Day 1 - Arrival
It has to be said: the start of a new hiking trip is always an exciting time. Anticipation is high, and no matter how well or how long one has prepared for the trip, the rush to change from work mode to holiday mode can be tricky transition. Tiredness from the often ridiculously early morning transfer to the airport, coupled with any last minute packing crises, also means that a smooth journey is a real boon.
And so it proved to be, as we arrived into Tirana airport on time (about 10.45am local time) and met the rest of our group: guide Endrit, Tony who we met before in southern Albania last year, Matt from the Walks Worldwide office (but who was here on holiday, not for work) and Rebecca from Australia via The Hague.
It was quite warm - around 27 degrees outside - so, after brief intoductions, we settled in somewhat sleepily for the 90 minute transfer to Shkodra. On arrival, we had a relaxed lunch at a riverside restaurant beside river Drin (me Trout, Missy G vegetable Risotto) before a tour of Rozafa Castle, an imposing fortress perched on a rocky bluff near the confluence of the Drin and Bojana rivers.
|Confluence of the rivers Drin and Bojana
Shkodra is the principal city of northern Albania, with a population of around 100,000. It is one of the oldest and most historic places in the region, dating back to Illyrian times (3rd Century BC). In 168 AD, the town was captured by the Romans, and became part of Dalmatia (and eventually Dacia). More recently, in the 15th Century the area was secured as an Ottoman territory: with access to the Adriatic coast as well as inland to other major cities (such as the other major Ottoman city in the region, Prizren) it also has a great geostrategic importance as well.
The early 20th Century saw further changes/occupation as a result of the first and second Balkan Wars and the shakedown following World War 1 when the whole Balkan region was divided up and divvied out by the then major European powers - a notoriously complex and unsatisfactory state of affairs that has led to trouble and conflict ever since.
|Looking over Shkodra to the mountains
Rozafa Castle was originally built as an Illyrian stronghold, strategically situated at this influential location. Captured by the Romans, it has since also passed through Byzantine, Serbian, Venetian, Ottoman and Montenegrin control.
There is a legend associated with the castle, about the initiative of the three brothers who set about building it. They worked all day, but the walls fell down at night. They met a clever old man who advised them to sacrifice someone so that the walls would stand. The three brothers found it difficult to decide whom to choose: finally, they decided to sacrifice one of their wives - the one who would bring lunch to them the next day - and they agreed that whichever of their wives did so would be buried in the wall of the castle. They also promised not to tell their wives of this: however, the two older brothers explained the situation to their wives that night, while the honest youngest brother said nothing.
The following afternoon, the brothers waited anxiously to see which wife was carrying the basket of food. It was Rosafa, the wife of the youngest brother. He explained to her the agreement that they had made, namely that she was to be sacrificed and buried in the wall of the castle so that they could finish building it.
She did not protest, but accepted to be walled in on condition that they leave her right breast exposed to feed her newborn son, her right eye to see him, her right hand to caress him and her right foot to rock his cradle. It is said that milk still flows from one of the walls in the castle.
|Central mosque: we had dinner near here
We checked in at the hotel, then the rest of the afternoon was free time to rest, wash, and walk out into town. In the evening, we walked into main pedestrianised centre of the town, and ate dinner on a balcony restaurant near the central mosque: salad, grilled vegetables, a spicy vegetable and sausage casserole, melted cheese fondue, beef steak, and masses of it. Lovely!