Finding the Unexpected in Albania
The tone of the trip was set before it began. On our first morning in Albania, Erika, Angela, Maureen and I met for our trip orientation to discuss how to best travel together in a small group. As a travel host, I’ve learned from past experiences that everyone's mindset needs to be on the same page. So this morning, we mutually agreed to expect the unexpected. In the words of John Edwards, "Of course, plans are subject to change. Only in this case, upwards."
Bordering the Adriatic Sea to the west and the Alps to the north, Albania is rich in history. It consists of monarchs and dynasties, Ottoman invasions, fables of mountain fairies and communist dictators. With Ardi, our friendly local guide, in the driver's seat of a white Mercedes sport-utility, we set off on an eight-day journey to explore the off-the-beaten-path charm of Albania and uncover its secrets.
We drove north, from Kruje to Shkodra, and started with a few questions to clear up any Hollywood stereotypes about Albania. "So, what's the story with the Albanian mafia? I hear they are the meanest in the world," I ask Ardi. He smiled. "It doesn't exist." I made a mental note to investigate further.
"Where does the name Accursed Mountains come from?" Angela asked. Also known as the Albanian Alps, our hike would start the following day there. "Some people say the name comes from the first Serbian war," Ardi explains. "The Serbs say the mountains are cursed because, when their soldiers attempted to cross, they never came home. The name is not from Albanians. Albanians see the mountains as a blessing because they have protected us from intruders. We are the only Balkan country that has maintained its original borders over time."
We drove toward Valbona Valley National Park. With clean air, mountain peaks, lakes, forests, flora, and fauna, this was to be the starting point of our four-day trek across the classic pass of the Albanian Alps into Thethi National Park. As we approached the rugged mountains, we watched the snow-capped peaks slip behind dark heavy clouds falling to the floor of the hourglass-shaped valley and I began to wonder if our hiking plans would change.
With a glow from its windows, a charming brick exterior appeared at the end of the mountain road. We darted from the car to get out of the rain and into the European styled guesthouse. This would be our home for two nights. As darkness loomed, I appreciated my fellow travelers' giggles and the smile of our Albanian guide who enjoyed being part of it. "Albanian raki anyone?" Ardi asked. It's only 3:30pm but, seemed the right thing to do as the rain poured down and fog rolled onto the mountainside. Rakia, local moonshine served with meze, is a popular aperitif in Albania. We toasted to the start of a good journey and tasted small bites of prosciutto, salami, cheese, and roasted bell peppers. Then, napped.
At dinner and into the evening, stories circled around the dining table. We feasted on traditional mountain dishes of roasted lamb, grilled vegetables and baked cheese with corn board. Occasionally, the electricity went out but, candles were brought to our table to light the way.
"Yep, I'll do it!" says Erika. We laughed as Maureen poured everyone more wine.
Based on a personal travel story I shared with everyone earlier that day, which Ardi did not believe, he challenged me to gracefully open a watermelon by cracking it over a rock. I proved him wrong when we took a break next to the riverbed on our way up the mountain, and the watermelon challenge started an innocent game of truth or dare. Everyone was now to prove their own tall tale, as stories were shared along the way.
When Angela's words slipped across the table with hesitant boldness, "When I was thirteen, I streaked naked through a field," a new challenge was set. With Erika as her partner in crime, they both went upstairs to get equipped with headlamps for an evening run in the rain.
The next morning, stuffed and drunk from laughter, everyone's energy was high as we prepared for our day of hiking in the rain. A five-hour trek with a 2500-meter elevation would condition us for the next day over the Alps. With mist, rain and nature's rugged beauty in front of us, our foul weather gear and positive attitudes were ready to be tested. We walked pass picturesque fields of haystacks and storybook stone houses with smoke rising from chimneys. Our lungs and legs adjusted to the new altitude as we ascended from the plains of Chicago, Illinois into the forested mountains of Valbona, Albania, climbing further into the fog to watch the edge of the mountains disappear.
"I love it here!" Angela boasts. On the descent, I jumped in a puddle of rain, happy as a five-year-old, and splashed Ardi.
Inside our mountain guesthouse, we warmed ourselves next to the fire, dried our not so smart socks and continued to giggle. But a cloud of uncertainty hovered over the next day's hike, as the forecast called for 10 hours in a thunderstorm, over the alpine pass of the Accursed Mountains. "Last week 40 sheep died from lightning," said Ardi. "We need to consider safety tomorrow," and I started to come up with plan B.
The front door of the guesthouse blew open with unexpected, wet guests. Wood is thrown onto the fire and we gathered cozily around the hearth, in warm conversation with our new Italian guests. Soon they were not strangers, as early evening became late night. Raki and wine were poured and the music got louder as the Albanians, Italians and Americans danced. And, I negotiated our plan for tomorrow with Ardi. Then, the electricity went out.
The next morning, Erika, Angela, Maureen and I embarked on plan B, a blue passenger van which Ardi arranged the night before. In lieu of hiking in the thunderstorm over the Alps, we agreed to drive around through Kosovo to our next destination. "The van will not be a nice tourist van," warned Ardi, "but it will get us there." It was bright blue with burlap covered seats and a driver whose muscular features and bald head renewed the myth of the mafia. Shortly after we started, we stopped to pick up his wife and two small children. They would travel with us to Kosovo, where their grandfather lived. Our driver turned his head and smiled warmly at his children, dispelling the mafia myth. I thought, ‘This was a perfect plan B.'
After six hours of driving, my eyes slowly opened as the sun started to shine on the other side of the mountains. There are places one arrives, which are exactly where you need to be, in that moment. And, this was it. Known for its remote beauty, Thethi Valley lays supine next to the Albanian Alps. We took each hairpin turn, in and around and over the mountains, with views of grazing sheep and slowed for a sounder of swine, which took up more than their share of the road. The road, impassable in winter, was challenging in September. "Highlanders are some of the most hospitable people you will find. They may be reserved. But, they are kind," Ardi said as we approached our new guesthouse.
The next morning I wake at five o'clock. I dressed quietly to not disturb anyone and take a walk through the village toward the river. I sat and breathed in the view. On my return to the guesthouse Pom, our local host, stretched tall between the doorway of his cafe. "You're up early. Interested in a coffee?" "Sure!" I said. He turned on the espresso machine and I heard a release of steam. The electricity goes out again. Pom shyly peeked around the door. "In the mountains, electricity is unpredictable. How about some mountain tea?" Albanian Mountain tea, known for its healing properties, is drank daily in the mountains. I made a mental note to find some to bring home with me to share with my own guests.
"So, what do you think of Trump and Hillary?" Pom asked, curious for an American view. Albanians have a special affection for Americans and US politics since, along with the United Nations, we are credited with helping end the Cold War and Albania build a free nation. George W. Bush was honored with a statue in a small town square outside of Tirana.
Back at the guesthouse large, dough balls of locally churned butter, fresh bread, and mountain honey were set on the table with the rest of our traditional mountain breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and olives.
"What is the weather forecast for our hike today?" Angela asked. With no electricity or internet to predict, Erika beamed across the table, "Expect the unexpected!"
We began our hike with our steps light as we walked past fields, guesthouses and crumbling communist-era buildings. We took selfies under waterfalls and hiked up small mountainsides before we arrived at the Blue Hole, a waterfall known for its cold glacier lagoon, pure water, and seemingly endless depth. "Could I fill your water bottle?" Erika asked as she leans over carefully to dip her own bottle into the crystal-clear water. This is one unexpected luxury I would miss most about Albania. Fresh mountain spring water wherever I go.