Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Into the Northern Wilderness

The long and bumpy road
Last weekend we went north- far into Northeast Albania to the mountain village of Thethi (If you look on the map on the right side of this page, Thethi is approximately 70 kilometers northeast of Shkoder).  Distance wise, Thethi isn’t that far from Tirana; culturally and geographically, however, this tiny mountain village that is cut off from the outside world for six months of the year, is a world apart from Albania’s noisy, pollution filled capital city.  This predominately Catholic village is, and always has been, so isolated that through the years invading armies and empires bypassed it entirely.  Access isn't easy and visiting Thethi is very much like going back in time.

Prime real estate
With the exception of a couple of detours due to a lack of signage, the drive from Tirana took five hours.  The first two sped by relatively quickly since we were on Albania’s main north-south highway.  North of Shkoder, things came to a bumpy halt as we turned off of the main road and onto a narrow, albeit paved, country road that twisted its way through the valley floor and up into the mountains. 

In the village of Boga the road abruptly turned into a rutted, gravel and boulder filled path.  Initially Glenn thought the road was merely washed out and the pavement would return.  For the next three hours we bumped along hairpin switchbacks as we climbed up through the Qafa e Tërthores pass (1,630 meters high)  then descended into the Thethi valley below.  The views of the snow covered Albanian Alps were breath taking, as were the road conditions.  (Only in Albania would such a road even warrant mention on the national map as an “important secondary road”).  We encountered only a handful of other vehicles along our route and when we did, it took a lot of back and forth negotiating for all of the vehicles to pass by each other safely.
The Shala River in Thethi

View from the old grist mill
In Thethi we stayed in a traditional Albanian guest house.  Although geographically isolated, Thethi has an emerging eco-tourism industry due its proximity to Thethi National Park which is a part of the Balkans Peace Park Project.  As such, families throughout the valley have opened parts of their homes into guest quarters where visitors can stay and partake in traditional Albanian food, drink, and hospitality. The Çarku family served as our hosts for the night and while their home was far from luxurious, it provided us with a glimpse into traditional multi-generational Albanian families.  Their warm Albanian hospitality made up for the lack of hot water, no electricity after nine thirty at night and  beds and pillows that felt like cement slabs.  (I’m still trying to block out the images of the scorpions in the otherwise clean bathroom).  We dined on home grown, produced, and cooked food by candlelight and looked out into the inky darkness of the night. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where it was truly that dark.  By daylight, the sweeping views from the second floor veranda allowed us to see the Shala River , Qafa e Pajës, Valbona Pass and beyond.  At night, the village was a black abyss filled with unidentifiable night sounds.

The highlight of our stay was the hike up to the Thethi Waterfall, a crystal clear and icy cold fall that cascaded 25 meters down into a deep pool.  Of course, I should know that a “quick walk” with a member of the Albanian Special Forces will be anything but easy.  Somehow four adults and three small children safely made the hike along the river and up over boulders, crossing three streams, trekking through a field of grazing sheep, and avoiding stepping on one snake before arriving at our destination.  (Ropes were harnessed around the two young boys in our group to prevent unwanted escapes off of the path). Our efforts were rewarded with not only the spectacular view of the falls but that of the valley and mountains below and beyond us.  Even Sidney was impressed; he loved splashing in the water and looking at the animals.  At one point on our walk along the river he asked us to stop so he could look at the river flowing below us.  He then signed deeply and mixing his English and Albanian into a single sentance said “so uji” (so water). 

Family time at Thethi Waterfall

The entire weekend was an awe inspiring experience that reiterated how beautiful and wild parts of Albania still are. I'm a city girl at heart but my favorite parts of Albania are those that are inaccessible and far from the urban centers.  This trip reminded how lucky I am to have the opportunity to experience a place so few people have the chance to visit.  Yes, it was rustic and rural and as I lay in the pitch black darkness at two in the morning I longed for my own soft bed.  Next week will find me staying in much more comfortable accommodations in Croatia but bugs and all, I wouldn't trade this past weekend for anything.

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