Talking to one of the guided groups staying at the guest house in Doberdol, we were surprised that even though they had chosen the “Peaks of the Balkans Tour” itinerary from their tour operator, this didn’t include all of the three day section from Milishevc to Babino Polje. Their tour was a bit more like “edited highlights” than our usual every-inch-of-the-way-on-foot approach, and it seemed that long sections of this northernmost part of the loop didn’t make the grade. So our expectations of this section of the route were low, but in spite of a bit too much roadwalking and some seriously bad weather, we still enjoyed it and thought it definitely worth doing.
Leaving the front porch of the guest house in Milishevc where we had camped, it was a few metres down to the stream then a steep 360 metre ascent up a rocky hillside. The first bit went well, as we sweated our way up following the red and white markers painted on rocks, but then we lost the markings and ended up doing some pretty tough cross-country hiking through low lying juniper, pine trees and scree to get to the col. Easier going through some high meadows (startling a small herd of chamois on the way) led us to the next big feature of the day’s walk – a 1200 metre descent to Rugova Camp. The route was down a steeply dropping valley, so there was little breeze, and it was absolutely sweltering. We passed a group of four American hikers sweating their way up – making us very glad we were going downhill! Even better, there was a restaurant at the bottom where we sat in the shade and guzzled cold Coke, pizza and salad, and felt very much revived.
Unfortunately we still had a few miles on tarmac and dirt road still to go to our destination at Reke e Alleges, so we headed out into the hot sun again. Another 400 metre ascent to finish the day, during which we met two fellow English hikers also doing the Peaks of the Balkans hike, and we arrived at Panorama Guest House. Set in a clearing in the forest, with a few chalets dotted around, they showed us where to pitch our tent, then invited us to sit on their porch and put ice cold glasses of orangeade in our hands. It was so good we asked for another! Feeling very much revived, we pitched our tent, showered and cooked our meal of couscous and tinned smoked fish. The lady of the house asked if we needed anything else, we said no, but she obviously didn’t believe us as she brought over plates of meat and cabbage, which we couldn’t refuse … Utterly stuffed, we then spent a very pleasant couple of hours chatting to her husband, drinking beer, as he talked about the impact of the Balkan conflict, and how things are in Kosovo today. Like many Kosovans, he had avoided the conflict by visiting relatives in Germany.
The next morning his wife served us an excellent breakfast of chicken noodle soup, omelette and bread – no salad for once, much to Neil’s relief! After some fond farewells, we set off up the hill through forest and meadow. Up until now we had been mostly walking in a north easterly direction, but now we turned decisively west along a dirt road to start making the loop round. Unfortunately this was the start of a long stretch on roads, both dirt and tarmac; we took a wrong turn; clouds rolled in and it started to rain. We soon realised our mistake, but as we had traded about 6km on road in the rain for 4km on road in the rain with a lot less descent and ascent, we weren’t going to backtrack to put it right!
Then we had a steep descent through dense forest on the way to Kuchishte (we were pretty sure it was bear scat we saw on the path) then took cover in a restaurant as the heavens opened. Our destination, Guri i Kuq, was 350m of ascent up the hill; although we’d had enough of road-walking by now, it meant 350m less ascent the following day, so up we went.
Scarred by memories of Austria, and the cost of buying anything at the top of a steep-but-driveable mountain road, I expected Guri i Kuq to be a posh, overpriced resort where they wouldn’t allow us to camp. Umm, wrong on all counts. True, the waiters were smartly dressed and the food was excellent, but the bill for dinner, beer, bed (ok, the temptation of a proper bed was too much) and breakfast came to about €52. Also the hotel was half built, we had to wait for our room while they replaced the windows (it was ready very soon after!!!), there were hens running around the outside dining area with the spectacular views, and as for our bathroom, the less said about it the better!
So as we lay in bed listening to the rain hammering down early the next morning, we were glad we’d paid to stay indoors, and resigned ourselves to a wet day’s hiking.
After a fine big breakfast (omelette again!) we put on all our waterproof clothing that we’d been lugging around pointlessly for days, and set off up the hill towards the Montenegro border. Hill fog obscured the tops of the mountains, and it drizzled a bit, but by and large it wasn’t as bad as expected. The fog cleared a bit as we rounded the small glacial lake of Liqeni i Kucishtes, but closed in again as we wound our way up the craggy hillside, first to Schkodres Pass then Jelenak Pass at 2272 metres. Thick cloud meant we were very reliant on our GPS and the red and white markings on rocks to find our way; with lots of rocky knolls, hollows and ridges it was impossible to make sense of how our route led on. At this height the wind was quite strong, and we were soaked with sweat and rain inside our waterproofs. We got really cold, and dug inside our packs for hats and gloves.
After a long traverse along the ridge in rain and fog, we reached the small col where the description on the map reads: “The path is not always visible because of the long grass, but it is not difficult to reach the village since we have a clear view of it.” Er, no, not when you’re in thick hill fog and the village is 680m below! We tried to find a good way down but ended up heading straight downhill through juniper and bilberry bushes, until finally we dropped out of the cloud, found a tiny path and reached the valley bottom.
The next challenge was to find a guesthouse. Although the map told us there were guesthouses in the village of Babino Polje, the houses of the village were scattered over a large area of the valley floor and sides (typical of villages in this area), also guesthouses don’t have signs outside to indicate that they are guesthouses – you just wander around with your rucksack at the end of a hot and tiring day until somebody shouts “hello”, or you spot some other hikers, then you go to that house and enquire about accommodation. And so it was with Babino Polje. But what a great guesthouse it was! We were really happy to meet up again with the two English hikers we’d seen at Reke e Alleges, Simon and Dan, who had teamed up with two Finnish girls and were staying at the guesthouse. And our host, Armend Alija, was outstanding. We all sat on cushions on the floor in front of the fire, and he served us an amazing dinner of chicken noodle soup with egg, fantastic crusty bread, enormous portions of moussaka, and salad made of vegetables from their garden. Dessert was a delicate little sponge topped with cherries, followed by mountain tea made from herbs Armend had collected nearby. All cooking was done in a woodburning oven outside, and the food was absolutely delicious. Armend clearly loved cooking, and took great pride in using local food and presenting it beautifully.
So although this section hasn’t had as many scenic highlights as the previous sections (and those that there were, were hidden in hill fog) it has still been good, and we’ve enjoyed some warm hospitality along the way.