We’d set the alarm for 7:30am in a bid to do quite a bit this morning as we were leaving Tirana at 1pm.
Bags packed, we got breakfast out of the way quickly and set off.
We headed for the square, which this morning had large patches of water running from the top down (the square is not flat). This – a man told us – is to keep the place cool. And as we looked around, we saw more irrigation gaps which we guessed can be turned on or off as needed. We crossed the square and headed for the Resurrection Cathedral – a modern Orthodox structure consecrated in 2014. A mass was in progress so the Cathedral was packed, we could only just have a look inside the main door; it has a large bright dome shape inside with lots of glittering gold tiles on the walls.
We’d planned to spend the morning at the National Art Gallery. For most of our time there, we were the only two visitors. On the ground floor, the art is traditional – people in traditional costumes, manual workers, peasants and so on. And then it got interesting. Artists were encouraged to paint historical and political scenes. Big scale art. Colourful scenes. Happy workers proudly working for the country. The industrialisation. Some even went further and painted scenes of Skanderberg fighting the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. One painting caught our eye. Edison Gjergo’s “The Epic of the morning’s stars”. There are a few figures in the background, and people took offence to this. They’re in the dark, surely that means they’re plotting against the regime. And so Gjergo was sent to prison (where he died) and his art was blacklisted.
At the back of the museum, a small garden – out of bounds unfortunately – holds a collection of bronze statues. These, we found out later, depict Socialist workers and two are of Stalin. Sadly, they were covered up. Apparently they were uncovered last week…. So maybe it’s to protect them from the sun? We must remember to check these out in two weeks time… who knows?
We stopped for coffee at Noor. Andy was happy with his macchiato. We reflected on the art we’d seen. We felt almost like locals. Sitting at a café, chatting. No matter what time of the day it is, you’ll find people chatting over an espresso. Making time for each other, catching up. No mobile phones in sight.
Our next destination was the Et’hem Bey Mosque. Visitors are welcome to look inside (and photographs are allowed). We took our shoes off and went in. The mosque was built in 1791. Closed under Communist rule but active again since 1991, it is seen as a monument to religious tolerance in the country. Trying not to disturb the men praying, we admired the frescoes inside, and those in the portico, which depict trees and waterfalls – motifs rarely seen in Islamic art.
We just had time to pop into the corner bakery for a couple of byrek (flaky pastry pies with cheese or courgette). Cheap, and tasty.
We left Tirana for Shkodër. We drove north-east along a main thoroughfare, with mountains as background and vast glass buildings on either side of the road initially, and then more residential properties. The sky clouded over and then it rained. Our guide, Ivan, set us a challenge (that’s the ex-teacher in him). A kind of Albania photography bingo. We have ten things to photographs. I already know that I won’t win as the last challenge is to get an Albanian Facebook friend. Oh well, it’s the taking part that counts, right?
We drove through various towns. Colourful high rises at the foot of mountains.
We arrived in Shkodër around 2.30pm. It’s the fourth largest city in Albania. I meant to check how many people live here. Can’t be many. There are three million people in Albania, of which one million lives in Tirana and all have a car. The traffic in town is non-stop. This is because no-one was allowed to have a car when the country was closed and so when things opened up… yep, they went car-crazy. (There’s a rumour going around that most of them can’t officially drive.)
Our hotel – Tradita Geg & Tosk – is super cute. It’s over 300 years old. Our room achieves both comfort and tradition. We left our bags in our room and made our way to the centre of town.
The short walk was pleasant enough with the temperature a gentle 28c. The town is one of the oldest and most historic places in the Balkan peninsula.
Passing the Ebu Beker Mosque, we walked down the main pedestrian street, lined up with cafés and bars.
Our guide suggested we visit the Marubi National Museum of Photography. The museum is in an old building on the main street, the interior is very modern with white walls and a glass staircase. It traces the history of photography in Albania – with photographic plates, gelatin silver prints, etc. And it had an interactive photo studio. The original studio was set up by Pietro Marubi. in the 1850s. Marubi was Italian and no-one really knows why he settled in Albania. At some point, all the works were donated to the country and so historical images were preserved. The wealth of images is staggering – from the history of Albania to its varied regional cultures. We had just over 45 minutes there and we could have done with another 30 minutes.
We joined the rest of the group outside one of the terrace bars and had a cheeky half. My. If the beers in Tirana were cheap, they’re almost giving these away. 80 lek for a half. That’s £0.52.
We got back to the hotel for a quick refresh before getting taxis to the Rozafa castle. A stone road leads all the way up to the fortress – 130 metres above sea level. Perched on top of a rocky hill, it has wide views of the countryside on one side; an old mosque on another side (we were wondering whether it was still an active mosque when we heard the call to prayer); a lake with mountains on another (which turned out to be Montenegro) and Shkodër on the final side. There was hardly anybody there so we could play castle to our heart’s content. We didn’t. There isn’t a lot left to see but exploring the ruins was fun. There are three courtyards, and the fortifications are still intact. We had seen photos of it in the photography museum just a few hours before and it is still as imposing as it was then. And the views were pretty spectacular with special added cloud effects.
For dinner, Ivan recommended the hotel’s restaurant. The setting is truly special and homely. The food was great – a fresh salad of tomatoes, olives and cucumber; salty goat cheese; corn bread; cheese pies; dolmades and then grilled cheese. Andy had a glass of white wine, and I had a glass of red. Both Albanian, but we don’t know what they were as we never saw the labels. They were both good.
As the rest of the group moved to the courtyard for more drinks, we retired to our room to get ready for the morning. We have an early start. That, and the fact that we have a few smokers in the group.