After 10 days chilling in Montenegro, it was time to move on to my next adventure in the Balkans and I hopped on a bus to Albania. There are a few buses per day heading from Ulcinj to Shkoder (listed as Skadar in Montenegro) across the border and even beyond to the capital, Tirana. The bus station in Ulcinj has a sign listing the buses that day. There seems to be some confusion online about the times but when I was there, I spotted an early morning bus (7am) and an early afternoon bus (12.30pm) which is the one I took. It cost €6. It was a small bus, mostly containing other backpackers and travellers. It was a scenic but windy drive; it reminded me of being in Flores again. After a lot of meandering, we arrived at the border. We didn’t have to disembark – our passports were collected and everyone remained on the bus. Unlike the other borders, there was just one checkpoint for both exiting Montenegro and entering Albania. Oddly, I didn’t get stamped out of Montenegro, despite having an entry stamp, and also didn’t get stamped into Albania. Being the stamp geek that I am, I was a bit gutted but I think it’s down to the luck of the draw in this region, there doesn’t seem to be much of a system.
Not too far after the border, the bus arrived in Shkoder, concluding my two hour journey. It pulled up at the side of the road rather than going to the bus station but it was pretty much right in the centre of the city. I was surprised at how big and ‘cityish’ Shkoder felt. At times I had to remind myself I wasn’t in the capital. Perhaps it’s just after weeks of being in quaint Old Towns. My hostel, Our Way, wasn’t too far away. It’s a cool place with a great terrace, a well-stocked beer fridge and a free breakfast of croissants! With the weather so nice and my stomach rumbling, I dumped my bags and went in search of food.
Bosnia and even Montenegro was cheap but Albania takes it to a whole new level. I found the central pedestrianised area in the middle of the city and was able to enjoy an entire pizza and a pint for just over £3. That’s insane! You’d struggle to get that in Thailand. Even the next day when I had a slightly more upmarket meal in a great little pasta place (Pasta e Vino), I paid around £5 which included a pasta dish, drink and a tip. If you’re backpacking Europe and need to give your wallet a helping hand, just get straight on down to Albania. The city itself is nice too – loads of cafes, restaurants and open spaces. It was the first city on my entire trip without an Old Town focal point but it makes up for that with wide open communal areas all around the city. Some of the architecture is really great too. It has that rugged edge to it you find in all Eastern European cities but the centre is as bustling and as vibrant as any in Europe, complete with crazy traffic (I almost got flattened by a reversing truck on the pavement until a passerby managed to shout at him to stop).
In terms of sights, the enormous Lake Skadar sits at the edge of the city but seems oddly absent from life here. In contrast to Lake Ohrid in neighbouring Macedonia, Skadar just seems to be there and hasn’t been utilising for tourist or recreational purposes. Instead, Shkoder’s premier tourist attraction is Rofaza Castle. If you arrive from Ulcinj, you’ll pass it towering over the city on a large hill. It’s about a 40 minute or so walk from the centre (apparently buses ply the route too) and is well worth a look. After a climb up a road and then a stony incline (which would be very slippery when wet) you reach the ruins of an old castle which has been around for a helluva long time. It costs 200 lek (around £1.50) to get in and it’s well worth the nominal fee. Apart from the staggering views of the city, the lake, the mountains and the various rivers, the ruins of the old fortress are pretty impressive and there are even signs dotted about giving a brief history of the castle. A lot of it is in ruins but this makes it more enticing to do an Indiana Jones exploration, if only to evade the enormous tour groups who swarm in like a plague of locusts. It’s my favourite way to sightsee – some history mixed with some gorgeous views and muttering under my breath about how much I hate big tour groups. Heaven.
Whether you’re coming from Montenegro or wanting to stop and chill before heading into the nearby mountains, Shkoder is definitely worth a couple of days of your time. If you are coming from the north, a worthwhile activity is to just hop from bar to restaurant and pull excited faces about how darn cheap everything is. I was in Albania for 2 weeks and that kept me occupied for a very long time.