Albania: history of Shkodra

Shkodra is a city in North Western Albania. It is located on the coast of Lake Shkodra, the biggest lake of the Balkans and surrounded by three rivers, the Buna, the Drin, and the Kiri. Its population is around 120 thousand people, making it the largest city of northern Albania. Outside the city proper, it has three suburbs: Bahcalleku to the South, as well as Shirokaj and Zogaj to the East. To the south and East it is also bordered by the hills of Renci and Tepes. This is where the fortress of Rozafat, famous for the Ottoman sieges of the late 1400s is located. Rozafa is the site of the earliest pre-historic settlements in the area.

Rozafa is a woman’s name. In legend, she was the wife of the youngest of three brothers who built the castle. Though they labored tirelessly, their construction crumbled each night. A wise man told them that in order for the walls to hold up, one of their brides must be sacrificed. The brothers agreed to make a secret pact not to tell their wifes and to sacrifice the bride who next day brought their lunch meal. The two elder brothers broke their pact and alerted their wives. When Rozafa of the youngest brother came, she was to be entombed within. She cried for baby and husband and requested to be entombed with one breast out to feed the baby, one foot out to rock him, and one arm out to hold him. And so the castle got its name.

Shkodra is blessed to be near the Adriatic coast, where the beach of Velipoja is situated. At the same time it is also blessed with an impressive mountain range. To the north, past the lowlands of Fush Shkodra, begin the Alps of Albania, the most dramatic range in a country known for mountains. This dichotomy makes one wonder is Shkodra a mediterrenain paradise? Or is it a rugged highland town? Perhaps it is a bit of both. When sunny, its skies are bright. It has a warm climate down in the plain. However, just outside the city, in the mountainous winter, the climate is harsh. So harsh and life so hard, that perhaps this is why the locals have named them the cursed mountains.

Shkodra is one Albania’s oldest cities, and has been inhabited since the Illyrian Era in the 4th century BC by the Labeats tribe, capable sailors and traders, who laid the foundation for it. Here the likes of King Gent and Queen Teuta ruled until the Roman conquest of 168 BC. It remained in Roman hands for over four centuries. In the fourth century Shkodra was the seat of a bishopric. Then it fell to the East Roman Empire. In 1043, it was captured by Montenegrin Slavs. In 1180, Shkodra was captured by Stefan Nemanja of Serbia. Then it was ruled by the local Balsha family until in 1396, the Venetians moved in and used it for their own mercantile purposes. Italy has historically exerted more influence in the north. The Christian population here is Catholic, unlike the south where Christians are Orthodox. Likewise, after Communism, many Albanians from here have immigrated to Italy as opposed to Greece.

In 1470’s the Ottomans launched two long sieges against the Rozafat Castle. These events were captured by eye witness and Albanian historian Marin Barleti (1450-1512) in his book, the Siege of Shkodra (1504), an international bestseller in the 16th century:

Now it came to pass that the Ottoman, realizing that Shkodra was the most eminent city and epicenter of the region of Epirus…the shield of Italy and all the Christians-began to nurture a great hope that he could subdue it…therefore he decided to dispatch an amazingly large army to invade it…It would be too lengthy to describe here how many thouands of Turks lost their lives there in humiliation and how the Shkodrans fought so corageously, defending themselves, their fatheirland, their women, and their children…The Turk was repulsed by the besieged-and what a loss it was!

Sultan Mehmet II was only 21 when he captured Constantinople, a feat that earned him the name “the Conqueror.” Having reached such heights so fast, his eyes were set on Rome. After decades of conquering the Balkans, he reached Shkodra, the final Balkan frontier. He personally led both sieges of the Rozafat fortress but here his dreams of reaching Rome were cut short. Venice, which was in power, eventually signed the city over to him but his army was too weakened and he died two years later.

When the Ottomans captured it in 1479 they caused further disruption to life and self determination. People fled in mass to southern Italy creating an Albanian-Italian minority that exists today. The Ottomans suppressed native ways and brought in their own culture and religion. Yet, whether in native hands, or under the foreign yoke, in each epoch Shkodra has persevered and remained an important city, both economically and culturally, producing much Albanian talent in the way of art, music, painting and writing.

Shkodra has a cute quarter of old fashioned eclectic architecture. Here the main streets are lined with buildings that date to the 1920s, an era of monarchy in Albania. Today, Shkodra also has the new modern apartment buildings of lean, clean, and light aspect, with bright and colorful paint like pink, orange, and yellow. Although a bit “lego like,” for those unaccustomed to this type, these buildings may please the eye. Besides, athough not famous landmarks, residences do matter; they are what a city is most comprised of. These apartments are the new wave, as if a reaction to the deliberately drab, no-nonsense apartment buildings of Communism. The new apartment complexes can be highly stylish, and have a modern flair unique to the Balkans.

“Karakteristikat gjeografike.” Bashkia Shkoder. Sept. 13, 2021.

Dhora, Romina. “The Social and Cultural Impacts of Tourism, A Case of Shkodra.” University of Shkodra Luigj Gurakuqi: 131-135

“Shkodra.” Albania. Sept. 12, 2021.

Barleti, Marin. Hosaflook, David, translator. The Siege of Shkodra. Tirana, Albania: Onufri, 2012.

Gjergj Fishta. Elsie, Robert, translator. The Highland Lute. London: IB Taurus, 2005.

Albania: My Friends

… The case being what it is, whenever I visit Albania, particularly in Tirana, I do not have any friends my age. I am left to hang out with my grandparents or relatives of their generation. Thankfully their visits are OK, or even entertaining. In fact, one gentleman in particular Mr Fejzi, is indeed interesting, and quite unlike anyone in America. That’s what I like about Albania, finding people with a different point of view from us in America. When you travel, you get that different world view; sometimes you’re going to like it, sometimes you won’t. Being Albanian, of course, I love the Albanian point of view.

My first time back, in 2004, as I bumped into Mr Fejzi outside my grandparents’ apartment building, I immediately recognized him, even though I hadn’t seen him in12 years! In 2008, as mom and I departed his apartment after a visit, he grabbed me by the arm, and said to me “We love George,” and he slapped me on the face. Then he said, “George is a good boy,” and he slapped me again on the other cheek, then another slap, and then another, and it went on and on like that for several slaps. As I walked down the stairs of his apartment building that night, I was overcome by uncontrollable laughter. “Mr. Fejzi just gave me a beating,” I told mom outside in the dusk and I couldn’t stop laughing. She said it’s a way of expressing affection, an apparent cultural difference.

Although I cannot explain what makes Mr Fejzi special, a cup of coffee with him might just be worth a trip to Albania. This time, Gramps, Mr Fejzi and I sat under the terrace of a local neighborhood street side cafe. This joint was very local, perhaps a converted house, and not trendy in the least. But the atmosphere outside was awesome, tons of foot traffic; right through the terrace in front of me, I could do some great people watching. I even saw a couple of gypsies strolling by while playing drums. That’s Albania, for you. The neighborhood was alive! So unlike the suburbs of America, that are spic and span, but devoid of life.

True to their generation, Mr Fejzi, and Gramps wore suits, ties and hats. True to my generation, I wore jeans and a spring jacket. They ordered a traditional Turkish coffee, which is soon being replaced by the modern Italian espresso, I ordered a hot cocoa or kakao which by the way is less sweet and better than American hot chocolate, and we had a conversation for the ages. You cannot get a conversation like that in America. You just can’t. The spirit is lost in translation. We spoke for a very long time, “tall and wide,” as they say in Albanian. We caught up on everything one can possibly catch up on in a conversation for the ages; the essentials, family, friends, my writing career. I gave Mr Fejzi a copy of my latest book, a short novel, a Christmas story, which being in English, served as a kind gesture more than anything.

As I sat there chatting, my mood improved and I was happy. The trip was worth it at that moment. Here I was with Gramps and Mr Fejzi, in my original home, Albania, a country without name, fame or currency, and yet I was happier than in America. There was no reason to rush, get up and go; why rush when you’re enjoying yourself? Besides, people in the Balkans don’t rush as much as we do here. The place is suited to easy living. It’s not like Starbucks in America, where you sit alone, open a laptop and work, or pretend like you are working. No, if you do coffee right in Albania, you bring your friends, talk at leisure, and relax.

Another person I met was a relative called Luli. He’s a bit of a slick and sly character, but perhaps a good talker. He could go on and on with some sense of poetry about anything but at the same time without firm credibility. Nevertheless, he taught me a good saying, “When one is in need and you can help him, help him. But when you cannot help him, leave him alone.” Coincidentally, it was that very day at the city zoo, that he helped out a bear who was all alone! The poor thing was inhumanely trapped in far too small a cage, and all he could do to survive was pace in circles. His excitement grew at seeing us as if we relieved his anguish. He cried out to us in loneliness as we passed his cage, for the zoo was empty and not many visitors cared to see him. Luli showed some mercy and came back to spend a bit more time with him. Luli also praised my initiative for coming to Albania; wise words again.

Photo: That’s the three of us, me, Mr Fejzi (center), and my Grandpa

on Tirana, Albania

Tirana, the capital and the heart of modern Albania, is not a bad city. Nor is it good. But plagued by problems as it is, if we judge the society by its people, this is a good society. Amidst the open sewers, and abundant litter, you will find very respectable looking men and women. Likewise, in a square of old apartments with decaying facades in desperate need of upkeep, you will find little neighborhood kids playing with each other. Tirana is ugly but at the same time it is a human city. It is very walkable, and it has a sense of community. Albania has a walking culture. People walk out and about. Walking is good, because people get physical exercise and they feel surrounded and not alone. In America, we do not have “a walking culture.”

At the same time, Tirana is a mess. It has no town planning, and no order. It has countless alleyways that run in all directions; in other words, no direction at all. It has a lot of traffic and no rules. You just get out there, and be fearless. Everyone here is fearless but surprisingly dispassionate. The prevailing attitude here is, “Who cares? It’s no big deal.” This is a very liberating attitude, but it is a significant cultural difference from the States. It must be taken in healthy doses, or it may just feel like plain old apathy.

People require less space for comfort here. Living quarters are smaller. The primary city dwelling is the apartment. Cars are smaller, leaner, and clothes fit tighter. Americans, who live in a country known for its great size, might find these facts a bit disconcerting, but trust me, when you’re here everything seems just about right.

Indeed Tirana and Albania can seem elegant at times, even sophisticated, and with attention to detail; but even so, it is just one big mess. It is a place that defies characterization. It has nothing in common with America. I cannot interpret it because it does not have order or defining qualities. You may look out the balcony and see poor people digging through trash and yet right near them a brand new Mercedes is driving by. Then you go walking and pass by several stray dogs, and yet the people you walk next to are wearing suits and ties. The place is shooting off in all directions at once. If one can embrace the noise, the dirt and dust, the hectic atmosphere and the total absence of order and direction, or rather can manage to tolerate them, one can live here.

excerpted from my travel essay Albania: A Visit Back Home. Wanna buy it? Get it on Amazon.