Part of the old town
Shkoder > Theth > Valbona > Lake Komani > Shkoder
And so here I am, in Albania, a place I have wanted to visit since I first came to Europe in 1990 and already surpassing all expectations – in a good way ofcourse!
It is culturally quite different to the former Yugoslavian countries I’ve been visiting and I am still trying to adjust to the change. Ofcourse they share common traits too, how can you not when you are neighbours, but for one, the language is very, very different – to my ears a hybrid of Turkish/Italian intonations. All of a sudden I am absolutely bamboozled by everything it seems. I can’t understand not one word, nor make myself understood.
And a very pleasant surprise is the attractiveness of the men (and women) here. Fairer hair, blue-eyed and honey coloured skin. Well hello!
But back to the ride... Shkoder was only 36km from the border and it was 36km of non-stop houses (and rubbish) it seemed. Not very interesting but it was flat. And arriving in town at around 3.30pm meant that most places were shut for the lunchtime ‘siesta’ - something I hadn’t come across for
On the way to Theth
Mountain, after mountain, after mountain
a long time. The first hotel I tried was closed. I even had a man try and rustle them up. No chance. He suggested another one which was also in my guidebook. They had no rooms. Back to the town square where I was approached by a man asking if I needed help. Well actually, yes. I wanted directions to another hotel. ‘why pay so much?’ He suggested I stay at his hotel instead. I guess if you’re touting for business the main square is the place to do it. And before I knew it, I was committed to a 7am minibus trip to Theth, in Albania’s northern highlands, and a night’s accommodation with full board. I could have committed to more but have to say it was all a bit much to take in no matter how many times he explained my suggested itinerary – especially on the first night in a country. That is why I decided on the one night. The rest would work itself out.
So, bleary eyed, it was up and packed by 7am. Dragana would stay at the hotel along with most of my gear. All I would take with me is what
Buni i Thores Pass 1786m
Yay we made it. Now it's all downhill...
I needed for a couple of days hiking in the mountains and my laptop because you never know when the mood to write will strike.
What a bus trip that was. There were only 6 of us – 3 tourists, 2 locals and the driver. It was a tarmaced road to Boge and then it was 26km of jolting, bone crunching and pot-holed gravel which really is putting it nicely. We climbed slowly to the pass which stood at a height of 1786m. The road getting there was very narrow with the mountain rising above us on one side and sheer drops down (down, down, down) with no barriers on the other. And ofcourse it wouldn’t be a mountain road without it being winding. It was nice to get to the top and stretch the legs before making the descent into the valley of Thethi. Another jolting, bone-crunching ride down.
I had the good fortune to have shared the minibus with an Italian (German speaking) couple and together we went for a hike later in the afternoon. It was nice to do something with others for a change. It has been, and I knew this would be the
case too, quite a solitary experience this whole trip so it was nice to have company. And it was an opportunity to ask questions about what they paid for what. I was already beginning to see I had been taken on a little bit of a ride. Still, the scenery was amazing, the experiences also and well, I will put all of this (the whole Shkoder, Teth, Valbona, Lake Komani) down to a ‘learning’ experience.
The evening meal was a bit of an um, uncomfortable affair. Just me in this house sitting at a big table surrounded by enough food to feed a family – roasted greed peppers, fried aubergine, yoghurt and garlic dip, homemade bread, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled ochre, mok (which I think is cream?) made by the woman too. And then out came the soup. It was a clear soup. Clear enough for me to see bits of unrecognizable meat. Um, I don’t eat meat I said in Albanian. It was like I had said I don’t like your cooking. The look on the poor woman’s face. I tried in vain to pacify her waving my arms at the mountain of food and saying enough, super,
Buni i Thores Pass
And a beautiful iridescent blue beetle
perfect. Salami? No I said shaking my head (the way we do to indicate no). Well, over here the shake of the head means yes so out came the salami (a kind of round spam) fried and all. What could I do? I smiled and ate.
And the next morning (at 6.30am!) at breakfast I was asked what I wanted to take on my picnic. A sandwich maybe with some mok and jam? An egg? Ok an egg. What I got was the leftover salami, an egg and the roasted green pepper. Together, I have to say it wasn’t bad. Probably best to go with the flow.
And so, by 7am I was on my way to find the path that would take me over the pass to Valbona. This is apparently an ancient path according to my guidebook and it certainly is still used today by the locals and mules to transport whatever they need to transport over (sometimes tourists!) as well as a lot of tourists who venture into this part of the Albanian Highlands to do this hike. I must admit I was very anxious. Six hours of hiking on my own. Not something I
really wanted to do but I really didn’t want to wait in the hope that another lone tourist might arrive at the guesthouse and want company too. Some people just want to be alone. So off I went – anxiously.
Finding the path is not always easy and there probably is no harm in the residents of Teth doing some waymarking before the commencement of the actual trail just to help out a little and avoid confusion. But, whenever I felt lost someone miraculously always appeared. First an elderly couple. He spoke Italian and, with this and his hand actions I ‘got’ what he was saying and found the start of the path. Faleminderit (thank you in Albanian). I then missed the bridge and was thinking really, I have to ford this mighty gushing river? I backtracked and came across two young men (clean and handsome in freshly laundered and ironed shirts and jeans and very clean trainers). Where is the path? One of them walked with me a little way and pointed to the little footbridge I had missed and asked if I needed a guide? Um, no. Think I should be OK (not sounding at all confident!)
And the final time, when I was walking through the forest I lost sight of the markers and was backtracking again and along came an English/Canadian guy I had met the previous day (who had cycled to Theth no less!!!) and, in his eccentric English style, without breaking stride or making eye contact said yes, it is easy to get lost in the forest. Indeed. And then followed on with some sage advice – make sure you have peripheral vision at all times, look around and steady on. And with that he was off. All clean white shirt, combed hair and not a bead of sweat in sight. Me on the other hand…
I did find his words really rather comforting. This was not a race but my anxiety meant that I was exerting more energy than necessary on the uphill all because I wanted it over and done with instead of slowing down and taking it easier. After the apparition (honestly that was kind of what it felt like) I just steadied on. Still didn’t like going up though.
And then, what is that I hear? Albanian turbo-folk music? Really? Am I having auditory hallucinations? What is
Theth - Kulla
A kulla is a lock-in tower and was used as refuge by a male was involved in a blood feud or vendetta. interesting book to read on this tradition is Ismail Kadare's Broken April. I know Albert Park library has a copy.
going on. But yes, it was Albanian turbo-folk and it was coming from a strategically placed café/bar in the middle of nowhere. Ofcourse I’m going to have a coffee. Tea and warm milk (yes warm milk with a little bit of a skin!) for breakfast does not a heart starter make. When I gave him Leke instead of Euro he looked rather displeased at being handed such a dishevelled note. Mate, I can’t believe that they still have these in circulation either. It looked and felt like it had been through a thousand washes and even more hands.
I don’t know whether it was the coffee or the words of advice or just a change in my thinking but it was better going (but not easier!). And, it wasn’t too long after that I surprisingly reached the pass. Yay! It’s all downhill from here – in a good way ofcourse! I hadn’t pulled out my camera before then (obviously was not in the right headspace for it even though the scenery on the uphill was equally as amazing). I felt quite proud of myself. Little ol’ me got little ol’ me here with my own two legs and my
Can't you see I'm trying to text
Theth - apparently not in the middle of nowhere.
own steam. Who would have thought.
It was a slow downhill. Steady on was my motto. Lunch was had in the meadow watching the clouds getting lower and lower. Time to move. And look, what do we have here? Another café in the middle of nowhere. I’ll have to stop. Simoni’s café on the Valbona side had the most delicious yoghurt (sour and smooth) and the best coffee (strong and sweet). A wonderful little rest stop indeed.
The time they gave to do the walk is 6 hours. On the Theth side they say it’s a 15km walk, on the Valbona side 9km. Either way I sure wasn’t making it in six! In fact, I think I got to Rrogami at around 5? I can’t remember. I was tired. I asked some people if they knew how far to Valbona. Five kilometres. I think my face said it all. I was quickly found a car that was travelling in that direction, quick, quick, get in and the poor husband and wife were entrusted with setting me down at the guesthouse I wanted to stay at. Sitting there in the back of the car, in that little enclosed space
Theth - Traditional stone house
with steeply pitched wooden shingled roof and small windows. And always behind one of these beautiful little wooden twig fences. Some of them were even woven.
I became painfully aware of how much I sweated and the consequence of that. I really was rather smelly. Kind Kosovars (they were from Kosovo) I’m ever so grateful to you for putting up with my stench and finding my guesthouse. All with a smile. Incredible.
It was such a welcome relief to finally put down my pack. I took the cheap room (bunk bed) and had it all to myself. I was warned that there was a problem with the electricity and that things were being run with their own generator. Unfortunately that meant that there was no hot water. At this stage I just wanted to not smell like I did. No problem. Cold shower is OK. WHAT WAS I THINKING???? That water comes straight from the mountain into the house!!!! To say I felt invigorated is an understatement. It was the fastest wash in history. I think I held my breath throughout. But boy did I feel clean afterwards. Such a nice feeling being clean.
That evening I had no appetite for food. After going out and photographing a whole catalogue of flowers (honestly they are absolutely exquisite, varied and bountiful in this valley) I
came back and was tucked up in bed by 9, asleep at 9.01pm. I didn’t get up until 9 the following morning. It was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a looooooooooooooooooong time.
That day I creaked around. I was so sore and incredibly stiff. I really felt my age. All thoughts of going on a little hike around disappeared. Instead I spent it dozing, writing and reading and gazing up at the mountains in awe. Not a bad place to do it in.
That evening it was another I don’t eat meat occasion. It really puzzles them I know but to me it would be a wasteful to take it and leave the majority of the poor animal on the plate. Best to leave it to someone who will really enjoy it. Anyway, the potatoes were nice. And the mother made halwa which was also nice.
It was off to bed straight after dinner. Needless to say getting to sleep on a full stomach is not easy but I really wanted to go to bed to get enough sleep so I wouldn’t feel like a zombie the following morning after my 3.45am start. Yes, you
An Albanian cow
Complete with headdress.
read right. We were heading out the door by 4.30am to make sure I got the Lake Komani ferry from Fiers by 6am. Ugh. I felt like I didn’t sleep a wink and I looked like it too. Mind you, Skender, who drove didn’t look much better…
But we got there in time, that’s the main thing. And yes, I paid a small fortune for that privilege but that also was a ‘live and learn’ experience. All this living and learning… On the ferry were a couple of Dutch women who, as it turns out, had also stayed at the same hotel in Shkoder and also in Theth and, like me, were returning to the hotel to pick up their gear. Carmen and Astrid were adventurous spirits who had cycled in some interesting places, Georgia and Morocco to name just two and made great company for the hours we spent together. By the time we got to Shkoder it already felt like we’d packed a whole day’s worth in but it was only 11am.
But just a few words on that ferry ride on Lake Komani. The ferry itself looks like its seen better days that’s for sure
Theth - Catholic Church
Due to its remoteness the Ottomans never really got a stronghold in this area hence the Catholic Church. This church was built in 1896.
but it provides a service to the locals who live in this harsh environment, all steep cliffs and gorges, rising out of the lake’s jade waters , with the occasional farmhouse dotted here and there, and for the tourists a definite wow factor. Wow because it’s so beautiful and wow because people actually live here. Their fortitude is astounding.
Once in Shkoder we all sat down to have a well-earned coffee and then it was time to get changed and repack. Even though it meant cycling in the heat of the day I really just wanted to get back on my bike and move again. And so I did. This is night number two I have spent in Lezhe at the Hotel Liss whose receptionist and manager (another lady) have been ever so helpful with my requests. But more on that, and what else has happened in another post. Tomorrow I hope to head on direction Peshkopi/Debar. More mountains. I’m tired already.
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D MJ Binkley
Dave and Merry Jo Binkley
A pile of food
I see the scene before my eyes. You sitting behind a pile of food waving your arms to the pour women, trying to explain you don't want meat. Another inspiring blog, Bernii!
Food and more food
You've probably been in the same position!
Yes indeed there is nothing quite like a Cold Shower to remind us why we have lovely Hot Water. It's a good test of character to endure them for more than a nano second.
I didn't think my will to be clean was stronger than the thought of a cold shower but it is. It sure is one way to test that you're still alive!