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Published: June 24th 2018
Any preconceptions we had of Tirana – grey, totalitarian, unfriendly - are blown away within minutes of arrival. Everyone is friendly, greeting us with a smile. The old buildings may have been grey once but they are now painted in primary colours. The once-grey central square is in the process of being “greened” with mature trees. The World Cup has just started so the main square is the Fan Zone with a giant screen, fairground rides and food and drink stalls. This is not the Albania we had imagined.
A walk around the capital city takes in mosques, the cathedral, bridges, public buildings, museums, cafes and parks. Some are old, usually renovated, and some are new, all glass and concrete. Everything seems to have happened in the last 20 years. The 20 years since communism lost its grip on Albania.
There are still signs of the paranoia of the communist years. Concrete sentry boxes stand empty outside public buildings. The steel dome tops of sunken gun emplacements, built to stop enemy invaders, now have flowers painted on them. The watch towers over roads and dams stand empty.
In a country that feels, and looks, “Western” it is good
remember how recent the bad times were. In 1980, a young Albanian was thinking about travelling to another part of the country to see a girl he had met. Foolishly, he told his best friend what he was thinking of doing. Two days later he was arrested and jailed for 12 years for just thinking of travelling without a permit. The young man blamed the system rather than his friend and, on his release, renewed the friendship. Our young mountain guide related this story, the jailed man was his father.
From Tirana we head north into The Accursed Mountains. A ferry carries along Koman Lake before a drive further into the mountains. Then a gentle walk up a mountain stream brings us to Valbona, once just a cluster of farms but now dotted with small guesthouses. We are surrounded by huge mountains, 2900 metres high and snow topped. They look formidable.
We have three days walking in Valbona valley. Over the first two days we walk trails that lead up from the valley floor into woods and plum orchards and on to high pastures. There are wildflowers everywhere, often underfoot. Bees, butterflies and beetles zoom around us. When
we stop to get our breath back, the views are spectacular. Green valleys framed by steep mountain faces, their sides clad in pines, often juniper, the smell of which makes us think of gin!
In the third day we walk up and over the Accursed Mountains into the Thethi valley. We have enlisted mules to carry our luggage and they head on out before us. Slowly we climb through pine forest then across meadows. Our first surprise is snow. We had, of course, seen snow from the valley floor but here it is heaped in every nook and cranny, despite the heat of the day. Our second surprise is suddenly finding a shepherd's hut that now serves cold drinks to hot walkers. Thank you Simoni, an ex-shepherd with a new vocation.
Rested, our uphill trek continues into scree and rock until a final traverse brings us to the top of the pass at 1800 metres. Behind us Valbona valley, ahead lies our goal, the Thethi valley.
Our descent is steep and stony with many a slip and slide. And some rain. But soon we are drinking strong coffee in Thethi's cafe-cum-shop. Coffee in Albania only comes strong.
I should also mention the food that starts our days: frankfurters, feta cheese, hard-boiled eggs, home cooked doughnuts (looking like deep fried flat fish), hunks of bread , fig and raspberry jams and a slice of fruit sponge cake. All washed down with slightly perfumed black tea.
Our packed lunches are a bag containing one of everything from breakfast, plus an apple.
Thethi village is compact, set around a small church. The mountains initially seem less intimidating until we realise that the only way in is over the mountain passes. Thethi used to be cut off for months every winter and its population dropped to just 20 families. Tourism has caused families to move back and the road is now only closed “for a few weeks” each year.
Walking out of Thethi back towards Tirana can only mean one thing - heading uphill to a pass. It is a long relentless climb out, 960 metres ascent in 3 hours. At the top we find more strong coffee and our first tarmac road for a while.
Albania has been a land of surprises. We have loved the people and the excellent walking, though this has, at times,
been tough. What a beautiful country.
Next stop – Kosovo.
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