A border town that’s more than just a transit point
If you tell anyone you’re off to Shkoder for more than a 45 minute stop-off for lunch before heading on to Montenegro, they’re going to ask you why. It’s hardly the most attractive of places; the Buna River that surrounds it looks like more of a swamp than anything else, and its ‘charming old town’ is essentially just one street, that lasts 400 metres if you’re lucky. But the surrounding area of Shkoder is where the magic happens. To the north-east, the Accursed Mountains lay in wait for the intrepid hiker. Theth, and the Mes bridge are worth an explore and, surprise surprise, there’s of course another hilltop castle. We’re not doing a great job of selling this to you, but if nothing else; Shokder is so much more than just another transit point.
Bike: And not just to work off last night’s fyrgese. Hire a bike from any one of the hostels in town, and take off towards Mes Bridge and Theth. Though I didn’t make it in to Valbona (I got sick the day before my planned trek in; it’s a sore point and I don’t want to talk about it. Ever again), this was a good compromise. It’s a good 10 kilometres from Shkoder to Mes Bridge, but worth every pedal. The bridge itself is an ancient, mossy old stone structure that looks like it might sweep you away with it in a strong current, but considering its stood this far; there’s a good chance you’ll make it over alive. The gloomy Accursed Mountains in the backdrop make this a perfect spot for picture taking. The cycle back into town is mostly downhill, and there are plenty of notable little sites and things to stop in at on the way; ask for a map from any of the hostels with these marked on it. And if nothing else, most of the gears on your cycles won’t work anyway so you’ll feel like you’re pedalling through mud for most of your ride, and inevitably burn off twice as many calories.
The Venice Art Mask Factory: We’re not sure why exactly there’s a huge warehouse full of Venetian masks smack bang in the middle of Shkoder, but there is – and it’s excellent. Though it’s open at varying times of any day, talk to the security and he’ll call the owner, who will come and unlock the place for you. The world inside is an eclectic mix of utter beauty and painstaking work, which mixes in the bizarre and surreal. It’s easy to get lost in the intricacy of detail and – had I not been absolutely certain I’d break this in the first 24 hours of owning it (when your life is encased in a thick, jumbled pack where half your belongings are already broken in some form or another, these things never have a long survival rate) I would’ve bought three. Sure, I had no impending masquerade ball in which I would need one, but you’d probably just catch me at home watching Grey’s Anatomy while shovelling snacks under my mask on any given day.
Rozafa Castle: Yet another hilltop castle. It looks nice, from the ground, where we decided we’d had enough castles. For a lifetime.
Couchsurf: The community is small, but active, and our host even had two of us at one time.
Right, this is slightly uncouth, but we really recommend a solely persimmon-based diet whilst in Shkoder. Yes, you will find many of them along the ground, in gutters, and just generally in places you would never dream of eating from, but you need to level with us here. Those ripe, deliciously sweet fruit (effectively a delicious ready-made jam encased in a fruit skin) are lying throughout the countryside, perfectly ripe and just waiting to be plucked. Because most of the trees are behind fences, or on people’s properties, we can’t recommend scaling a wall and picking them from the trees yourselves (and we never did anything of the sort), so just stick to the freshly-fallen ones. We’d never had a persimmon in our lives before we went to Shkoder, but we’re now nurturing a slight addiction to them we’re eventually going to need some help with.
Ease of hitchhiking:
Easy bloody peasy. So long as you’re standing in the actual direction of your intended destination (more on that here), you’ll be plucked from the outskirts of the city by two jolly men who don’t speak a word of English in no time. Just, take it from me, and don’t accidentally end up one country too far, attempting to hitch backwards at 10pm at night in torrential rain. Again, read more on that here.