It wasn’t long after we departed Peja before the scenery became dramatic. The four wheel drive carrying me and my guide, Mentor, carefully navigated winding roads surrounded by green mountains until suddenly, we came to a stop near a turn in the road. This was it. Time to start my eight day trek through Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania following the route known as the Peaks of the Balkans.
I first stumbled across the Peaks of the Balkans website as I was researching possible destinations in the Balkans for a summer trip. The entire route was just fully waymarked in 2013 and sounded about as off the beaten path as you can get in Europe – so it totally intrigued me! The route goes from village to village in the mountains, with guesthouses along the way, meaning there was no need to carry a sleeping bag or tent.
While the full route, covering 192 kilometers, would take at least 10 days to hike, I decided to go with an eight-day itinerary that would include a few vehicle transfers to speed things along, skipping portions of the route that primarily followed asphalt roads and were less scenic.
Day one would be a short day, starting a few miles outside of Peja, a town just over an hour away from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. It was around 10:30 a.m. when were dropped at the side of the road. I quickly slathered on some sunscreen and mosquito spray and hoisted my 32 liter North Face backpack onto my back. Against my better judgment, I purchased a new pack for the trip. My 60 liter pack seemed far too large and my 28 liter day pack seemed just a bit too small. I would soon realize, though, that this new pack was not ideal for multi-day trekking.
It was ridiculously hot when we started. The temperatures in Kosovo in the days leading up to my visit were in the mid-90s to 100 Fahrenheit (35 to 37 Celsius) and this day was no exception. I was sweating profusely within minutes. The hike started off on asphalt road, which soon turned to a wide dirt road covered with rocks. We passed a small village and a cemetery (see above) and I got my first glimpse of traditional food storage “buildings” used in the mountains (see below).
After two hours of a continuous uphill climb, we reached a shepherd’s hut, where an old man sitting in a gazebo invited us to sit and join him. Mentor chatted with the man in Albanian and translated bits and pieces for me here and there. Not long after we sat down, the man grabbed a bottle of whiskey sitting on the table and tried to hand it to me. I laughed and shook my head – not knowing how much further we had to go, whiskey did not seem like a good idea!
The man turned out to be 85 years old (he certainly did not look that old!) and he proudly told us how he built the hut behind us himself. He took us inside to show off photographs of his father and grandfather, as well as a calendar featuring former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He told us that to him, there was first God, then former Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova, and then Bill Clinton.
As we were getting to ready to move on, a storm rolled in, so we stayed a bit longer to wait it out. Once we were back on the trail, it was another hour until we reached the village of Reka e Allages and the guesthouse run by a man named Mustafa. Altogether, with only three hours of hiking, all along well groomed paths, it was an easy start to the trek. After tea at the guesthouse, I took a nap for a couple hours until it was time for dinner. There was a group of seven Belgian men staying at the guesthouse as well, so we all ate together. The meal was quite good – tasty rice, chicken, yogurt, cucumber and tomato salad and cornbread, made especially for me since I can’t eat normal bread made with wheat flour.
After dinner, I showered, wrote in my journal, did some stretching and then called it an early night, around 9:30 p.m. I had a feeling things would only get more difficult in the days ahead, so I wanted to rest up as much as possible!