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Rozafa Castle

Crowning the 113m-high hill towering above the confluence of the Buna and Drini rivers, Shkodra's impressive top sight is the pride of the locals. Whether it's a castle or a fortress/citadel can be discussed, fact is that Shkodra's history started on this hilltop with the establishment of a Bronze Age settlement 4000 years ago, followed much later by an Illyrian fortress.

Between the first two citadel gates you'll get a glimpse of the Illyrians' so-called Cyclopean walls, consisting of huge, meticulously puzzled-together rocks, dating back to 350BC. In early medieval times a proper castle was built, and it's from this period that the famous legend of Rozafa originates – a legend that is found back in various forms across the Balkans.

This particular one was first written down by famous local writer Marin Barleti in 1504. The story goes that the three brothers who were constructing the castle arrived to work each day finding the previous day's work demolished. A wise man was consulted and told them that only a human sacrifice could stop the devil from stopping their work, and the brothers agreed to offer the first of their wives who would come up the hill to bring food. Unfortunately, the two older brothers broke their promises and told their wives to stay at home – and it was the youngest brother's beautiful wife Rozafa who showed up the next day. She valiantly agreed to be immured in the castle walls on one condition – a hole should be left so that her right arm could caress her newborn son, her right breast could feed him, and her right foot could rock his cradle. Rozafa was immured and the castle remained standing.

The main medieval building still standing is St. Stephen's Church, built in 1319 and expanded by the Venetians in a Dalmatian-influenced style in the 15th century; the Venetians also built new gates and towers. The castle saw terrible sieges and battles; the Illyrians fought here with the Romans in 168BC, and in early medieval times, there were Byzantine and Slav conquests. The worst battles of all were in the 15th century during the Turkish conquest of the Balkans; first in 1474, and again in 1479 when the Siege of Shkodra left 60,000 people dead – a catastrophe for the city and also for the Christian world, as this was the beginning of centuries of Ottoman occupation.

The Ottoman chronicler Kemal Pashazade noted the following about the brave defenders from Shkodra: “In spite of our efforts, we could not uproot the people, who had sharp claws and bronze bodies. They stayed in the towers of their castles like tigers on the mountain tops”. St. Stephens was turned into a mosque by adding a minaret to is, and the castle was transformed into a garrison citadel by the Turks and it was in use for military and city administration purposes until 1865, after that only for the garrison.

After Albania gained independence in 1914 (the Marubi Photo Collection has a beautiful photo of the flag-raising ceremony in the citadel), it lost its significance. The castle has been tinkered with a lot throughout the millennia, and what you see now is mostly from the Ottoman and Venetian periods.

After entering the massive main gate complex, there are three courtyards to explore. The first was for defence purposes; the second and largest courtyard was for the garrison; the soldiers slept and lived here. Next to St. Stephen's church/mosque there's a building that was probably built as a prison. Keep you children on a leash in this courtyard, as there are several well and holes in the ground leading to the deep cisterns that held the water needed to keep the citadel going during sieges.

The third and highest courtyard was the best defended and held the garrison leadership. From the walls you have great views across the city, Lake Shkodra with the mountains of Montenegro behind it, the Buna river flowing towards the sea, and the Kiri and Drini rivers which join just below the castle before flowing into the Buna. You can also spot the old location of Shkodra's town centre below the castle: the lone Lead Mosque is all that's left of the settlement.

Just in case all the defences failed, they had several secret passageways chiselled into the rocks, and leading to hidden exits on the slopes of the hill, and some can be entered. The Venetian-built arsenal in this courtyard houses the Citadel Museum, which was sadly plundered during the 1997 unrest, but still is worth a look for the maps, guns, artefacts, the sad statue of an immured Rozafa and a huge scale model. The museum has a small shop selling souvenirs and postcards. Next to the museum is the Rozafa restaurant, which is worth a visit for its terrace with views across the floodplains, and the Ottoman-style room.

Planning your siege
Rozafa Castle, 3km south of the city centre. Open 08:00 – 22:00. Admission 200 lek (foreigners), 100 lek (locals), 50 lek (children).
The road leading up to the castle is not signposted – from the main road out of Shkodra to Tirana, turn into the street diagonally opposite the Api petrol station and turn left up a narrow bumpy road, left again when you see a small stone bridge and then right across this bridge all the way to the parking spaces beneath the main entrance. The road is fine for all cars; you can walk there from the town centre in an hour too, but it's a dusty walk past some poor areas and in the summer heat the steep hike is tiring – best get a taxi to drop you off. Adventurous types should bring along a torch to light up the interiors of the buildings and tunnels that can be entered. There are no warnings for steep drops or cistern entrances, so be careful.

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  • Bloom - Shkodra, Albania, Albania 29 April 2011
    I'm proud to be Albanian!

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