I was staring at the weather forecast for Shkoder in disbelief. It was Friday night, we had just arrived at our villa in Perast, Montenegro and we were planning to take a trip to the city of Shkoder, in Albania the next day. I was trying to work out what clothing we should take with us, and after nearly two weeks of sunshine it was a shock to see that the forecast was warning of rain and thunderstorms.
I squinted disapprovingly at the offending Weather App on my phone, and decided to ignore it.
Saturday was going to be a long day; we were going to be picked up at 6:30am and driven to our coach in Budva about 45 minutes away. Then it was supposedly 2.5 hours to Shkoder, one of the largest cities in Albania, where we would learn something of its culture, explore an ancient castle, eat some Albanian food, and visit the town centre.
Coach trips really aren’t usually our thing. They are usually full of childless couples who want to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible. This doesn’t always pan out when you are travelling with kids. We prefer to travel independently if at all possible but originally we were going to fly to the Balkans, which meant we had to hire a car. Hire car companies don’t let you take their cars into Albania.
Once we knew we were going to drive our own car, we had already booked the coach tour. We looked briefly into driving ourselves , but stories of long border queues, poorly maintained roads and terrible driving put us off.
This proved to be a wise decision…
The vehicle that picked us up on Saturday morning was a pleasant surprise. The driver was chatty and spoke English well, but he was faintly disapproving of us wanting to go to Albania. He drove well though, and warned us about how bad the traffic would be on the way back later that night. Apparently the coastal road of Montenegro transforms into a carpark in the weekend.
He pointed out various places as he drove, including a sandy beach *this* side of Budva, near a place called Jaz. We may visit there later this week.
Once in Budva, we transferred to a slightly larger, much older vehicle, more a minivan than a coach, There were no seatbelts so it was just as well we didn’t bring the kids’ car seats with us. Already aboard was an older couple, a driver and a translator.
The couple were a pair of nearly retired medics from the States, and luckily they were very child friendly. We stopped at another town about 20 minutes down the coast to pick up a German couple who said very little during the trip, but at least they didn’t run screaming from the vehicle when they saw us.
We stopped off for a photo opportunity at Sveti Stefan, a posh, exclusive resort masquerading as a picturesque islet barely attached to the mainland by a thin bridge.
Then we got back in the van and drove for hours. They were very warm, bumpy hours punctuated only by a toilet stop for DS.
We had been told that it was only the 2nd time our translator had been to Albania, but we suspected that our driver might not be familiar with the area either, when he got lost and had to backtrack the last 20 minutes.
But finally we reached the border crossing and sat in a slowly moving queue for half an hour until someone informed the driver that there was a bus queue. He promptly crossed onto the wrong side of the road, zipped past the huge queue , squeezed through three lines of vehicles and stopped in front of a bored looking policeman.
Eventually we got through the border and were looking forward to learning something about Albania but instead promptly stopped for a cold drink at a souvenir shop and to pick up our Albanian guide. We were already running late and wanted to just get going.
At last everyone got back in the van and off we went. Our guide was called Boris and he gave us a running commentary of the places we passed along with a potted history of Albania. There is no denying the country has had a rough ride; it’s had a varied political past and in the last 100 years has been an Independent state, a Democracy, a Kingdom, a Principality, a Communist country and is now a Republic. No wonder Albania looks a bit rough around the edges.
There is obvious poverty at the border in the form of a large slum. People living under strips of cloth for shade, young babies lying asleep on the dirt or curled in carseats, young kids all over the road and between the cars. The woman and children file past the waiting cars, tapping on your windows and trying to catch your eye. You can’t help them all, so the only fair thing to do is to shake your head and try to ignore them. But it does feel wrong.
The roads aren’t great; there are large potholes dotted along them, but the driving is worse. Cars speed past you, often towards you on the wrong side, and intersections become a game of chicken. And there is litter everywhere.
It’s an interesting place though. The areas we visited were all near Shkoder, where we climbed a hill to explore the remains of Rozafa Castle. There has been a fortress here since before Christ was born and the castle is the subject of an interesting legend.
The story goes that there were three brothers building the castle but they arrived at work each day to find the previous day’s work demolished. A wise man was consulted and he told them that only a human sacrifice could stop the devil from stopping their work. Some one must be walled up inside the castle walls, but who to sacrifice? Finally the brothers agreed to offer the first of their wives who got up to make breakfast. The brothers agreed not to say anything to their wives but the two older brothers broke their promises and told their wives to stay in bed. So it was the youngest brother’s beautiful wife Rozafa who showed up the next day. She agreed to be blocked inside the castle walls on one condition – holes should be left so her right eye could see out of the wall, her right arm could caress her newborn son, her right breast could feed him, and her right foot could rock his cradle. Rozafa was entombed and the castle remained standing. It is said that the walls of the castle run with milk still…
We didn’t see any leaky stones but we did get a good view of the surrounding district after a steep, hot climb. I also noticed that there were a fair few clouds gathering in the distance.
Next up was lunch. We were taken to a very nice shady restaurant that did ‘tourist’ food- ie pizza and pasta for the kids, while the adults could try something a bit more traditional. DH and I selected a beef and vegetable casserole in a cheese sauce, which was very rich, and I also had a mozzarella and tomato salad which was nice, but had startingly yellow mozzarella in it.
The kids discovered a lovely secret playground in the restaurant garden and were playing happily in it when we heard the first rumbles of thunder.
Our guide ushered us to the van and directed the driver frantically to Shkoder town centre. The poor guy was desperate to show off the town centre to us and didn’t want to be doing it in the middle of a storm.
He was out of luck. We remained dry while he showed us the statue of Mother Teresa ( born in Albania) but as he was showing us the upgraded town centre we felt the first spits of rain.
A bolt of lightning ripped through the sky and an enormous clap of thunder scared us indoors to a very nice enclosed rooftop restaurant from which we watched the rain come down, and the lightning reflect in the mirrored windows.
Most of us had a cold drink and some icecream, while the Germans went out exploring and DH went out to buy a fridge magnet for our growing collection.
We got a little damp as we ran from the building to the the minivan but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and I now have a healthy respect for the weather App on my phone. Our guide just kept shaking his head and saying ‘There are never storms in Shkoder in summer’!
The drive back to Montenegro was tedious to say the least. The border line was huge but our driver had the right idea by now and whizzed down the left hand side lane and pulled in to the souvenir shop. There was a sweet little dog hanging around the car park, begging for food. She was obviously feeding puppies and looked rather mangy but DD3 fixated on her and cried when we left.
Once through the border we started the long crawl home. We had been told we’d be home around 6pm but a combination of Saturday and rain caused us to sit in barely moving traffic for hours. Luckily DS slept most of the way home, so we could rotate the now expiring Nintendo among the girls and kept them amused until we rocked up at the hotel to change to our ride back to Perast.
Because we were two hours late, the van booked to take us to our villa was no where to be seen and we had to ask the ditzy translator to phone the driver for us. Luckily he wasn’t too far away but he made no secret of the fact that the volume of traffic was a source of dismay for him.
We finally got in around 9:15 pm having been on the road for over 14.5 hours. Luckily the village we are in has a takeaway pizza place, so that was dinner sorted after which it was time for showers and bed.
Albania wasn’t a highlight of my holiday but I’m glad we went. It was more of a mission than an excursion but I enjoyed the castle legend and the lunch, and just about tolerated the rest.
The kids found the long hours of cramped travelling for a few hours of walking around tedious and the storm was a bit traumatic for a couple of them but as ever, it was an experience.