It’s Tuesday, and already we are three days into the Peaks of the Balkans Trail. Although we had seen some photos of the trail and knew the mountains were impressive, we really hadn’t realised the immense scale of them, and just how stunning they are!
But to start at the beginning …
We left Shkroder at 7.30 on Sunday morning in a furgon – a beaten-up old minibus which runs a scheduled service to Thethi in the Albanian Alps.
We made our way out of town on the main road, past industrial units and out into the countryside, past fields of corn and potatoes, then lavender fields, before heading through woods and up into the mountains. As huge limestone peaks reared up in front of us, we started a steady ascent via many switchbacks on a perfect tarmac road. When we stopped for a break near the top of a huge pass, the views were stunning, and the air lovely and cool.
A little further on was a viewpoint, and as the minibus hit some ruts, I thought this must be a track to another car park. But no, the viewpoint was where the tarmac ended, and the rough track was our route down the other side of the pass to Thethi, about 1000 metres below. What a ride! The road was really steep, with enormous ruts and rocks, and no crash barriers to stop vehicles hurtling down the steep forested slope below. It was just about wide enough to pass other vehicles with great care, but this didn’t deter our driver from overtaking everything in sight, honking his horn to let others know he wanted to come past, and even sounding his police siren if they didn’t move out of the way quickly enough! But he was obviously confident in his driving skills, as he didn’t feel the need to break off his mobile phone conversation during these manoeuvres …
So it was a relief to arrive in Thethi, and after buying supplies of bread and cheese from a cafe bar, we set off on the trail. Although it was only about 11.30, already it was baking hot as we set off up a winding dirt road. Turning off along a packhorse trail, it got steeper and steeper, and we were very relieved when the trail went into shady beech woods. Emerging again into strong sunshine at a flower-filled meadow, we enjoyed a beautiful panoramic view of the limestone peaks, but really it was too hot to hang around for long, and we were glad to get back in the forest. But within an hour, the sunshine disappeared, and there was a distant rumble of thunder. With perfect timing, we arrived at a steep clearing with a bar made entirely of wood, with blaring Albanian folk music, and settled back with a couple of cool beers to wait for the rain to pass. A couple of Polish hikers stopped by, so it was good to chat to them for a while. And it was such a nice spot that inertia set in, and we asked the owner of we could camp nearby – he showed as the only flat ground available, next to his vegetable garden, and that was us sorted for the night.
The next morning we woke to fair weather – dry, but with more clouds around than previously. After a quick brew we headed up to the top of the Valbona Pass, about another 400m of ascent to an altitude of 1759m. The path was steep and exposed on both sides, so we were quite shocked to meet two English girls walking over it in strappy little sandals! It is quite a popular day hike over the Valbona Pass, a fact which was brought home to us when we stopped for a drink at a cafe bar by a spring about an hour on from the pass, and met hikers from Germany, Denmark, Norway and Canada. It was great to sit in the shade and chat with other hikers, hard work to put on our packs again and head out into the hot sun! “Luckily” that didn’t last long – clouds gathered, and a few big splats of rain turned into a heavy shower. But it was still ridiculously warm, and we couldn’t face putting our waterproofs on, so we just kept walking. It was actually quite refreshing, and once the rain stopped our clothes dried out in no time.
On reaching the Fusha e Gyes Hotel near Valbona, a shock awaited us – our map with route description was issued in 2011, and where the route onwards was described as being along a dirt road, there was now a broad tarmac highway. But that was our route, so that was the way we went. About 6km later, with very hot, sore feet and aching backs, we decided we’d had enough of roadwalking for one day! Even scenic roads are tough going. So we called in at the Restaurant Valbona “Relax” and enquired about camping – the owner told us we were welcome to camp in the garden, at no charge! Which was great, except we then felt obliged to eat at the restaurant (rather than just have a few drinks) when we really would rather have cooked some of the food which we were carrying in our packs, to save money and lighten our loads. Never mind, the food was good and due to a slight ordering error we ended up with a mountain of food which was enough for lunch as well.
So today we carried on down the tarmac road, before turning off on a steeply climbing dirt road for Cerem, up a side valley from the valley we followed yesterday, and close to the Montenegro border. We were met on the way by a young lad on a bike, who was friendly but didn’t speak much English, and he beckoned us to follow him to his home. A lot of villagers around here supplement their income by offering homestays, where a bed for the night, dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch costs around €30; we were hoping to avoid doing too many of these because of cost, and also we like our own space, but we seem to have wandered into one by accident! But maybe we’ll get the best of both worlds, as we have our tent set up in the field and have had the most amazing huge lunch provided by the family. We’ll sort out payment tomorrow. My only regret is that without eating the food we brought from Shkroder, our rucksacks aren’t getting any lighter!