Cars, Castles, and Toilet Seats: Shkoder

This past Sunday (2 September), Abby and I rented a car and drove to Shkoder, a 2,400-year-old city in the north of Albania. I got my first taste of Albanian driving immediately, as I was passed by two cars while I was stopped at a red light.

The highway to Shkoder is one of the better ones in the country – well paved, fairly straight. Unfortunately, for much of the journey, it is a two-lane highway. Under normal conditions, people drive at about 60-100 kmh, depending on the curves, entrances and exits, and so on; this means that you have to be ready to pass the occasional horse-drawn cart loaded down with hay or the slow motorist, and then zip back into your own lane before you smash into oncoming traffic. However, Albanians have a custom of driving slow, long, honking motor processions as part of their wedding celebrations, and there’s usually someone sticking a video camera out of the lead car to film the bride and groom, their car decked out with ribbons and balloons, as it leads the next eight cars along the highway at about 25 kmh. And as it is considered bad luck to get married in the last two weeks of August, this first Sunday in September witnessed the release of a pent-up demand for nuptials, all of whom had to travel along this one main highway from home to church to reception, so we were stuck behind at least four of these parties for a good couple of miles.

Nonetheless, about too many hours later, we arrived at the outskirts of Shkoder and its main attraction, the Kala Rozafa. The castle is reached via a narrow, winding cart path whose rocks have been worn smooth by centuries of rain, invaders, and tourists, and it sits high atop a mountain, but not so high that we couldn’t hear the honking of yet more wedding processions on the road below. The castle contains Illyrian walls from 350 BC and structures built from the 1300s onward. In the late 15th century, Shkoder and Rozafa Castle were overrun by the Ottomans, and that was that for nearly 440 years. Like all good castles, Rozafa has a legend, which goes as follows (quoted directly from the In Your Pocket Guide:*

The story goes that the three brothers who were constructing the castle arrived to work each day finding the previous day’s work demolished. A wise man was consulted and told them that only a human sacrifice could stop the devil from stopping their work, and the brothers agreed to offer the first of their wives who would come up the hill to bring food. Unfortunately, the two older brothers broke their promises and told their wives to stay at home – and it was the youngest brother’s beautiful wife Rozafa who showed up the next day. She valiantly agreed to be immured in the castle walls on one condition – a hole should be left so that her right arm could caress her newborn son, her right breast could feed him, and her right foot could rock his cradle. Rozafa was immured and the castle remained standing.


Abby notes “It’s always the youngest brother in fairy tales who gets screwed over, isn’t it?”

Here are some more photos:

The view from below the walls

Outside the castle, looking over the Buna River

Inside the second courtyard

Abby over the Drini River

The view into Shkoder

The view into the mountains

Abby standing in St. Stephen’s Church (1319) and, to the right, St. Stephen’s after the addition of a minaret

After viewing the castle, we had lunch in its cafe – which, for some reason, had a capuchin monkey and two bears in cages outside its door. And this leads to a disquisition on toilet seats. As we were having our coffees, I saw one of the managers walk back toward the toilets. Shortly thereafter, I heard the call myself. The bathroom had only a single toilet, and I could see through the frosted glass that the manager was crouched down on the floor, fixing something at the base of the wall. A leak, perhaps; not uncommon. So I went back to the table and waited, and waited, until finally he emerged and I went back. I then learned that he wasn’t fixing anything at all; rather, the cafe had an Asian-style porcelain hole in the floor. This is not the first time I’ve seen such a thing here, but it still never fails to surprise me, since most of the toilets are standard Western style, and some even have two different flush valves, to release whatever amount of water is necessary. At the other end of the spectrum, even the nicest restaurants don’t have hygienic paper toilet seat covers; I’ve only seen those in one coffee house near where we meet for the Hash. Of course, in that instance, although the toilets had toilet seat covers, they lacked the toilet seats themselves.

Dutifully refreshed, we left the castle and drove through Shkoder to see the next attraction, the Ura e Mesit, or the Mes Bridge. Shkoder was a major stop on the trading route to Kosovo since before the Romans. The Ottomans built the Mes Bridge in 1770, and it is considered an excellent example of an Ottoman bridge. The In Your Pocket guide notes “The Kiri River it crosses has incredibly blue, clear mountain water.” However, on the day of our visit, the effects of the drought – roughly 100 days long at that point – were clear.

While we were there, another wedding procession arrived. The bride and groom were in a horse-drawn carriage, while the guests spilled out of a van like (as Abby noted) clowns coming out of a circus car. They had a piper and drummer with them, and they clapped and danced their way along the bridge. (Note the videographer with them.)

After this, we went on to the next attraction, the Drishti Castle, located only 6 km from the bridge. It is a medieval castle that is occupied to this day. However, once we reached the outlying village and passed one unmarked fork, the road became little more than a stony, rutted path with a good steep drop down one side; and as we drove higher and higher into the mountains, away from any sign of civilization, I recalled that Shkoder is known for having bandits in the hills – in fact, until recently, Embassy personnel were not allowed to stay overnight in Shkoder city itself, and they still are banned from staying in the villages outside – and that if we were attacked, we’d be really fucked in trouble. (These photos will give you some idea of how isolated we were.) Therefore, with no castle in sight and no idea if we were even on the right road, we turned around and headed back into town for lunch and a look around.

Shkoder really is lovely; they’ve managed to preserve more of the older buildings, or at least not put up so many hideous new ones (the new mosque is very nice), and it’s a smaller place generally. (Of course, I’m only putting the nicer photos into the blog; there are plenty of ugly buildings from the 1960s and 1970s.) After our lunch, we drove around the lake, and then went home.

"My Parents Went to Albania and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."

When Abby and I were here in April, we’d noted that “the kids” all were wearing t-shirts with English phrases on them. It didn’t matter whether the phrases made sense or not – just that they were in English. Some were similar to those I’ve seen in the U.S., such as “Jewels for All Girls, Especially for Me”, but here are my local favorites so far:

  • “Surrender without exception”
  • “Gangsta football team”
  • “Tony Montana Scarface”
  • “Nebraska Impact Volleyball” (apparently, this is a real team)
  • “Pupil Surf”, who was out walking with “Catwalkin’ New York City”
  • “Target Serbia” (with bullseye)

and my number one favorite, “A Good Meadow Must Be Mowed Four Times a Year”

Another playdate and President Wilson


The neighborhood fans waiting
across the street for a glimpse
of the new guy

To the left you can see Round Two of the boxes we’ve been emptying … anyway, today we took in Dougall, one of Viki and Alwyn’s dogs, while they enjoy a weekend away. Dougall’s arrival excited a lot of local interest, and Cooper was very happy to have a playmate. Abby and I have been eager to have Cooper* socialize with other dogs, in the hope that he’ll calm down and stop chewing on us. However, as before, Dougall wants nothing to do with Cooper. It’s as though our dog is that weird kid in the neighborhood that none of the other kids ever wanted to play with. (This actually isn’t true, insofar as the neighborhood kids love Cooper. It’s just the other dogs that look at him as though he takes the short bus.)

So Abby and I spent the day emptying boxes and figuring out where the various paintings are going to go. We then went out with the dogs out for a long walk. We took them to the river, and walked away from town. Abby commented on the abundance of horse poo along the river, and then we saw the stray horse walking along the street. This is strange, but not too strange – last night as we walked home from the Bllok (the bar/entertainment section of Tirana), we saw a man riding behind his horse in a two-wheeled cart, absolutely tearing down the street. So there are horses in town. (And a cow that grazes in a field half a block behind our house.) We also passed by the Roma shantytown, which is situated in a light industrial block – more on that later. As we proceeded along the river, we were stopped by small boys who wanted to talk to us in rapid-fire Albanian about our dogs, and then by an older man who, on learning we were Americans, said (in Albanian) “America – strong!” and “President Wilson!” Communication isn’t always easy here, but it is nice to be appreciated.

* (a.k.a. Box-o’-Rocks, as in “dumb as a”)