The Albanian Alps: Where Past and Future Meet

The following is a guest post from Leyla Giray. Leyla has been on the road most of her life in one way or another, having left home in Paris to take her first cross-European trip when she was five weeks old (she brought her parents along). She hasn’t really stopped since. Leyla has been an expat forever, first in Canada and then in Spain, where she mostly grew up (with a few detours through Italy and Iran). She has spent years in Algeria, Switzerland, Thailand and France, which is now her home, the first time she has lived in the country of her birth. Leyla’s new book “Women on the Road: the essential guide for baby-boomer travel” is now available from Indie Travel Guides. You can also find Leyla on Facebook, Twitter, and on her blog.

Albania is still shaking off its layers of history – a history of Communism, isolationism, radical peasantry and now, a near overnight leap into the 21st century. Nowhere is this more visible than in the northwestern corner of this small, poorly-known country.

Albania was isolated for decades as its violent dictator, Enver Hoxha, cut off his country from the world and turned it inward. For years, Albania’s contact with the rest of the world was almost non-existent.

During those ‘lost years’ remote mountain communities lived as they had for centuries, tilling the land by hand, walking up and down incredible mountain hillsides just to go to market, and simply making do when things went wrong.

We have always walked up and down the mountain,” said Xhbane Qerimaj, who is in her sixties. “We still do.”

The difference is that today, the villagers of Gegyhsen, a tiny hamlet up the steepest of roads, have a furgon, or transport van, which almost comes to their doorstep. It stops a 45-minute trek short of it but that’s a vast improvement over the several hours it used to take Xhbane to get her vegetables and handicrafts to market.

Traditions are hard to lose up here in the Alps.

When food is hospitality

Take hospitality: when guests arrive unannounced, it takes an hour but a table sagging with mountain goodness materializes, with yoghourt, peppers, cheese, vegetables, soup. You know it’s just for guests because no one in the family eats. With typical mountain generosity, food is pushed at you until getting up is no longer possible.

Xhbane (left) and her sister, Sosa, live only 30km (19mi) apart but they see each other rarely because the road is so poor.

Outside we gaze down the slope at hundred-year old chestnuts, whose shade may well have shielded dissidents as they planned their escape to neighboring Montenegro, just over the top of the mountain, during the war or later, under Hoxha’s dictatorship.

Families like the Qerimajs live simply but well, making their own wine and raki (distilled fruit alcohol), chopping trees to build, tilling the land to eat and keeping bees for honey. The 21st century has crept in with the furgon and a thin wire can be spotted snaking through tree branches, bringing a flicker of electricity to once-near medieval hamlets.

With one foot shuffling in the past and another planted in the future, they’re hoping others will hop aboard the furgon to discover the savage beauty of these near-vertical slopes. Someday, villagers hope, travelers will come and stay and eat and enjoy the rustic joys of simple living for a day or a week.

It won’t be easy, though, because the Alps are not exactly on the beaten path.

The first step to getting to this hidden corner of the world is to take the Lake Komani ferry. There are several, one of which I rode – a slight old tub whose only claim to fame can be that it actually managed to float. Nearby, another ferry floated, its body a bus welded onto a small hull. As a historical aside, in the rough and tumble chaos of the post-Communist 1990s Albanian refugees took to welding their cars or buses to boat hulls and escaping across the straights of Otranto to Bari.

Just ignore the ferry, though, and jump in for the ride, extolled by travel guides as “one of the world’s classic boat journeys.”

The breathtaking journey across Lake Komani takes around four hours, including stops to pick up passengers, load merchandise and break down.

There are private taxis waiting at the other end, or you could always hop the furgon to the mountains. There is another route, along the new motorway with a detour through Kosovo but frankly, it’s not as interesting, and isn’t getting there is at least half the adventure?

These tiny slivers of road clinging to the crumbling mountainside are barely wide enough for one vehicle – when they’re navigable at all.

The Formidable Alps

Having tasted the hospitality and gentleness of the foothills, you’re now ready to graduate to the formidable Alps.

Seen close up, the mountainsides rise nearly as straight as walls, losing a bit of vegetation with each inch until pure rock is left. It’s a wild, disheveled place, with a history that matches its beauty. Despite the many conquests of Albania, the Alps were never vanquished and while Albania spent half the 20th century cut off from the world, the remote Alps were virtually cut off from the rest of Albania.

In winter, electricity is often down, sometimes for months at a time. Catherine Bohne, who works at the Rilindja Guest House, said they were stranded for 40 days by snow last winter.

In summer, the region turns into a hiking paradise. A wonderful trek from Valbona takes you over the mountain to Theth, a tiny village where people live much like they have for centuries. You can walk for hours or days, camp in the wild, and encounter every type of wildlife you’d want, like birds and plants, or a few you might not want, like wolves or brown bears (related to the Grizzly but smaller).

We don’t have any field guides, and little mapping has been done. This is a pristine ecosystem, as natural and untouched as you can get in Europe,” said Catherine, who is American and also runs Journey to Valbona, the only independent information website about the region. As a biologist, she should know.

The mountains are in danger, however. The road to Valbona is being widened and rather than a dusty difficult drive, buses will soon be careering up the valley, bringing day trippers to feast in fast food stalls and leave their weight in litter behind – at least that’s what will happen if the area’s nouveaux riche developers have their way.

So maybe it’s best to go quickly, before history begins to fade away before your eyes.

All photos by Anne Sterck.

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7 thoughts on “The Albanian Alps: Where Past and Future Meet”

  1. Thanks for the lovely insight to Albania. It sounds so unspoilt that it would definitely be worth visiting before it becomes popular. These hidden gems are the true discoveries.

    It is a little hard to think that such a place with limited resources is located in Europe. In the modern day I can’t imagine what it would be like for 40 days without electricity.

    1. It IS hard to imagine… I’d say 90% of the country is unspoilt. The other 10% unfortunately is not, but that’s why I’d steer away from the capital and the larger coastal towns. Stick to the villages and rural areas (which is most of the country) and you will be delighted and surprised!

  2. We drove into Skodher and that was certainly an adventure as the roads are really just being built even in that part of Albania. We had our dog with us and had heard that dogs aren’t really welcome, so we definitely need to go back on another trip when we can explore.

    1. I think this might be changing. In Tirana I saw a lot of pet dogs and I was told it was relatively new. Here’s hoping the acceptance of dogs will spread well beyond the capital – it makes such a difference when you can travel with peace of mind!

    1. Very easy, actually, because the minibuses (furgon) go pretty much everywhere. The only issue is figuring out where they leave from – sometimes, a street corner. You need an Albanian friend who can call and find out, and write you a proper sign to hold up on the street so the driver can see you. Quite easy, and cheap. There are also larger buses but they stay on the main roads- not as much fun.

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