What's left of Rozafa Castle stands on a rocky promontory just outside Shkodra in northern Albania. It overlooks the flood plain where, before the river burst its banks one too many times, a bazaar used to be and where the only sign of this stretch of damp, flat land's former life is the hollow carcass of a mosque. A taxi driver will take you up the steep twists of the castle approach as far as a car park just below the gates or you can walk from the musty, communist-era hotel in the centre of town, stopping at the rank of new shops and cafes on the outskirts for a coffee and an ice-cream in a novelty 'Punky' plastic figurine. Across the dual carriageway, a lane lunges up in zigzag slashes across the promontory, past walled orchards and a primary school which still has communist slogans pebble-dashed into concrete blocks in the playground.
Rozafa is one of Albania's effectively impregnable citadels. Its history involves numerous sieges and, in the fifteenth century, it was the last fortress to surrender when the Ottoman Empire was crushing the rebellions inspired by goat-helmeted Albanian warlord Skanderbeg. When Rozafa castle fell, Albania was consigned to Ottoman occupation until independence in 1912.
These days, Rozafa is the domain of school parties who plod around the ramparts clutching garish flags and flocks of in-bred pigeons which hobble across the courtyard by the castle museum, their feet hidden by strange sprays of grey feathers. The views are spectacular, there's a chapel which became a mosque and then became a chapel again, and the castle bar is staffed by boys reluctantly wearing traditional dress. Access to the museum is determined by the electricity supply. When there's no power, you'll get in for free but you won't be able to see anything.
The legend of Rozafa is the story of the third builder's wife. Three brothers, it seems, were building the castle but the section of the wall they were building repeatedly collapsed. At the end of their tether, they were relieved when an Albanian version of a djinn turned up and offered a 'deal'. The wives of these three brothers came up to the castle every day, bringing lunch. Should the first wife to appear the following day be incarcerated in the wall, the castle would be finished. The djinn asked the three brothers to swear that none of them would forewarn their wives. They did so but two of them, of course, immediately broke their promise and told their wives to stay home all day. The third, though, kept his word and, the following day, watched while his wife toiled up the promontory to deliver his lunch. He promptly told her that she was the one who had to be immured to guarantee the completion of the castle. Remarkably, she agreed (or was forced) but only on the grounds that, since she had a young baby to feed, a small hole would be left in the wall, through which she could breastfeed her child. Even to this day, milky water is said to seep from various holes in the walls of Rozafa castle.