Monday, August 26, 2013

North By Northeast (Albania)

The Valbona River

Over the past two years we've explored just about every corner of Albania but had yet to visit the far northeastern reaches of the country.  Last summer we visited the mountain village of Thethi but never made it over the mountain pass to Thethi's wild cousin, the Valbona River Valley.  Located in the Albanian Alps just west of where Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro meet, we had been told by many people that this isolated and beautiful area is a must see for us before we leave.  So this past weekend we finally got there.  As is the case with most travel in Albania, getting from one place to another is never easy but it is always an adventure.  Although the country is small, Valbona is so isolated that getting there takes time.  Until a few years ago, the easiest and most direct route involved a rickety car ferry that would carry travelers across Lake Koman to the village of Fierze.  The scenery is supposed to be magnificent and Lonely Planet has repeatedly cited this route as one of the most impressive in the world.  Despite my trepidation over the boat ride, I had hoped we would be able to do it. Think of the stories I could tell!  But alas, this was not to be the case since the ferry has ceased operating.  We were left with two options, the old road which would require upwards of 10 hours of driving over narrow roads or taking the new highway from Albania into Kosovo and back into Albania. We chose the later which also gave us the opportunity to explore a bit of the Kosovo wilds along the way.
When many people think of Kosovo they think of the war torn country of just a few years ago.  While KFOR soldiers still patrol the country and tank crossing signs sit alongside those for cows and trains, Kosovo has come a long way.  Many signs are written in both Albanian and Serbian with the later desecreated with paint.  In many ways, Kosovo reminds me of a more agricultural Albania with better roads and infrastructure.  (For a brief moment we actually thought we were in Albania because we saw a bright green Lamborghini speed past us in one village).  Albanian is the official language of Kosovo, Albanian flags fly proudly alongside the blue and gold Kosovar ones, and the border between the two countries is relatively porous.  (Actually, the border is too fluid but that is a post for another day).  The mountainous border that separates these two countries is simultaneously wild and developed.  We explored the deep valley west of Peje and discovered both untamed wilderness and quaint alpine chalets obviously built with tourists in mind.  The scenery was impressive but it was just a preview of what was in store for us on the Albanian side of the border. 

The Albanian Alps
An old grits mill

The Valbona River Valley is part of the 8,000 hectare Valbona National Park.  In my opinion, this area nestled on the eastern side of the Albanian Alps is the most beautiful place I have visited in the country.  First there was the river itself.  The water was crystal clear and extremely cold (or refreshing depending upon whom you ask) and even at the end of August it gushed down over the white rocks.  I can only imagine what the water looks like during the spring runoff.  The mountains themselves were simultaneously awe inspiring and foreboding.  They loomed over the valley casting shadows over the small hamlets that dot the region.  Snow still covered those craggy pockets where the sun never shines strong enough.  A hike to a waterfall took us over a dry river bed, through pastures, and up into the forests where we were rewarded for our efforts by being able to look down across the valley below us.  Words just can't describe how beautiful it was.
Valbona felt both modern and untouched by the modern age.  Electricity is readily available, although it had been turned off by the municipality during the afternoon of our arrival.  The narrow road leading from Bajram Curri up through the valley was being widened and portions had been recently paved.  Guest houses, campgrounds, and restaurants catering to tourists--mostly backpackers and international visitors-- dotted the valley with new ones 
Remnants of the past- abandoned border patrol
buildings with a priceless view
being built each year.  The trail heads of the numerous hiking trails were well marked with signage in both Albanian and English and in many respects felt similar to national parks in the United States.  But visiting this area is also like going back in time.  One only had to peer into the woods or through fields to see traces of ancient stone houses.  Concrete bunkers and hulking concrete building shells shared space with grazing sheep and new brick block buildings still under construction.  Walking along the road we were just as likely to be passed by an old man on horseback as we were $80,000 Mercedes.  While a growing proportion of the population caters to tourists, most residents are subsistence farmers growing just enough to feed themselves and their families.  Postage stamp sized patches of corn and squash grew alongside houses and barns and the sound of sheep bells woke me in the morning.  Some people welcome visitors into their homes and offer a bed and meals for nominal fees.  The food, like the people, was simple and hearty and it was fresh (as in we saw the lambs being lead to slaughter fresh).  I found myself enjoying the freshly grilled trout--a local speciality-  at dinner and the bread, cheese, and yes, even the warm mug of milk (and I don't even like milk) that we were served the next morning for breakfast.
A traditional northern Albanian building

A "modern" off road vehicle- necessary to
transverse the far reaches of the Valbona Valley

Signs of yet another time:  an abandoned bunker in the morning light
There wasn't anything fancy or pretentious about Valbona but her unadulterated scenery made for a fantastic get away.  I'm so glad we had the opportunity to visit this national treasure before we leave Albania.  It is a place (almost) forgotten by time and that is what makes it so special.

1 comment:

  1. The car ferry has stopped running, but the rickety converted bus is still going strong. Definitely worth a ride.