The hotel we have headed for was recommended to us by Marie & Misha, but when we find it I wonder if we could get a room for 20 euros here, as the young Germans had done. It’s a lovely old stone house, set back from the road that has been turned into a restaurant with rooms. There’s a courtyard around the back and a new annexe built along one side of this. We are ushered round to the back and greeted by the owners, with two staff in smart ‘folk’ uniforms hanging back in reserve. After pleasantries the owner offers us welcome glasses of ice-cold water. One of his staff will show us to a room. We are not used to the red carpet treatment – and I now know that we won’t be staying here. I let Gayle go to see a room with one of the young staff – she is The Negotiator after all. Shortly she returns to say we have a lovely room and we should take our bags up. “It’s 20 euros?” I don’t believe her. “Yes. They asked for 50 but when I said that our friends recommended the place and paid only 20 the woman said okay.” As it’s her birthday it seems like the ideal treat.
The town is unremarkable but not too ugly – lots of shops and cafes and a few folk out and about. We stroll around in the afternoon heat and find some lunch before retreating to the cool of the hotel. The Gheg & Tosk Tradita is the name. I wonder if the couple running the place are called Gheg and Tosk – but the guidebook explains these are the northern and southern Albanian dialects. Ah. In the cool of the evening we venture out for some fine dining. The streets are now visibly alive. In the centre hundreds of folk are out strolling around, the pavement tables of the cafes and bars are bustling, groups are sat around in the tiny park. The call to prayer sounds from the central mosque. The mellifluous sounds of the muezzin’s call are soothing. No-one appears to pay any notice of it. Like in Mexico, the evening passageio or volta, after the heat of the day, seems to be the social event. Everyone looks smart and clean in fresh clothes. Groups of young women are observed closely as they wander past the bars full of young guys juggling cigarettes, beer and mobile phones. (Well, not literally juggling - that would have been something to see…) There are bicycles parked everywhere.
We wander down the main pedestrianized street looking for a busy restaurant but it seems folk are only drinking. For some reason we both start thinking of kebabs. (This is a problem for me because I always imagine I’ll find a place making kebabs as good as the Rusholme Chippy in Manchester, where the chunks of skewered marinated lamb are cooked in the tandoori oven along with the fluffy nan breads. I’ve never found a better kebab.) King Doner turns out to be closed but we find another cheapie not much further on. I treat Gayle to a classy birthday meal of kebab and chips.
The town’s best tourist attraction is rather hard to find. An archive of photographs from the country’s oldest photography studio is kept here, in an obscure building tucked off a street in the centre. The guidebook gives directions and suggests asking locals. Sure enough, we are directed through a passageway to a low office building behind the shops. In an office corridor are hung about sixty black and white photos, mostly studio portraits, taken from about 1890 to the 1930s. The Marubi studio archive must be huge, but this is all we can see. The photos have some ethnographic interest - there are ordinary people in traditional costume, and political figures including King Zog and his wife, some landscapes and shots of old Shkoder and some journalistic shots of the rebellion against those intrusive Turkish furniture salesmen, the Ottomans. The photos are wonderful but too few – the bulk of this treasure remains stupidly out of sight. Perhaps Albanian tourism is still in its infancy, or is it that there’s not enough money to be made to warrant any effort to display the collection? ‘Tis a pity.
From Shkoder we are taking a route northwards – following a chain of reservoirs to Koman where we can then take a boat. The ride takes us through a couple of villages and a small town. The houses look fairly new and tidy and there is the occasional abandoned building from the Communist era. A minaret peeks out above the roofs. The shops look more basic. We are watched with amazement (or is it amusement?) by the folk stood around chatting or waiting for buses. The route we want leaves the main road and skirts the lowest reservoir. Pine trees offer some shade but eventually, as we climb, the trees become shorter and shorter and finally peter out. It’s hot and dusty, the road has been paved once, but it’s starting to break up. We stop at a roadside fountain and sit under a lone tree on a handily-placed stone seat. Four nuns in a Land Rover stop for fresh water. We mooch on slowly in the midday heat and finally come to more pine trees where there is shade for lunch. Further on we descend to the water’s edge. We can now see big mountains on the far side. There’s a hamlet of farms on the slopes by the reservoir and boats at the shore.
We find a ledge to camp on but it’s still early so we wait to pitch the tent. At around six some kids arrive with their goats. We talk a little in English and Spanish learnt from watching TV (them, not us). Our Albanian currently amounts to 'hello' and 'thank you'. If you want to know how difficult this language is then reflect on the Albanian for Albania: Shqiperia.) The youngest giggles ceaselessly and we know we won’t camp here now. As the sun dips behind the mountains we slog our way up an increasingly dreadful road to the village of Koman below the damn. There’s a campsite here where we stop for the night.