I awoke with the sun on the fourth day of the Peaks of the Balkans hike. Exhausted from the previous day, I lay in bed in my Plav hotel room until just after 6 a.m., but then dragged myself up to go check out the nearby lake before meeting my guide, Mentor, for breakfast. Plav was the only town I would really visit during the hike and it would have been nice to explore it some more, but my legs just didn’t have the energy.
After a breakfast of three hard boiled eggs, ham and cheese, Mentor and I left by car to go to the town of Vusanje. And while this official leg of the trek goes from Vusanje to Theth in Albania, we drove about 3.5 kilometers further into the mountains, cutting out a couple hours of hiking. After starting in a small meadow, we headed through some woods and soon arrived at what looked like another open meadow, but was actually a dried up lake. The way down to the “lake” was another non-existent path through tall grass, which immediately frustrated me and reminded me of my difficulties the previous day.
It didn’t last long, though, as we quickly reached the lake and crossed it to find an old stone border marker from Soviet times. Goodbye Montenegro, hello Albania!
From there, we started a very long ascent through an oak forest that turned into a pine forest. The terrain was relatively smooth and the switchbacks through the trees made it not seem quite so steep, even though we ascended about 500 meters in just 1.4 kilometers. Once we emerged from the forest, the route was quite flat or very gradually uphill. We passed a bunker from Soviet times and an old military outpost. We also passed a shepherd’s dog that barked and barked at us, but luckily never got too close.
Our high point for the day was the Pejes pass, where we stopped for lunch, sitting on some large rocks near a wooden cross at the top. It was crazy windy and I almost lost my hat! I also had a heck of a time eating the lunch that the hotel in Plav packed for me – a salad with chicken, tomatoes and cucumbers and a ridiculous amount of dressing! Not only that, they didn’t pack a fork to eat it with! So as my hair blew into my face, I used my fingers to eat as much of the salad as I could and then wiped them clean with baby wipes.
Then came the descent. More than two hours of nothing but downhill switchbacks covered in all sizes of rocks, which was almost worse than the descent through slippery tall grass the previous day. I constantly felt like I was slipping and falling (and did have to catch myself with my poles a few times to keep myself from toppling over!). My method of hiking steep downhills is similar to how I used to ski down steep hills – lots of zig zags with my feet at an angle, sort of like a snow plow. My guide, though, kept telling me I should just point my feet straight downhill and we actually started arguing about it – I insisted I would lose my balance and slip more if I did it his way.
The other challenge of hiking downhill for two straight hours was what to do when nature called. There weren’t a ton of bushes to squat behind, but about halfway down I found one that I thought was tall enough to hide me in case Mentor happened to glance up from the path down below me.
Once we reached the bottom, we still have several kilometers to go to actually reach the guesthouse in Theth. Along the way, we stopped to refill my water bottle with spring water and then ran into a young couple from Austria who had just arrived in Theth and were trying to figure out where to stay.
Theth is one of the main tourist centers in northern Albania (to the extent any of the villages could be considered a tourist center) and as we approached our guesthouse, I was a bit turned off by the loud music blaring and the large number of people hanging out in the yard – I really just wanted some peace and quiet. Luckily, there was another guesthouse just up the hill that was completely quiet so both the Austrians and I got rooms up there. I showered and washed some clothes in the sink and then napped for about an hour and a half. Then I returned to the first guesthouse for dinner, which was excellent – lamb kebabs, a huge plate of French fries and a cold Coke.
And thus I was halfway done with the Peaks of the Balkans trek!
Total distance hiked: 21 kilometers (13 miles)
Total hours hiked: about 7 hours
Total ascent: 989 meters; Total descent: 1337 meters