Foreign Correspondence: Hidden Europe? Try Albania’s lake area

The Albanian Alps seen from Shkodra. The mountains attract hikers, and the city is on the largest lake in the Balkans. This view is from the ancient castle of Rozafa.
The Albanian Alps seen from Shkodra. The mountains attract hikers, and the city is on the largest lake in the Balkans. This view is from the ancient castle of Rozafa. Albinfo via Wikimedia Commons

Voltana Ademi, 41, is the mayor of Shkodra, her hometown in northern Albania. She earlier was a member of the Albanian parliament and a regional governor.

Q. Albania is still off the beaten path for many Americans. What should we know about Shkodra?

A. It’s a well-known municipality in Europe because of culture, tradition, history, music and theater. Shkodra is one of the biggest cities in our country, with a population of 205,000 following a recent administrative consolidation.

Tourism is important here because of the beautiful mountains, the Albanian Alps. Nature draws people from Slovokia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland and elsewhere. There was no tourism infrastructure before, so it is an area many of them had not visited. They stay in old houses.

Tourism is growing, especially in summer in the mountains. People like to go walking here; there’s a hiking circuit that goes to Theth, in the center of the mountain area, and there are three important hiker mountains. Our city is on Lake Shkodra, the biggest lake in the Balkans. Visitors swim and boat on the lake.

Q. Do people ski on the Albanian Alps?

A. No, but they do in Montenegro, which is just two hours away, and the road there is good. By tradition, we share the same language but have different dialects. They all feel at home here. Tourists from Croatia also come here on that road. And we’re getting more and more visitors from Kosovo.

Q. What’s a really Albanian dish to eat in Shkodra?

A. There’s a lake fish called krapi (carp); it’s baked with fried onions and sauce. People come from the capital (Tirana) for this. There’s also a kind of Turkish-style food that’s like burek but made with corn and sometimes with beans.

Q. The best season to visit?

A. Spring, when everything is fresh and new. The mountains aren’t as crowded as they are in August, when the weather is hot. In spring, flowers are in bloom from the mountains to the sea, and you can drive to the Adriatic Sea in less than 40 minutes.

Shkodra is a city of bicycles – everyone in every family has one. They’re improving bike roads beside the rivers and building more of them. There are two rivers that come together at the entrance to the town; on the hill above them is beautiful Rozafa castle, which is 2,000 years old.

Q. So Shkodra is quite an old town?

A. There was a town here before Roman times; in the 1400s it was the first true city in this part of Albania. There were always good relations with Italy, and Shkodra was on the escape route for people fleeing there from the Ottoman Turks.

Under the communist system (1945-1991) much of Shkodra’s heritage was destroyed – churches, mosques, old houses. The culture museum was destroyed. During communism, the big cathedral was used for basketball games. You can still find some old places standing, and we’re trying to rebuild.

Q. It’s said that Enver Hoxha, the Albanian communist dictator for 40 years, loved to build concrete underground bunkers everywhere in your country. Is that true?

A. Yes. He was paranoid. There are hundreds of bunkers along the roads, in fields and at the seaside. They’re everywhere. They were very expensive for our very poor country.

Albania under the communists was one of the most closed countries in the world – there’s nothing to compare it to. It was painful. You had to present IDs to even cross bridges within cities. The system took everything from families and businesses were destroyed as well as traditions and rights. It was illegal to discuss anything.