Shkodra has been a highly significant city during most of its long history. It was the capital of the Illyrian state of the Ardiaeans from the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest in 168 BC. The city was part of the Venetian Republic from 1396 until it was surrendered to the Ottomans, after a long siege, in 1479.
In terms of visitor attractions, Shkodra has one of Albania’s best castles (which is saying a lot), attractive domestic architecture and several excellent museums: the archaeological display in the Historical Museum, the huge collection of 19th- and 20th-century photographs in the National Museum of Photography, the Cathedral’s Diocesan Museum and the chilling Site of Witness and Memory.
The city is a good starting point for excursions into the wild and beautiful Albanian Alps. On the coast, there are important wetland habitats at Velipoja and Kune-Vaini, where many rare and attractive waterfowl and other birds can be observed.
What to see and do in Shkodra
Shkodra’s castle stands above the confluence of its three rivers, the Drini, the Kiri and the Buna, and thus controls all but the northern approach to the city. It is an excellent place for a castle and has been fortified since Illyrian times, when the Ardiaean queen Teuta launched her attacks on the Romans from it. Traces of the Illyrian walls, constructed of large stones with no mortar, can still be seen at the entrance to the castle.
Most of what remains is Venetian and Ottoman. The outer walls follow the line of the hill; within, successive lines of fortification create three distinct areas, of which the most secure and easily defensible is the section at the narrowest part. The views from the citadel are wonderful, across Lake Shkodra to Montenegro, out to the Adriatic, and down towards Lezha.
You enter through the vaulted barbican gate to the first courtyard. A trickle of lime down the wall of this courtyard marks where people believe the eponymous Rozafa was walled up alive to guarantee the strength of the walls. Local women still gather here to acknowledge Rozafa’s sacrifice and to pray for their own fertility. The second enclosure was the main living area, with the barracks, stores and prison; the latter was in use until the early 20th century. The ruined church on your right was once Shkodra’s cathedral, a 13th-century building that remained in use even after the Ottoman occupation, until it was converted into a mosque in 1869. The circular, chimney-like structures here and there are the access points for water cisterns, constructed in the 15th century and fed by pipes running into them from all over the castle.
The house of Oso Kuka, who died defending Shkodra against Montenegrin attackers in 1861, is now home to the town’s Historical Museum, and provides an opportunity to see traditional domestic architecture. From the street, a Shkodran house is just a windowless wall with a thick wooden door; once through this door, you find yourself either in a narrow entrance hall or, as in the case of Oso Kuka’s house, in a courtyard, with the house in the centre, far away from the surrounding walls.
The courtyard always had a well and this one has two: the original, from when the house was built in 1840, and a Venetian wellhead from the 15th century. Various large items recovered from the castle or found elsewhere in the area are displayed in the courtyard and in the garden behind the house. One of the most interesting is an Ottoman coat of arms, intricately carved in stone, which dates from the late 19th century and was found in the castle.
Site of Witness and Memory
From 1946 to 1991, a rather unassuming 19th-century house on Shkodra’s main boulevard became the regional headquarters of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This innocuous name belies the political persecution and terror that emanated from this building for 45 years. The storerooms of the former Franciscan seminary were transformed into detention cells and interrogation rooms for the Sigurimi, communist Albania’s secret police. Thousands of people passed through these cells before they were sentenced; they were then either executed or sent on to other prisons or prison camps such as Spaçi.
Now the building has been transformed again, this time into a museum that commemorates those who suffered there. Panels in English and Albanian explain various aspects of Albanian communism, including the destruction of religious buildings, the anti-communist uprisings in northern Albania, and the public trials that took place in buildings around Shkodra. The events are brought to life through photos, documents, press cuttings and personal items belonging to prisoners. Finally, a walk of 50m leads to the corridor of prison cells, 29 of them plus a reconstructed interrogation room (a euphemism for ‘torture chamber’).
Shkodra is the centre of Albanian Catholicism, the seat of the archdiocese of Shkodra and Pulti. The current archbishop, Angelo Massafra, is from the Albanian-speaking Arbëresh community of southern Italy.
St Stephen’s Cathedral was built in 1858, to replace the cathedral in Rozafa Castle which had been closed by the Ottoman authorities and converted into a mosque. The Russian tsar helped to fund its construction and Shkodra’s leading artists of the time designed and decorated it.
Slightly hidden behind the cathedral, in its former sacristy, the Diocesan Museum provides fascinating insights into the history of Catholicism in northern Albania, from its earliest traces in the 12th century. The exhibition is organised thematically, starting with archaeological finds from medieval monasteries and religious medallions. Documents, maps and photographs help to put the items on display into their proper context.
Getting there and away
There are frequent buses from Tirana to Shkodra, running at least once an hour from 07.00 to 17.00. The journey takes about 2 hours and the one-way fare is 300 lek. In Shkodra, buses to Tirana depart from Sheshi Demokracia. They can be boarded or alighted from at almost any point along their route: for example, at the bridge leading from the highway to Lezha, the junction at Miloti or the slip-road for the airport.