Stones flew past the windows as the minibus skirted the edge of yet another giant pothole. The tyres crunched, and we bounced and swayed across a highway that was, at this point, lined with concrete bunkers that protruded from the ground like oversized mushrooms.
“They say if they’d taken the money they wasted on all these bunkers and spent it on the roads they would have been able to pave the whole country,” said Armand ‘Mandi’ Jegeni, our mountain guide.
It’s not just the roads that are rocky in Albania: the country has a tumultuous past. It’s been an independent country, part of the Ottoman Empire, a principality, a republic, a kingdom, ruled by Italy, then Germany and, up until 1992, a communist stronghold. Now a republic once more, and on the waiting list to join the EU, Albania is trying to move on, though it’s undoubtedly still pockmarked by its past. The most obvious reminders are the 700,000 pillbox bunkers that pepper the landscape from capital Tirana right into the mountains, where we were headed.
These bunkers were built under the rule of the supremely suspicious Enver Hoxha (1941-1985), who isolated the country from the rest of the world and became convinced that external invasion was imminent.
Like Albania itself, the bunkers have since undergone a makeover – many have been painted bright colours or converted into shops to demonstrate to visitors that things have changed.
“It would be great to get rid of them but they were built to withstand a tank. That’s why there are still so many around,” explained Mandi as the minibus screeched to a halt in the tiny hamlet of Boga. Boga is the gateway to Thethi National Park and the Bjeshket e Namuna, otherwise known as the Albanian Alps, or – more menacingly – the Accursed Mountains. The name stems from the seemingly impenetrable barrier these peaks present to travel. But though the tarmac road ends in Boga, we weren’t going to let that stop us, and began our ascent into the peaks via an old sheep pass.
Aside from the perceived inaccessibility of these mammoth knife-edge ridges and glacially scoured valleys, there is another reason this remote part of the country got an accursed reputation. This is where the traditions of the Kanun, a type of law created by 15th-century prince Leke Dukagjin, were practised.
“In this law it is said that if you murder someone then their family has the right to avenge the death by killing you,” explained Mandi. “This led to blood feuds and vendetta killings that could last for generations.”
As butterflies fluttered on the thermals and chestnut-brown cows sauntered into view below the crags, it was hard to believe this idyllic setting could be home to such
a macabre history.
As we were admiring the view, a woman emerged from a stone structure draped with fabric doors not far from where we stood. “Tungjatjeta!” she yelled in greeting, then extended one hand towards me (knitting needles and wool clutched in the other)
and introduced herself: “Duke Zekaj.”
“Her family are shepherds,” said Mandi. “They will live on this high pasture for the summer with their sheep. It’s not done that often anymore, but it’s easier and cheaper to come up and stay with your cattle.”
Tickled by our fascination with her way of life, Duke waved farewell and continued on with her knitting as we made a beeline for a col between two peaks. There we got our first glimpse of the Thethi Valley. Though cut off from the rest of the country come winter, and isolated by poor roads the rest of the year, the potential income generated by tourism hasn’t been overlooked here. Many families have opened their homes as guesthouse accommodation, hiking routes have been marked, guides published and visitor numbers are increasing.
“That’s not to say that all the locals always understand the attraction,” laughed Mandi, as we emerged from the path onto a dirt road where a gathering crowd watched in perplexed amusement as, one by one, Gore-Tex-clad hikers appeared from the trees. “If they walk it’s out of need, not for pleasure,” he said, pointing to the crowd.
Though the locals may not completely comprehend the joys of walking in these mountains, as we made our way to the Carku guesthouse – in the heart of these serrated edges, crumbling buttresses and precarious pinnacles – I couldn’t think of
a better way to explore them.
The next day, we took a path through a forest and down to the dry bed of the River Shala as the grass glowed phosphorescent green in the morning light. Ahead on a small rise sat the Highlander Bar, the perfect place for brunch. Run by Gjergj Ndoja, who has ingeniously harnessed the power of the water from the nearby spring to turn a spit roast and a ferris wheel, it sits in the shadow of Maja Arapit – a towering spike of a mountain that hides a network of caves under its limestone cloak. In the winter, the water and snow that’s collected in its crevices gushes out into the river; its effects can be severe.
“Times have been tough,” Gjergj said as the Turkish coffee bubbled on his tray of china cups. “When the river flooded last we lost everything and had to rebuild it all from scratch. We could have left the valley, but this is our home.”
This determined spirit is characteristic of those who live here. In communist times people were made to stay unless they had good reason to travel; now, with the freedom to move where they want, the population has diminished and only a few resolute families remain here year round.
Further down the river a ‘Lock-In Tower’ loomed on the horizon. This 17th-century structure is one of the few that remains from the Kanun era of Albania. “Murderers who were in danger of blood-feud killings would take refuge in these as a form of self-imprisonment,” explained Mandi. “While inside they were untouchable by the victim’s family and could defend themselves. In the meantime families would try to come to an agreement to avoid further bloodshed. It might take years, sometimes generations.”
As we neared Nderlysaj, the small village at the opposite end of the valley, and our base for the night, we passed the churning cascade of Grunasi Waterfall, the water licking the patchwork of moss on the rocky cliff beneath. Surveying this scene now, the idea of being cooped up in a tower with such stunning scenery tantalisingly close by seemed a truly cruel punishment.
The following morning, thunderclouds hung heavily over the mountains as we set off to Upper Kaprea at first light. This deserted valley has been abandoned by its residents; now all that remains is a clutter of houses, slowly decaying. As we approached the buildings a warm breeze rustled through the bushes, accompanied by a smell of fermenting plums that stung the nostrils.
“Raki!” came the cry as we stumbled across a family huddled around a contraption they’d set up to produce Albania’s most famous tipple. At one end the fruit boiled in a cauldron watched by two men with cigarettes hanging from their lips. At the other end, the resulting alcohol trickled out via a pipe into a vat, which two women, Maria and Mirja, dutifully bottled.
If one thing is certain on a visit to this country, it’s that you won’t be able to leave without trying this homebrew. So with a stack of plum stones on the floor at my feet, I sipped the liquor politely and felt it warming my throat with its aniseed flavour.
Thanks to the intoxicating refreshment, the trek back passed by in a pleasant haze and we arrived at the guesthouse just in time for a home-cooked dinner. The scent of freshly baked cornbread wafted from the kitchen. In the mountains, bread is a staple food as are the array of fruit and vegetables growing in the meadows that you pass on the way to these simple homes. Meal times are a great social occasion with the whole family gathering around for nourishment and friendly banter. Other than Albanian, most people in these valleys speak only a little English or broken Italian (courtesy of the TV channels they could craftily pick up from their neighbouring country during the former media-controlled communist era) but we still talked, ate and laughed well into dusk.
As the sun began to lose its battle with the darkness, I found my way to my bunkbed and watched through the window as the mountains melted away into the moonlight.
Globules of rain woke me, pelting off the glass with a satisfying ting as dawn arrived. It was time to leave this valley for Valbona. The options were a nine-hour drive on gravel roads or a walk over a high mountain pass. The latter was the obvious choice.
The ascent kicked in immediately, weaving through trees in elaborate zig-zags. Hired mules trotted ahead with the luggage, making light work of the muddy track. Halfway up, the forest gave way to a meadow fringed by rosehip bushes, before turning to loose rock and boulders.
Target-like blobs of red and white waymarked the remainder of the route to the col where a sign pointed back to Thethi, 4.5km down. Here a 360-degree panorama stretched around us.
White peaks bobbed above the tree line like brittle buoys in a green sea; colourful houses dotted the valley floors either side of the pass; and the dried-up river down in Valbona snaked along the valley floor in a chalky slither. It was hard to believe that it wasn’t teeming with tourists.
On my final walking day I climbed up to the old border-control hut above the town of Kukaj. As I stood on the very edge of Albania, gazing across at its saw-toothed mountain scape, flanked by the vivid palette of wildflowers swaying in the breeze, I thought that part of the reason why it has escaped the crowds is down to its location. Adjacent to Greece, with its historical monuments and white-sand beaches, and just over the Adriatic from Italy’s vineyards, Dolomites and seaside towns, it has – quite simply – been missed.
After a while I headed back into Valbona. As I did, hay bales began lining the gravel path. In a funny way these towering stacks reminded me of the concrete bunkers that had edged the roads that brought me to the Albanian Alps.
You can’t help but think, perhaps their leader was onto something? Looking around me it was obvious that, with walking this good, an invasion was imminent. A place this spectacular can’t stay a secret for long: the tourists will soon be coming, and it will take more than bunkers to stop them.
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