I think nearly every traveler feels the urge of The Place Just Beyond. I try not to succumb to the temptation to waste my time in Place A running over to Place B, just because it’s further or–my personal peeve–just to “say” you’ve been there. I always wonder who exactly I’m supposed to “say” that to, and who the heck would care. Still, I can be as weak as the next person and ever since we’d planned this trip to Montenegro and I’d realized how close Albania was, I’d been tempted to make a dreaded “toe touch” run. I know, I know: Shame on me!
But wait, hear me out: I did have some rational reasons for going to Albania for the day beyond curiosity, which IMHO, is a perfectly good reason for most travel. First…well, first, there was curiosity. I’d started reading about Albania and I wanted to see for myself if the difference between Albania and Montenegro would really be as noticeable as some people claimed. Albania sounded like kind of a mess, and maybe a little bit dangerous, but also beautiful and remote, and Muslim, unlike the other Balkan countries we’d seen and would see on this trip and…Like I said, I was curious. Secondly, weather was now making this trip look more appealing. It had been cloudy and threatening rain since we arrived in Montenegro and the forecast for our second day there was calling for heavy rains. The rains were coming from Africa to the south and looked to push through Kotor by the following day. So, I reasoned, it might be a gamble worth taking to try to drive through the rains. Maybe, just maybe, we would luck out and end up in Albania with a little sunshine. David was game, so I emailed our AirBnB host, Bojan.
Months ago when I booked our apartment, Bojan had said he could arrange any tours, rent cars, etc. we might have in mind and reviews on AirBnB gave him high marks. He was a little surprised when I said I wanted to go to Rosafa Castle in Shkodër, Albania, in the pouring rain, but he said he’d make some calls. We decided we wanted a driver for this excursion since I’d read of problems at the border and thought a local who could speak the language would be a help. We also had some concerns that migrants moving through from Syria might also create complications at the border. Bojan got back to me promptly saying he’d found a driver who would take us for €150, and that others he’d asked were €250 to €300. A little worryingly, he did not answer my question about whether the driver spoke English nor how we’d recognize him, only assuring me that the driver would be downstairs at 10am the following morning. Oh well, we’d have an adventure!
Sure enough, promptly at 10am we spotted a large new car parked below our balcony by the canal. Suited up and with umbrellas at the ready, we dashed through the pouring rain and hopped in the stranger’s vehicle. Our driver, Goran, turned out to be a charming young man who spoke very good English. He was the married father of a little girl about whom he loved to talk. Goran was a native of Kotor and son of a prosperous local businessman. He was a font of knowledge and local perspective and a fun companion on what would turn out to be a longer day than any of us had anticipated.
Despite the rain, we made decent time along the coast past the town of Budva where the old town looked pretty in the distance. The rest of the city seemed an uncharming sprawl to me, though, and I was glad we’d chosen pretty little Kotor as our base. Goran assured me he felt the same way and said Budva had become a party town for tourists. Not what I’m looking for, but to each their own.
Water rushed over the road in Budva and other spots along the way, but Goran had no problem getting through and soon we were leaving the coast and driving up into the mountains. Our plan was to take the highway through Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and continue on to the new border crossing point north of huge Lake Shkodër. We’d gone only about 30 minutes, however, when we came to a line of cars backed up behind work trucks and heavy machinery. After we’d sat for 10 minutes or so, Goran got out to talk to people ahead and came back with news that there had been a rock slide and we’d need to retrace our steps back to the coast and continue on to Albania that way to cross the border at the small, rural checkpoint south of the lake. A delay, but not a threat to our outing.
When we arrived at the border, it turned out to be unremarkable in appearance and not nearly as bad as the impression we’d got from Goran. Goran had a low opinion of all things Albanian and had warned us to expect Albanians to yell at us because “they always yell.” He claimed Albanians were the worst drivers in the world and we should keep an eye on them because they’d try to cheat us and they weren’t friendly. Frankly, I’d read some similar posts along with advice not to drive a rent car into Albania because car thieves were rampant. Hmm. I don’t know about all that and certainly had no experiences along that line. No one yelled at us, but it did take a long time to cross the border. (We discovered that Goran spoke no Albanian, so he wasn’t much help there although his familiarity with the process and local car and driver’s license no doubt made things more routine. In any event, details weren’t our problem and that was nice.). The worst part about the delay was that the break in the rain we’d had as we approached the checkpoint gave way as we waited to cross. It seemed to rain harder with each passing minute. It looked like our gamble might be a big failure.
We arrived in the city of Shkodër in a heavy downpour, Rosafa Castle visible across the river. Goran asked if we wanted to go straight there, but since it was lunchtime, I suggested we eat first in one last bid for better weather. Having come this far, we were willing to explore the castle ruins in the rain, but we had to eat sometime, so why not now?
We chose a riverside restaurant at random and ran for the door in the deluge, umbrellas up and dodging puddles. The restaurant, Vellezerit Vataksi, turned out to be a delightful refuge. The food was good, the atmosphere lovely, prices wonderfully cheap, and the waiter–despite Goran’s misgivings–was courteous. He spoke a little English, so that turned out to be the common language for ordering. We lunched on fish soup, grilled shrimp (large and excellently prepared, large portion, shell-on), grilled sea bream with tomato sauce, and shrimp risotto (with small, bay-style shrimp). The huge window by our table overlooked a riverside terrace and the castle on a hill beyond the far bank. Miracle of miracles, the rain gave way as we ate and visited with Goran. By the time we left, the sun was shining!
Rosafa Castle was only a short, 5-minute or so drive from the restaurant. Goran opted to wait with the car–still wary of thieves and reckless drivers, so David and I walked up the rest of the way up the castle’s hill via a cobblestone pedestrian road. We paid a modest fee to a man perched at the entrance and made our way through the dark castle gate that enticed with a glimpse of blue sky and wildflowers beyond.
I’d chosen Rosafa Castle as our destination pretty randomly. Shkodër was the nearest Albanian city, the castle was one of its big tourist draws and our kind of thing; that was pretty much it. It turned out to be a great choice. The weather had turned nice–partly sunny and comfortably warm. The rocky terrain quickly absorbed the previous rainfall yet left everything fresh and clean with the smell of wildflowers permeating the air. We had a wonderful ramble through ruins that sprawled across the hilltop with only a few other local visitors, a goatherd and some goats. There’s a tiny military museum in the back keep. The ticket taker kindly let us peek in and told us there was no English. Not at all tempted, we opted to continue our time enjoying the beautiful day outside and the 360° views of Shkodër and surrounding valley. Had the nearby open air café been open yet for the season, we might have been more enticed by that.
After we finished exploring the castle, Goran drove us into downtown Shkodër. We only had time for a quick view and then we were on our way back to Montenegro. This time, we drove north of the lake, crossed the border at the newly expanded checkpoint and headed on to Podgorica. Goran offered to stop to let us explore, but we declined. We were tired, already way behind schedule, and Goran had to drive us to Kotor, then turn around and come back to Podgorica to pick up his daughter. Roads all over Montenegro were torn up with repairs in a mad rush to be ready for the upcoming tourist season. We expected delays getting back to Kotor–we were right–and Goran was going to have to do it twice. We felt bad for his long day, but he was cheerful and matter-of-fact about it.