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Phespirit goes to Albania
Shkodër     September 2005

When Phespirit made arrangements to stay in Montenegro and Croatia he had half an idea that he might be able to work in a side trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but never contemplated venturing south into Albania. Throughout the dark decades of Communist dictatorship Albania remained the most obscure and oppressed of all nations in Europe. Now the tyrant has fallen and the curtain has been lifted but to the average Western European (e.g. Phespirit) Albania is still a remote and wild enigma, somehow psychologically inaccessible even if the political barriers have been torn down. But then Phespirit arrived in Budva and found the great Albanian city of Shkodër to be just a three hour coach journey away. Nothing more complicated than paying money and climbing aboard. So he paid and climbed.

Shkodër is situated 36km south of the border with Montenegro and 117km north of the Albanian capital, Tirana. It is a major city, having over 110,000 residents, all settled on a plain by Skadar Lake, one of the largest lakes in Europe. Rozafa Castle stands watch over them from its rocky hilltop (133m high), with rivers flowing on either side, three kilometres from the city centre .....

Those are the facts. Now, how to pass the time?

The pivot of the city is its splendid domed mosque with twin minarets, standing on a square formed by four main roads. Phespirit started from here and, without having the benefit of a map, wandered off vaguely in the direction of whatever looked promising from a distance: a small park; the twin minarets of another mosque; an old town house that is now home to Shkodër's history museum (its electric lighting works in just one room at a time); the floodlights of a football stadium; a marketplace in the backstreets; back out onto a wide boulevard and return once more to the central mosque.

Phespirit circled the mosque, took a photo, made assessments as to whether it would be wise to venture inside, and then at last strode decisively into the grounds at a quarter past one in the afternoon, just as the all-male gathered faithful was steadily filing out. He peeked through the doorway and windows but was unable to see much of the interior. It is always a matter of judgement as to how appropriate it is for a non-believer to enter a place of active worship where the etiquette may be unfamiliar and language is a barrier. Phespirit elicited some puzzled, suspicious glances but went for it anyway. Inside, he could appreciate the lavish decoration of the inner dome; a painted blue circle with interwoven layers of Arabic script in white and black detail. Woven carpets and prayer mats with warm red designs cover the entire floor. The artwork of a mosque always feels as though it belongs uniquely to the local people.

On the outskirts of the city, Rozafa Castle vaguely reminded Phespirit of the great Crac des Chevaliers in Syria. From the foot of its hill, a cobbled road winds for one kilometre up to the heavily fortified entrance of the castle. Two gatekeepers sit at the side, listlessly eating sweets and crisps and throwing the empty packets down the side of the hill. Beyond the entrance, the castle grounds cover almost four hectares. Most of the stonework is in a deteriorated state, overgrown with plants or just plain ruined, but the Church of St. Stephan still stands, and the most solid-looking building serves as a museum. Glorious views can be appreciated all the way around walls. Phespirit looked back to Shkodër, basking peacefully in the late summer sunshine, and wondered: what does its future hold?

New buildings are beginning to rise from the legacy of totalitarianism but it is the basic infrastructure that seems to be in greatest need of attention. Roads, car parks and market squares all have potholes - huge, deep, wide potholes. Yet while the city needs bringing up to date the people are already there. The teenagers and twenty-somethings are easily as slim, sunned and stylish as their contemporaries in the richer Mediterranean states. This country that was once considered backward is now itching to move forward. It could be last true European land of opportunity for an investor of generosity and courage.

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