Our local international women's group has recently started organizing trips to various places in Albania. Some are overnight trips and some are just one day trips. This week we hired a great minibus and 14 of us went off to the northern city of Shkodra. It's not very far, only a couple of hours drive, and the road is now perfectly good. We left early in the morning because we had a very full schedule for the day. Our first stop was for the best cup of cappucino I have ever had! The restaurant was situated on the banks of a river and featured a large cage with two brown bears, and a smaller cage with a little monkey. In other countries these would probably face some sort of protests from animal rights activists, but here in Albania, they are looked upon as fascinating entertainment.
Personally I found the eastern style toilets far more intriguing and decided to photograph one for those of you who have never seen one before. I've seen them before in other eastern countries but have resisted actually using one for fear of losing my balance, but this time I had courage and happily survived the experience.
After the coffee stop we drove further to Shkodra and picked up the Director of Museums and Culture, who accompanied us for the rest of the day. Our minibus chugged it up the mountain and then we walked the rest of the way up to the Rozafa Castle, where , according to legend, the youngest wife of one of three brothers was walled up in the foundations of the castle as insurance to keep the castle standing forever. Most of what remains, and it is fairly substantial, is medieval and Venetian. The views of Lake Shkodra, the largest lake in the Balkans, and the Adriatic Sea, are awesome from here!
We also made stops at the Historical Museum (really well presented!) and the Marubi Phototheque Exhibition, which has archives of over 500,000 photo negatives, including the first photograph ever taken in Albania!
Next we had a fabulous lunch at a restaurant called Tradita. The owner is a proud Albanian man who has lived in Belgium and speaks French, English and Dutch, and knows an awful lot about the traditional costumes of the area. He has a HUGE collection of which we saw only a third and I loved his passion for the subject. He is working on making an interesting and secure display space for these wonderful pieces of Albanian history.
After lunch we went out of the city a little bit and stopped at the Mesi Bridge, a picturesque 18th century stone bridge, built by the local feudal lord Mustafa Pasha Bushati. It's only 4 metres wide and has 13 lovely arches. At the present time there is not much water flowing under the bridge but it at least looked clean and was a memorable shade of blue.
On the way back to the city we spotted two ladies wearing traditional clothing in front of the Catholic Church so we yelled "stop" to the bus driver and jumped out of the bus. The ladies were more than happy to have us take thier photos and were quite thrilled with seeing themselves on the digital screens.
Next on our agenda was the much awaited visit to Arlequino, Shkodra's very own factory for the production of handmade Venetian Masks. When we went to Venice we somehow neglected to buy a mask (I think we were busy running around the city helping our friends find "The Perfect Mask" for their own collection. Not to worry because here is where most of the really beautiful Venetian masks are actually made. This was really a highlight of the day for me! We were able to see true artists working carefully on their craft. These masks are each made by hand which justifies the price in my opinion. Here in the factory we were able to buy them at about half the shop price in Venice, so I selected two. This factory actually made the masks for the movie "Eyes Wide Shut" which starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and I bought a copy of his mask and a mask which was based on a woman's face from a van Eyck painting. It was difficult to decide what to take home, but I promised myself I would go back again someday.
The day was coming to an end and we drove along Lake Shkodra to find a place to stop for a coffee. From here we could see the mountain border of Montenegro in the distance. The sunset was the most spectacular colour, and just before darkness fell we boarded the bus for a smooth drive back to Tirana. The day was completely full, we were exhausted and content with all that we had seen.