Theth (see part 1 of Albania Mania here), Phil and I headed to Lake Shkodra (or Shkodër, and to be more different the Montenegrins call it Lake Skadar so take your pick). It was a two hour drive, back down the mountain. We stopped at Rozafa Castle in the city of Shkodra on the way to the lake, which oddly is not in the actual city of Shkodra.
The castle dates back to the Ilyrians in the 4th century BC (Phil writes in more detail about the history in his post). We paid a small entrance fee and climbed up a steep hill paved with well worn stones. The first of several castles we would visit during our time in Albania, Rozafa offered great views and many intact, climbable ramparts. Unlike some of the other castles we visited, there were no security guards or barriers to block access to any part of the castle so we were free to roam where we chose. We often marvel at how in Europe, most historic or scenic sites do not have any fences or safety barriers (only barriers to prevent folks from walking on centuries old mosaics, for example) unlike in the US. It’s kind of refreshing and I suppose a bit dangerous. I guess they trust you to use your head and not jump off the edge of the cliff, wall, ledge etc.
After our castle stop, we were on to our next guest house, Lake Shkoder rooms. As the name suggests, it is located right on the lake, past the little lakeside town of Shiroka. Down the winding road we went wondering if we would ever reach the place. At the literal end of the road there it was, right next to a mosque, nestled on the blue shores of the lake.
We were welcomed warmly by Ardit, who runs the guesthouse and attached restaurant, along with his family. Ardit spoke very little English but between his limited English, our very limited Italian, gestures, and google translate, we communicated quite effectively during our stay.
On the day of our arrival Ardit’s brother Elvis and his family from Italy were concluding their final day at the lake. Elvis spoke English and as we conversed with him we asked him where abouts he lived in Italy and he informed us he had been living in Pescara for the past 22 years. Pescara! We had just visited Pescara with my mother-in-law during her visit back in May. The city is located in the Abruzzo region where she was born. Elvis knew the town of her birth, Raiano, quite well. We took the family’s warm welcome and connection to Abruzzo as a good sign.
Ardit, Elvis explained to us, had graduated from culinary school in Italy and was now running the restaurant’s kitchen, with a little help from his mother, who made a couple of local specialties. For our first meal, we ordered the recommended lake trout along with a Greek salad. Platter after platter emerged from the kitchen and we were treated to a real feast, including several dishes we hadn’t ordered. We enjoyed the lake trout, pasta with cheese and olive oil, bread topped with cheese that had a similar consistency to cast iron skillet corn bread but was not made with corn meal, and a platter of fried fish roe cakes. Everything was delicious.
The following day we decided to relax a bit and take advantage of the lake’s beach right in front of our room that we practically had all to ourselves. The lake water was turquoise blue and beautiful. I took a little walk to a nearby convenience store and bought an inflatable raft to use on the lake. It was lovely to float around, under the sun, feeling the breeze on my skin without a care in the world. The lake was very quiet other than the occasional small fishing boat passing by in the distance. I would have probably stayed in the water for well longer but, after seeing what I thought was a small water bird bopping along out of the corner of my eye, I realized it was not a bird when a mother and daughter who were wading near the shore pointed at it, screamed, and ran. I quickly became acutely aware, after having seen it rise up, out of the water, that it was in fact, a snake. I paddled my way to shore with the speed of an olympic champion.
Each morning, we were treated to a fantastic breakfast from Ardit. The frist morning we had crepes with nutella and homemade cake (good thing neither of us is a diabetic), the second morning a plate of tomato, peppers, eggs, sausage, and cheese with a basket of toast, the third delicious croissants, and the last a huge basket of toast with a variety homemade jams. Each day we were given water, juice, and coffee as well. Breakfast was a great start to the day and mostly kept us full until dinner.
On our third day at the lake, we decided to drive into Montenegro as we could literally see the neighboring country from our guesthouse. We could have walked over the border relatively easily but, wanting to take the official, legal route in, we opted to drive an hour, over the boarder and into the beach town of Ulcinj on the Adriatic coast.
Ulcinj had a very touristy beach area with a lot of crowded beaches to choose from to lounge and relax. We opted to take a walk along the Adriatic on a trail Phil had discovered called the Long Beach Trail. We had assumed the trail would run right along the coast, on a boardwalk or paved path (or at least I had assumed that). Instead, it was somewhat high on a hill with occasional glimpses of the sea. We walked under one section of trees that had at least six spiderwebs complete with giant spiders hanging in them. I should have snapped a photo of this spooky scene but I was too concerned with trying to limbo my way under them without knocking them down or getting them in my hair.
After the walk, er hike, we found ourselves by a sprawling sandy beach with chairs and a little strip of convenience stores and restaurants. I had been unprepared for such a nature hike only having worn sandals. Phil, being the tropper he is, offered to walk back and get the car where we had parked it before setting out on the walk and then come to pick me up. I sat at the large resort hotel that apparently owned all of the seats on the beach and had a beer at the bar. Once Phil returned, we grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant serving traditional, Montenegrin food. We shared stuffed eggplant with tomatoes and cheese along with grape leaves that were served warm, and cooked with oil and what looked like thick bacon. Both were super tasty.
We grabbed a few supplies at one of the convenience stores, including the peanuts I mentioned in my last post (oof). On the drive back, we stopped at a lookout point high above Lake Skadar (aka Shkoder) before crossing back into Albania.
We were so full from our late lunch, we opted to skip dinner, instead munching on a few snacks we had in the room. I opted for chocolate and peanuts. After our snacks, we sat on the lovely restaurant patio and played cards and drank some of Ardit’s homemade raki (traditional Albanian spirit).
That night I woke up with tummy troubles that continued into the next morning. Phil ventured out into the nearby town of Shiroka while I attempted to recooperate, hoping it was a twenty-four hour thing. When Phil got back from his trip into town, I was feeling well enough to float on my raft while he took a swim and promised to watch for snakes.
The next morning I was feeling mostly better with just a hint of weird belly as we ate breakfast and then set out for our next destination, Berat. Berat, known both as the white city and the city of a thousand windows, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Located on the Osum River, the town is known for its Ottoman houses and Berat Castle sits high on the hill above the town.
We arrived at our guesthouse and met our hosts Lili and her husband. Lili had two rooms available and let us pick our favorite of the two. She spoke a little English while her husband spoke none but both were kind and full of smiles for us, offering us coffee after our long car ride.
After settling in at the guesthouse, we walked toward the city in search of food. Phil had quickly googled and found a highly rated local restaurant serving traditional Albanian food called Lili Homemade Food. The old town, with homes built onto the hill reminded me a bit of Frigiliana and Cudillero in Spain with its old buildings and steep, winding, stone pathways.
They were repairing some of the stone stairs and at one point we wondered if we should even be walking on the street, thinking surely a restaurant could not be located in such a tucked away, hard to get to location. Soon we saw a sign for Lili Homemade Food. It certainly did not look like a restaurant and it felt a bit as if I was walking into someone’s home as I peeked my head into the door and went in.
We were warmly welcomed by Lili who luckily had one table left, informing us that he had reservations for the table at 8:30 but if we could be done before then it was ours. It was 6:30 and we assured him that would be no problem.
There were six, two person tables, set up in what looked like Lili’s home patio (I’m pretty sure that was exactly what the situation was). Phil and I sat beside a young Irish couple, and Lili excitedly described the menu options to us (with the menu board pictured below) and the others gathered for an early dinner. We ordered the fergesa, which is a warm dish of tomato sauce, cheese, and spices served with bread for dipping, along with the qofte (meatball), Greek salad, and byrek (Albanian stuffed filo pastry) with cheese and spinach. We paired the meal with a pitcher of homemade wine made by Lili’s father. All of the food was prepared by his wife whom he would occasionally disappear to talk to but who we never actually saw during our time there.
Phil and I chatted with the Irish couple sitting next to us while Lili hopped back and forth between the patio and kitchen, bringing wine, water, and food. The food was all delicious and afterward, Lili offered everyone a complimentary glass of homemade raki (Albanian pomace spirit). Everyone graciously accepted the offer of raki. As we waited for the spirit to be poured, the Irish couple asked if we had tasted raki before. We said it had and it actually tasted quite a lot like whiskey, thinking they would like it, because well, they’re Irish. They both informed us, they did not particularly care for whiskey which immediately made me feel like a stereotyping jerk but what are you gonna do (besides learn more about people). After Lili brought each of us a shot glass filled with raki, and took a smaller glass for himself, we all toasted one another. The Irish couple did agree the raki tasted like whiskey, which somehow made me feel better.
We watched as Lili had a small toast of raki with each table before coming back to ours and offering us another. We all accepted as our eyes communicated to each other our surprise at the situation. None of us particularly loved raki but because Lili was such a gracious host and seemingly wanted people to toast with so he could drink more raki, we all smiled and drank more. The third time Lili filled our shot glasses, we all laughed in disbelief as he smiled and explained he had to “get ready” for the next group of guests coming for dinner at 8:30. By that time, the raki had grown on us (as often happens after a third shot of anything). We all left feeling happy and warm, from both Lili’s hospitality and the raki.
The next day we ventured out, looking for a dervish mosque, Halveti Tekke, that dates back to the 1500’s. I had read the visiting hours were inconsistent but it was well worth a visit should you find it open. We wandered up to the building and saw an older gentleman nearby. He approached us and, with his limited English and our few words of Italian, communicated effectively. He told us the history of the Halveti Tekke, a small, one room building decorated exquisitely. Then he left us alone to take a few pictures, advising us to meet him at the entrance of the [much larger] mosque across the courtyard, when we were finished.
After finishing up at the Halveti Tekke, we walked toward the larger mosque, still in use. I started to cover my hair and the older fellow who was showing us around informed us that Albanian muslims were very liberal and there was no need for me to do so. We took off our shoes and entered the mosque. I think he could tell we were genuinely interested in the history and architecture because he asked us if we wanted to climb the stairs to the minerette. The minerrette is where, in most mosques nowadays in our limited experience, speakers play the five times daily prayers of muslims. At one time, the mosuqe imam climbed the minerette steps to recite the prayers.
Phil and I jumped at the change and excitedly climbed the 94, cramped, dusty steps to the top of the minerette. Only one of us at a time could peer out the small door and step out onto the ledge to take in the view of the whole town. It was so cool and an amazing experience.
The next morning, our plan was to climb to the Berat castle, high atop the city. I woke up feeling not quite 100%, again with the belly trouble but decided I was well enough to carry on with the planned hike. Phil and I slowly made our way up, taking rest and water breaks as [I] needed.
Once atop the city, we took in the views. The castle walls enclose a large area that is still inhabited by residents as well as shops and restaurants. Phil and I met Toni, a resident, who offered to take us on an hours-long tour of the castle grounds. We accepted and were joined by a Czech couple from Prague, Roman and Hannah.
Toni, who was born and raised in a house within the castle walls, told us the history of the place as we walked. He informed us that the oldest base walls dated back to the 4th century BC and were built by the Illyrians who were later conquered by the Romans. Berat became a part of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century. Later, in 1417, it became part of the Ottoman Empire.
We saw the old Roman cistern, a mosque from the Ottoman era, and several churches. At one time, there were twenty churches within the castle walls. Only a few remain but lucky for us, Toni had the keys to two very old ones that only hold service once a year. The small, Orthodox churches still had colorful frescoes on the wall. Though obviously damaged by time and moisture, they were still a site to behold. We ended our tour at the Berat Castle lookout point high above the city that offered great views of the city and river below.
We headed back to our guesthouse where I remained with fevers and chills, until the next morning when we left for Gjirokastër. Lili, the proprietor of our guesthouse was very sweet and when I did not show up for breakfast the next morning, she gave Phil a fizzy alkaselzter-like medicine to give me as well as another presumably Albanian remedy that tasted a bit like maple syrup and tea. I drank both because I could use all the help I could get and figured that this Albanian grandma knew a thing or two. As we left, she urged me to eat something. I declined to which she replied, “one crepe”. I declined again and she said, “it is just bread and cheese. Eat.” I thanked her but I was adamant that I did not want to eat. She reluctantly let me leave without breakfast. Her husband helped us load our bags and we were off.
In Gjirokastër we stayed at a hotel rather than a guesthouse. It was a somewhat surprisingly very nice hotel with a large room, big, comfy bed, thick blinds, and satellite TV. This was all perfect for me since I spent our two days in Gjirokastër at the hotel convalescing from what I am now positive was salmonella from those damn Montenegrin peanuts. Phil was able to see the village and wrote about it here.
While I am bummed I got sick, I still had an amazing time during our month in Albania. The people were so kind, the food so tasty, and the beaches, swimming and castles all amazing. We traveled farther south to Ksamil and Himara, and then back to Vlora and the capital, where we started our Albanian adventure, Tirana, of which I can’t wait to tell you more about!