The hotel receptionist was vague about the early bus to Shkodër. That or she just thought I was mad to want to catch a bus at 7.30 in the morning; she thought there was one at about 1pm instead. From past experiences, I’ve learnt to pay attention to this kind of oblique advice so, instead of getting up early and rushing off for a potentially non-existent bus, I had a leisurely breakfast and went for a coffee and final wander along Durrës’ sea front. I needed to get to Shkodër in North Albania to then be able to cross over into Montenegro. What’s more, Shkodër is overlooked by a huge and ancient ruined castle, the Rozafa Fortress, that I wanted to explore.
As the hotel receptionist had said the bus from Durrës to Shkodër did leave at about 1pm, but because it was full, rather than because it was following a timetable. The road was completely straight and passed through a mostly built-up landscape of small businesses, petrol stations, cement works and houses, but there were also farms with chickens or turkeys, and fields dotted with brown stacks of maize stalks or hay, their tops blackened. To the east some mountains rose up in the distance.
As I had no map for Shkodër, and since I’m prone to get lost at the best of times, I had to pay careful attention as the bus came into the town. Thankfully not only did the bus stop in the centre but I spotted the hotel I had hoped to stay at as it pulled off the main roundabout. Having checked into the hotel and asked about the directions and walkability of the route to Rozafa Fortress, I set off for it. The route took me along a main road out of town, through an area that seemed quite poor; children playing on the streets, small stalls selling fruit or this and that, and, in places, piles of litter or debris. I then turned up a steep and winding road that led up to the fortress.
The fort soon loomed into view, its high walls towering above. The entrance is through a dark narrow, arched and cobbled passageway. Once into the fortress, it feels as you are on top of the world. The view is truly spectacular – purply-blue of distant mountains trailing ribbons of cloud, the green of the countryside and the watery shimmer of rivers and lakes as far as the eye can see. It seemed as if half of Albania and beyond was visible – a perfect location for a fortress and explains why it was fought over so often during its long history. The Illyrians built the first fort here sometime in antiquity, only to have it captured by the Romans in 167 BC. Over the millennia it has been rebuilt and commanded by many including the Venetians and the Ottomans, and was last besieged in 1912 by the Montenegrins.
Today it is mostly ruined and a national monument. The stone walls of the fortress enclose the hilltop and once within it, it is a collection of roofless buildings, crumbling walls and grass, though a couple of buildings have been restored to provide facilities such as a café. I wandered through the ruins, up and down stone steps and along the walls. A shepherd was gently herding his goats, their bells tinkling, through the great grassy expanse of the middle of the fortress. Low grey rain clouds were gathering on the horizon and as it was due to get dark about 6pm, I reluctantly made my way back to the entrance and set off to walk back into Shkodër.
Albania has electricity supply problems; while in Durrës having lunch in a café one day the power went out, though it was soon rectified by a generator. In Shkodër, that evening, similar problems arose. While eating supper – some delicious fish accompanied by a huge Greek salad – a blackout left the small basement restaurant of the hotel in complete darkness. The only thing to do was to sit in the dark and wait the thankfully short time it took to restore the lights.
The plan for the following day was to make my way to Montenegro. For some reason there was no through bus to Podgorica and it is necessary to cross the border at Muriqan and go onto the town of Ulcinj, from where a bus to Podgorica could be caught.
A bus for Ulcinj was supposed to leave at about 9am from the roundabout when it was full, though the receptionist at the hotel knew nothing about it. I started by asking a taxi driver about an ‘autobus to Ulcinj’, he waved me towards a café, and another man took me over to it, from where a third man appeared who spoke a little English. It seemed there was something leaving at 9am, and he indicated I should wait, so I sat in the café with a second espresso (the coffee in Albania is great) and waited.
After a while, the man left the table he’d been at chatting with some others and came over to me, indicating it was time to leave. He was in fact driving three others to Ulcinj in a car, and while I was slightly concerned – this wasn’t, after all, a public bus – I seemed to remember some mention of shared taxis from my guidebook. So banishing thoughts of Albanian people-smugglers, I got in and we set off for what was a very easy journey along curving country roads, crossing the Albanian-Montenegrin border with no hassle. The driver dropped me off at the bus station with the thought that there may be a bus around midday.
Now for that bus to Podgorica and from there to Sarajevo – one of the main reasons for coming to the Balkans.
For my month-long Balkan trip, I used the Lonely Planet Western Balkans guide book, the Lonely Planet Eastern European phrase book, and the Freytag & Berndt Balkans/South-East Europe map.
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