The western part of the Balkan peninsula was occupied by Illyrian tribes when the Romans invaded it in 165 BC.
The split of the Roman Empire in 395 left Illyria with distant Byzantium that could not prevent the invasions of barbarians such as Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Lombards etc. After the massive migration of Slavic tribes in the 7th century, most Illyrians were absorbed into the ancestry of today's Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, but some migrated south, resisted assimilation and became the ancestors of the Albanian people.
In 1388 the Ottoman Turks invaded Albania and completed its occupation about 1430. Albania's most honoured hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, also known as Skanderbeg, was taken to Istanbul as hostage but he returned to his father's castle in Kruja in 1443, rallied the other Albanian princes, and drove out the Turks in 1449 and kept them out until his death. The Ottoman forces nevertheless prevailed and the country was reoccupied in 1479. Many Albanians fled to Italy and Greece and most of those that remained converted to Islam.
In 1878 Albanians formed the League of Prizren to resist Ottoman rule but it was only in 1912 that they succeeded in expelling the Ottomans. Kosovo was included in the newly independent state of Albania in 1912, but the following year the Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and Russia) forced Albania to cede the region to Serbia.
After failed attempts of democratic governments, the right wing president Ahmed Bey Zogu had himself enthroned as King Zog I in 1928 and ruled as a dictator until fascist Italy invaded and occupied the country in 1939. With the withdrawal of the Germans in 1944, the Communist party seized control under Enver Hoxha, the secretary-general of the party.
Hoxha opposed Tito's efforts to annex Albania into Yugoslavia and became an avid disciple of Stalin. After Stalin's death in '53, Hoxha resisted Kruschov's reforms and sided with the Chinese until they withdrew their support in 1978. Albania's isolation, disastrous as it was for the economy, only increased Hoxha's paranoia who wasted scarce resources to build defensive bunkers all over the land.
With Enver Hoxha's death in 1985, his successor, Ramiz Alia, inherited a failing economy and a disgruntled people. The fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 led to growing unrest and demonstrations in 1990 and 1991. Elections were won by the Socialist Party but unrest continued and the government collapsed as GDP fell by 50%. New elections were held. The Democratic Party under Sali Berisha came to power in 1992 and was confirmed in 1996 but violence erupted again when get-rich-quick pyramids in which Albanians had invested heavily failed in 1997.
Albania has yet to achieve political stability but its economy has begun to grow and although the country is still one of the poorest in Europe, the worst of the hard times seem to be over.
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The road from Ulcinj was so terrible that the minibus went at a walking pace in the worst parts. Eventually it dropped me off right in front of the Rozafa Hotel on Rruga Marin Barleti adjacent to the Five Hero Plaza which is the centre of Shkodra.
I had heard so many bad stories in Belgrade about the high crime rate in Albania and Kosovo that I did feel some apprehension to be on my own on the dusty deserted street at 5 PM. The lobby of the Rozafa was also empty but a clerk showed up after a while. There was no ATM and they did not accept credit cards nor traveller's cheques but he showed me where I would find money changers in an alley nearby.
There were three of them, doing business out of the trunk of their cars. No competition, their rates were all the same, 139 Leke per Euro. Back in the hotel, I got a room with shared bathroom for the equivalent of 2.30 $US.
The next morning I felt better and laughed at the apprehension I had felt the day before. I realised that I should have taken into account the traditional Serb prejudice against Albanians in Kosovo to discount the bad stories I had heard in Belgrade. Severe prejudice against weaker minorities often serves as moral justification for the bad treatment meted them. The Turks do the same with the Kurds!
Across the street from the Rozafa was a nice restaurant in a pleasant shaded park and next to it, this modern, Turkish style, Sheik Zamil Abdullah al-Zamil Mosque completed in 1995.
The handsome Migjenit Theatre on Five Hero Plaza looked abandoned. Going to the theatre is not a priority during hard times.
Albania's economy is growing but it is coming out of a deep pit and has a long way to go as you can see at a glance from the lack of activity on this important street connecting the Five Hero Plaza to the Rozafa Fortress three km away.
Shkodra was depressingly empty during the day but people came out for a stroll on Bulevardi 13 Dhjetori near the city centre when the sun went down.
A few cafes with terraces, street vendors selling grilled kebabs on a bun and crowds of happy young people made all the difference, like the promise of better times for one of the oldest cities of Europe.
This easily defended hill strategically located near the confluence of the Buna and Drin rivers had already been fortified by local Illyrians 500 years BC to control trade with Lake Shkodra on the Buna and with Lake Ohrid far inland on the Drin.
Older forts were replaced by newer until the Venetians built the Rozafa Fortress around 1396. They held it against Suleiman Pasha in 1473 but lost it to Nehmet Pasha in 1479. It was later enlarged by the Turks.I had to come here to get a minibus south to Lezhe on my way to Tirana.
Modest farm worker's houses dot the fields between Shkodra and Lezhe.
This is the Lezhe minibus depot. Privately owned minibusses only go short distances so I had to change to another minibus here to go on to Tirana. This apparently improvised system works well and travel is cheap in Albania. In the bustle of the change I forgot my shopping bag with an apple and my Lonely Planet guidebook in the other minibus.
Without my guidebook, I was delightfully lost when the second minibus dropped me on a street corner in the north western suburbs of Tirana.
This is the National Museum on the northern side of Skenderbeg Square in the centre of the city.
And here is the Palace of Culture on the eastern side.
This equestrian statue of Skenderbeg and the Et'hem Bey Mosque behind it, are on the southern side of the huge central square. Further east behind the mosque stands Tirana's 1830 Clock Tower.
This composite picture gives you an idea of the richly decorated insides of the 1793 Et'hem Bey Mosque.
Tirana's buildings are often brightly coloured like these. I stayed in a family pension in a alley just behind the red apartment building.
This pyramid, inaugurated in 1988, is a museum dedicated to the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.
I did not know the name of this fort and could not ask as we drove south from Tirana because nobody in the van spoke any English, French or Spanish so I just took this photo through the window hoping some reader of my site will tell me. Finally, a year later, Bebian Becollini, an Albanian from Philadelphia, sent me an e-mail to tell me that Petrela was part of the Skenderbeg triangle along with Kruja and Preza.
At Elbasan, I changed to another minibus for Pogradec on the shores of Ohrid Lake.
Hoxha was obsessed with the need to fortify his small country against invasion by his neighbours. He spent huge amounts of money building bunkers and pillboxes everywhere. You can see examples below. What waste when the people needed schools and hospitals!
After Elbasan, the road climbed through a wild mountain range treating us to some of the most spectacular mountain views I have ever seen. (In the same class as the La Paz to Coroico road in Bolivia or the Kishinev to Osh road in Kyrghistan). Then, it dropped rapidly down this series of switchbacks to the level of Ohrid lake at Qafe Thana and followed the shore hence to Pogradec.
The tourist industry, fully developed on the Macedonian side of Ohrid lake, is just beginning to grow on the Albanian side.
This is Hotel Royal, the best place in town, right on the waterfront.
These gentlemen playing dominoes in the waterfront park were quite friendly and did not object to my taking their picture.
Most Albanians are Muslim but there is a vigorous Greek orthodox minority as this fine church attests.
In Pogradec, I had a large room with balcony on the first floor of the Hotel Kinezi for only 5 Euros.
I had lunch in the restaurant downstairs. The owner's daughter, who spoke French, helped me communicate with some labourers seated at the next table who were as curious about me and my motives for visiting their country as I was about them and their lifestyle. We had a pleasant conversation.
There was no regular bus service to the Macedonian border but one of them brought me to see a friend of his who drove me there for a very reasonable price.