Albania

Komani Ferry to Shkoder: 18 June

The bus came so suddenly while Catherine was busy in the kitchen that I didn’t say goodbye. As the bus door closed, a hand reached in and gave me a package of her macaroons. Now that is service! I had said goodbye to my grandkitty, who has already put the resident mice on high alert. Her name is now officially Princess Carolyn, shortened to PC, spoken as Peesy. I love it. Only a true cat lover would consider a cat a princess–I have a Princess at home–so I know my grandkitty is in good hands.

We were passengers 21 and 22 on this 12-passenger bus to Bajram Curri, so we stood in back. I could have worse problems than being hugged for 10 km by a young handsome Albanian. I was also glad I didn’t have a good view of the road’s edge as we dodged the rocks dislodged by the rain.

We then took a taxi to Fierza. We waited several hours at a small cafe watching rain even heavier than yesterday. The “street cows” didn’t seem to mind. Catherine says they will even steal bananas.

We contemplated that after 10 weeks of adventure, we were wowed out. We were wrong.

About 10:30, the sun peeked out and the rain stopped. Mother Nature was kind.

Lake Komani is a dammed river in a steep mountain valley. The dam supplies about half of Albania’s power. Guidebooks liken it to a Norwegian fjord. I’ve seen Norwegian fjords, so I wasn’t wild about this. Roger wanted to see the geology. Sometimes scratching his geology itch is quite rewarding.

This lake is no fjord. It has its own spectacular beauty which Roger nobly attempted to capture with hundreds of photos, but it truly must be experienced.

This is not just a tourist boat. Before the highway was built a few years ago, this was a major transport route with car ferries as well as people ferries. The ferry is still critical to the people who live along the river. Several times, the ferry put people off with their groceries where there was no sign of habitation. These people disappeared up steep paths into the woods. The attendant says they live over the mountain and can get there twice as fast as experienced hikers, even with their bundles.

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The boat does have a tourist component, though. The attendant explained some of what we were seeing and we detoured to the pilot’s house for sugared pancakes.

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After 45 km and 4 hours of wow, we landed at Komani. We thought we would immediately board the minivan for Shkoder, but there were two other people on the river and our van was the only way out, so we waited more than an hour.

The only way out goes through a crude 1.5 km tunnel.

When traveling, never assume and never trust maps. We thought the ride to Shkodër would be bland. It was 57 km of mostly bad cliff-hanging road with fantastic views over the mountains and a lower lake. We had the luxuries of a newer vehicle with seat belts and a careful driver, but no photos.

The van took us directly to our hostel, the only place we have shared a room with others the whole trip. It was not a problem.

Shkoder has a significant Italian influence, but Albanian prices. For less than €5 total, we had fantastic veal Parmesan, salad, and water with ice. We finished the evening with gelato.

Now a hastily selected sample of the day’s >500 photos:

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Tomorrow: Kotor

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Rain: 17 June

There’s not really much to say than rain and more rain. We spent the day doing essentially nothing except reading, playing with the kitten and chatting with the handful of other guests.

Forecasts are conflicting for tomorrow, but we plan to take the ferry down Lake Komen, then bus to Shkoder. Our one last “destination” is Kotor Bay in Montenegro before flying home from Podgorica on Tuesday.

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Rainy Day in Valbona: 16 June

There is no escaping the rain. It has settled in. It is photogenic in its own right:

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We have spent the day reading, so there’s not much to report except

Catherine got a kitten today. Last time we were here, she said she was getting one, but didn’t know when. As we were talking about it this morning, the boy brought her in. The kittens were in the top of a barn and hard to catch, except for this one lying quietly with her mother. Catherine says her name is Carolyn.

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She shivered at first with fear, but never fought or cried. Pretty soon, she drank some milk and settled into her box. When we visited her after her nap, she turned her belly up for some loving and purred, and she has advanced to playing with string. She is going to be fine.

Tomorrow also has rain forecast. So far, Wednesday is looking good.

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Return to Valbona: 15 June

The schedule said there was a bus every 15 minutes to Gjakovë. When we arrived at the bus station at 8:30, we learned the next bus would be at 9:45. So much for schedules.

Our luck got better. Catherine in Valbona says that transport in Albania is chaotic and unpredictable, but it usually works. Without much effort, we arrived in Valbone before we had thought we would.

We returned to Valbona for several reasons. First, we have to retrieve stuff we left here. Second, this positions us to take the Lake Komen ferry to Shkoder. Third, this is a good place to wait out the rain which is pretty general the next few days–so much for June being a dry month. This morning, the plan was to leave tomorrow, but now it looks like we will leave Wednesday. We certainly didn’t expect to be pulling out warm clothes this late in the trip.

My only photos are a few I took in passing through Bajram Çurri:

The kitchen store

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The plastics store

A market

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Tomorrow, we will veg here. Rain is expected all day.

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Over the Pass to Gusinjë

Easier done than said.

Guide books describe this hike as strenuous with 1,400 meter climb and more than 20 km. That 1,400 meters was cumulative–the climb to the pass was only 900 meters. The trail was very good. What was going to be the toughest climb I’ve ever attempted turned out to be No Big Deal.

No Big Deal physically, that is. Visually, it was very big indeed. Emotionally–well, we old farts just finished crossing the Accursed Mountains. Not just hiking into them–we crossed them.

We started at 6:30. The horseman was surprised at our light load.

Our path was clear before us.

Here’s a close-up. The pass is pretty obvious.

First, we went over the gravel from the recent flood. I was very glad the sun wasn’t on it, but it distressed me to see the horse struggle.

Then up through trees. The cliff face of Mt Arapit close up was magnificent.

After only an hour, Okol was 1,000 feet down.

It felt good to just stand there an contemplate what we had done so effortlessly.

The trail to the pass was vanilla. No exposure, no tricky stuff. Then wham, bang, in less than 3 hours, we are in another world.

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Tall cliffs followed us a long way. Photos don’t capture the enormity of our surroundings.

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Lots of flowers underfoot, especially in the meadows.

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Then the border–if anyone cares anymore. This marker has fallen over. There was no border control.

Our guide left us when we got to the road to Vusanjë. We redid our packs and started out. Almost immediately, it began to rain.

Despite the fact that this was Friday the 13th, we spied a cave.

We stayed there about an hour and had a snack with cold Cokes we had stored in the pack. The mountains were beautiful in the rain.

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Then we hiked another 5 km or so to Vusanjë.

In Vusanjë, we saw a wooden minaret, perhaps the most beautiful minaret I’ve ever seen.

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Roger was ready to walk another 6 km to Gusinjë, but it was still drizzling and I’d had enough. I stopped at a house and asked to call a taxi to Gusinjë. The man told his son to drive us. We paid what a taxi would have cost.

We got a room in Gusingë’s hotel and had a very good meal. After 5 nights of full board, it was nice to choose what we wanted. The crowning touch on the day was a free bowl of ice cream.

Tomorrow: we’ll decide tomorrow.

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Okol: 12 June

This morning we hiked about 3 km and up about 100 meters to our next accommodation in Okol at the north end of the Theth valley. This is distance we will not have to cover as we climb to the pass to Montenegro.

Our accommodation is fairly basic, but clean, comfortable, and the food is good. Again, full board because there is nothing else around. We even brought some cokes with us.

We got our permit to cross the pass on Saturday because the weather was supposed to be good. Now, a half inch of rain is predicted. We have gotten oral permission to cross tomorrow, Friday the 13th. We leave at 6:30.

The logic was compelling to have a horseman, though that is not normally our style. The path is not marked, so it is not prudent to go alone. A guide would need two days’ pay plus lodging. With a horseman, we can travel faster and he can ride the horse home the same day.

After tomorrow, we will have 10 days. We haven’t decided on an itinery.

Some photos:

Cutting grass after he had spent several hours digging stones with a pick axe.

Tall thin building. Not an outhouse.

Bunkers

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Tomorrow: over the pass to Vusanje, then Gusinje, maybe Plav, Montenegro.

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Another Lazy Day in Theth: 11 June

We got breakfast early today and went down into the village before it got too hot. I have mentioned before the large amount of gravel along the stream–We learned that the major flood that brought it was in 2012. Before that, the river flowed between green banks.

A small park has been created in the middle of the devastation. Dirt has been brought in, trees planted, and this stone planted. We passed it several times before we noticed the US flag. Village children study English in a summer school sponsored by the US.

We met a couple of these children on their way to school. After they practiced their English on us, they asked whether we like chocolate. When we said yes, they said they like chocolate, too. Aha! They have learned that tourists may be sources of this precious commodity which is not available for sale in Theth. We gave them some chocolate cookies.

Our first stop was the museum, which is really just an old house with a few things in it. The house, though, was noteworthy. We had read descriptions of these houses which were built for defense.

This house was built on a rock.

The door you see on front only goes to the stable underneath. The living quarters are entered through this narrow stairway to the left.

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A U-turn must be navigated before entering the house. There are gun slits all over. Our “guide,” a young girl, demonstrated the hidey hole beneath the floor boards.

Sleeping quarters were under the rafters on these “mats.”

The toilet was in the corner of the main room.

Next, we went to the grain mill, which is still used in the fall.

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Water flows down a trough

Whose opening is protected by a pitchfork.

Here is another view of that power pole

Inner tube is used as insulation on some poles.

Electrical installations in general can be informal. This is at our house:

The small light is solar powered for when the main one doesn’t work.

Roger just had to cross this bridge.

The ladies who run our house and cook delicious food.

Fence

Old house

Just a pretty picture:

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Tomorrow we move several kilometers north. This will shorten our Saturday journey.

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Wandering Theth: 10 June

We probably allotted too many days for Theth, but the exit day had to be chosen before we got here. We are not bummed, though, by having extra time in paradise. We are sleeping a lot–even daily naps which we never ordinarily take.

This morning we set out for a long hike to a small pool called a “blue eye.” Partway there, we decided the sun was hot and we didn’t need to prove anything, so we went back to the house, took a shower, had lunch and took a nap. Later, Roger took a short hike while I read a book.

We do have our permit for crossing the border to Montenegro on Saturday. This does not appear to be nearly as common a crossing as the one from Valbona.

Except for the Continental breakfast, which we are not fond of, the food here is excellent. We can eat whenever we want as long as it’s when everyone else is eating–meals are family style. It does make for good conversation.

A few photos from our wandering:

Theth

Gorge

The church

Bunker with trail marker

Theth mill, still used

River through the village

How to hold up a utility pole

Our view

Our sunset

Tomorrow, another lazy day.

[caregory albania]

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Theth 2: 9 June

Today was mostly a rest day. We took a short walk down to the center, had an ample lunch, and took a nap. Actually, I intended to read, fell asleep, and awoke to find Roger asleep beside me. I am really tired of constantly covering from the sun, so I really enjoyed having a whole afternoon, minus the nap, to enjoy this view in short sleeves.

There really is no “center” of Theth except maybe that is where the church is.

No store or market, just isolated houses surrounded on all sides by tall mountains.

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A clear stream runs through Theth on gravel.

I guess this would be a “street.”

The one landmark that is particularly special is the lock-in tower built in the mid-1800’s.

When a man killed someone, his family would keep him locked in this tower until the victim’s family got its revenge in some way other than killing him. Then he would be free to come out.

According to the local man telling the story, sometimes he could be ransomed by giving the victim’s family a baby.

There are two upper floors accessible only by ladder that pulls up.

Roger went up the inside ladder and took some photos.

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My knees don’t like ladders even at home, so while he explored, I played with a delightful kitten who someday will eat his weight in mice.

Speaking of mice, one is trying to knaw its way into our room. There are also mice scurrying around the kitchen. This is no surprise given that houses here are open with no screens. I asked where were no cats. He said they have no cats because cats are dirty. I had to bite my lip really hard. I was also surprised because we have noticed that Albanians like cats and treat them well, a sharp contrast to Greece where cats appear to live a hard life.

Our plans for leaving here are shaping up. We have our permit to cross the border into Montenegro on Saturday and we have a room reserved in Okol for Thursday and Friday. Okol is still in Theth valley, but is about 4 km up from here, thus shortening that long day.

Tomorrow, a rather long hike probably to the a deep pool known as the “Blue Eye.”

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Over the Pass to Theth: 8 June

I found the hike from Valbona to Theth early in my research for this trip. Other itineraries came and went, but this hike became an absolute.

The path is a donkey track. Like railways versus highways, a donkey path is not going to be too steep and it’s going to have a somewhat decent surface. That was generally true today.

We were given the option of paying €10 for an 8-km ride to the end of the road. Money well spent, as it would have been tiring without much reward.

We then walked 3 km up the gravel riverbed before the actual trailhead.

The first part of the trail was quite steep and I was feeling every step. Even though I had had a huge breakfast, I perked up after we stopped and had some cookies.

After some relentless uphill, we came to a pleasant meadow.

Then more uphill.

We looked back to that gravel we had reversed only a few hours before.

Near the pass, there was still snow. I never figured where the donkeys detoured, but we had to walk on a narrow ledge of snow just above a nasty drop off–one of those “nothing else exists except this foot goes here and this one here.” This photo was taken on the wider part:

Near the end of the snow, a hollow had developed under the ice, but it held us. Within the next few days, someone is going to be surprised.

It’s fortunate that my surprise came a bit later. After maneuvering slowly for so long on rocky trail and crossing the pass, we came to a wonderful stretch of smooth trail, first through open woods,

then into another beautiful meadow of flowers.

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In the wink of an eye, somehow I twisted around and rolled into the grass. One suspicious small rock that could have rolled under my foot is the only culprit I could find. The only damage was that one knee twisted a bit. It hurt briefly and occasionally, but no apparent lasting damage. I am so lucky it happened where it did–it even smelled good.

About halfway down, we came to a “Bar.” This was a crude structure run by a woman and her 8-10-year-old daughter. They had set up a pan with drinks, through which spring water flowed to cool them. We gladly paid the equivalent of $2 each for cans of Coke. As a matter of fact, considering the effort these two went to, I can’t imagine not buying something from them. They even had a view.

We had one last hurdle–a stream that earlier in the day was probably passable on rocks was now quite high. We took our boots and socks off, rolled our pants up, put on our Crocs, and waded across.

At least we thought that was the last hurdle. Later, we had to cross back on this little jewel. The main board was not stable at all.

Theth is an interesting place. It has no road except a jeep road that is impassable much of the year. It has tourist infrastructure, but no reliable electricity or water. As I write this, we have neither, though we have a beautiful bathroom complete with bidet. We have full board, as do all the guest houses because there are no restaurants–at least that’s what we read. We will explore a bit tomorrow.

(PostScript: Power came on later, along with water. Rumor is that I will have cell signal some places.)

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