Albania

Valbona 2: 7 June

Today was a washout literally and figuratively.

Because Valbona is so beautiful and our accommodation so comfortable, we decided to delay our hike over the pass to Theth. With this extra day, we decided to hike into the mountains. We didn’t communicate well. I thought we were going to a meadow. Roger took us up the side of a valley.

The mountains above us were spectacular, as was the clear river with rapids below. In between was a truly awful trail. It had been cleared this spring–sorta–but the trash branches were left on the trail. Some parts were quite steep on unstable ground. I seldom felt stable enough to even stop and admire the view.

Roger cleared a lot of sticks and limbs from the path as we went along. Perhaps not the safest thing to do, given that we saw a horned viper. We also saw this fellow:

Then came the washout. We had no problem crossing it, but were thwarted by the vertical bank on the other side. The path going up was steep, narrow, and potentially unstable. The killer was a large rock protruding into it. A fall could be fatal. We turned back.

This evening, we met one of the guides. He said there was a tree whose roots we could have held onto, but without knowing that, we made a smart decision.

There were some good photos.

And

And

And

And

And

Finally, tomorrow across the pass to Theth.

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Valbona: 6 June

I spoke too soon. Not only do I have signal tonight, I actually had time to compose before I fell asleep. I am posting this early and may supplement. I learned the hard way that drafts sometimes mysteriously disappear.

Getting from Prizren to Valbona is no small feat. Valbona is in the mountains with one bus per day from Bjram Çurri. Minibuses go through Prizren across the border to Bjram Çurri, but there are no schedules and no guarantee they will stop. The only sure way is bus to Gjakovë, taxi to minibus stop, then 13:00 minibus to Bjram Çurri. How did we learn this? At least six people in Prizren got involved in making sure we got there. No question, these people remember. Although Prizren was lackluster on things to see, we were treated as honored guests.

Ah, but reality was a bit different. Our instructions were to leave Prizren at 10. Contrarians that we are, we went straight to the bus station and found a bus to Gjakovë at 9. It seemed odd to take a taxi to go 200 meters, but we were glad we did–we would certainly have gotten lost. We were on a minibus to Bjram Çurri by 10:20.

It was an interesting trip. Given that it is Friday, we guess that the 5 parents and 5 small children were going visiting for the weekend. The small boy in front of us wanted something and threw a fit for quite a while. His stamina could rival Carrie’s. Of course, this upset the others…

Our first stop was to pick up some flower pots at the €1 store. Then we picked up eleven 25-kg bags of flour.

Enroute, we had several observations. There is a lot of new construction. Some would be because of the war, but in general, this area simply appears prosperous. Many flat fertile fields, some industry. The first wide scale use of farm machinery we’ve seen on the trip, but still some hand farming, too.

Bajram Çurri has little history–it was created during the Communist era to serve the area. It is an interesting mix of modern and traditional.

Here is a cheese stand on the street. The cheese is in the bucket, and the scale is to weigh your purchase.

The hardware store–place your order at the window.

Dumpster diving milk cow.

Herbs for tea spread out to dry just past the dumpster.

In Bajram Çurri, we had three objectives: lunch, extend my SIM, and get some Albanian money. For the SIM, we were sent to three stores before a man put us in his van and took us to the right store.

Lunch was across the street in a tiny mom-pop place. Instead of a menu, the routine is to go to the kitchen, look in the pots and choose. Our stew was quite good when we ignored that those strange bits were brains.

The only ATM in town was out of order. A man on the street exchanged our Euros for leks with no fee and the standard exchange rate.

All this was done with locals falling all over each other to help us. Children were anxious to practice their English. As we waited for the bus to Valbona, three children about 8-10 were particularly friendly. Before we left, each child had bought us something–a bottle of water and two candy bars.

The bus was supposed to leave at 2:30. Fortunately, we were there before 2:00. By the time we left, this 12-passenger van contained 19 people, our packs (in our laps) plus other luggage, one of those 25-kg bags of flour, a large box of bananas, and several flats of drinks. That doesn’t count what was strapped on top.

The Valbona valley is simply drop-dead gorgeous. Even our first glimpses of these mountains were a treat.

It got better.

And

And

We are staying with Catherine and Alfred. She is an American who fell for a tall, dark, and very handsome Albanian. The view from our balcony:

An incident I forgot to put in yesterday’s post: Accommodations are not abundant in Prizren, so I pre-booked. To be safe, I copied the reservation and directions to the camera roll. Then I forgot I was going to need this and ran down the battery checking news while my Macedonian SIM still worked. When I realized the battery was dangerously low, I turned the phone off.

Oops. Here we are on the street in Prizen, almost dead phone and locked SIM. Only a vague notion of where the pension is and I can’t remember the name.

After a few moments for panic, enter Carolyn’s organizational skills. Stop at a shaded park bench. Open pack. Remove crocs. Pull inner duffel to top. First grab is auxiliary power. Second grab is card with SIM PIN. We made it to the pension without a misstep.

We will discuss our options with Alfred tonight.

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Ersekë: 27 May

After the concert last night, it was hard to get up for a 7:00 minibus. The journey was beside the Nemercka mountains, then along the border with Greece. Photos from the bus were better than usual.

And

And

And

And

We got a glimpse back at the sheer cliff above the waterfall. I could even see the tree I waited under.

Ersekë is a small village. We quickly found what appears to be the only hotel. A gyro, some ice cream, a stroll about, then we crashed.

Later, we strolled some more. In a store, the clerk asked with a bland expression, “German?” When we responded, “American,” she broke into a smile.

A man with a sausage cart on the street wanted to buy us a beer when he learned we were American.

At dinner, a group singing with a guitar asked me to join them.

Yes, I’d say Albanians like Americans.

We finished the day with a nice sunset on the mountains.

And

We don’t really know what happens next except that we are headed to Macedonia. We don’t have a full Macedonian guidebook with us and haven’t decided whether to buy and download one or just wing it.

We’ve got exactly 4 weeks left. We figure 7-10 days for Macedonia.

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Permet: 26 May

The hike from Benjë to Permet was not strenuous, but it was hot, even though we were back in Permet before 10:30. I think my body has settled into a routine of sweating like a pig. I was drenched, though we only climbed 500 feet.

As the day before, we had mountains with us the whole way.

If you are viewing on a big screen, this view shows the path we took over the pass, down to Lëuse, then down to Permet a few days ago. The elongate slanted light streak in the middle below the pass is the loose rocks that gave me grief.

A rice paddy along the way.

Then there was this bridge. In addition to rotten surface planks, some of the underpinnings were also failing. I figured it probably wouldn’t fail today.

And

And

On the way into Permet, we saw numerous people working hard in their garden plots. This man carrying a load of wood into town was about our age.

Serendipity strikes again. There was a music festival performance in the evening. The square was packed with all ages. These guys had the best costumes.

And

This group stayed at our hotel. As we came down the stairs, one of them said, “The Americans!” and asked us to pose for a picture with them. We had not seen them before, so someone must have told them we were there.

Every group featured a clarinet. I played clarinet for more than 25 years and I have never, ever heard it played like it was played last night. I didn’t know it was even possible. The dexterity of the clarinet, but a sound and modulations more like saxophone. I was mesmerized.

Tomorrow, bus to Ersekë.

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Benjë: 24 May

Absolutely no signal here, so this post will be late.

We met Çimi at 9 and took a taxi to a road intersection below Benjë, a village in the National Forest east of Permet. On the way, there was a bit of a traffic jam.

We crossed an Ottoman bridge

And hiked to a high point to look down into the Canyon of Lengarice.

We went steeply down into the canyon to a warm spring.

And

Then as far as we could go up the canyon until stymied by high water. Roger and Çimi had to rearrange a few rocks for me to get this far.

Roger went farther.

We then returned to the bridge and sat a while drinking a cold Coke! and watching people enjoying the largest warm spring.

We headed uphill to Benjë, our home for two nights with the village school teacher. On the way, we saw a huge bunker built into the rock. It has a vaulted ceiling inside.

We looked down on the bridge and up toward the Nemërçka mountain range.

The mountains were beside us the whole way.

And wild roses are blooming profusely.

Donkey tracks are a delight.

Benjë sits high in the hills.

The teacher’s six students sit at these desks.

Lunch and dinner were absolutely superb. In addition to other good things, there were bowls of fried fresh artichoke heart. That is luxurious eating no matter where you are.

Tomorrow, a hike.

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Benjë 2: 25 May

Again, no signal, so this will be posted late.

After a substantial breakfast, we left early, headed uphill. The Nemërcka range was beside us the whole way.

The high point, Mt. Drites, stands at 2,485 meters (8,150 feet). From the valley floor to its peak is more than 2,150 meters (7,000 feet), about the same as the height of the Grand Teton above Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

On the way, a lady offered us coffee and I had my second ever cup. No way could I say no after she had invited us into her courtyard and arranged a rug for us to sit on in the shade. It was aided by this sweet called gliko, which is very sweet preserved fruit.

We reached the abandoned village of Lupckë after climbing 600 meters (about 2,000 feet). Although built in 1911, the church is in ruins. One instructive thing about this trip has been learning how quickly stone buildings can become ruins.

And

And

We saw fresh prints from Mama Bear and her cub. The reference is 7 inches long.

We looked down into the upper end of the Canyon of Lengarice. It was a bit difficult to take pictures because of the sheer drops. If this canyon were in the US or Western Europe, it would be a major attraction.

Back in Benjë, we saw the church, the inside of which is different from others we have seen, particularly the Corinthian columns.

And

And

And in the cupola, the only fresco.

Tomorrow, we hike to Permet.

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Benjë: 25 May

No, we didn’t even feel the earthquake. I am writing this on a hike high above Permet where I have signal. No regular post until 26 May.

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Sopotit Waterfall: 23 May

I thought it would just be an easy day hike to a waterfall. “Easy” is a relative term.

The bus ride was was to the south, giving us a great view of the mountains. We got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and started up a minor road to the village of Stëmbec. We passed several people with donkeys tending their fields. Women guiding their cows to pasture were dressed as well as if they were tending their shopping cart at Kroger.

Considering the condition of the road, I was surprised by what we found in the village where the road ends.

I probably shouldn’t have been. Mercedes diesels appear to be the most common vehicle and they all have hood ornaments intact.

The village of Stëmbec was picturesque.

We then started up a path that parallels the irrigation ditch from the waterfall.

It got dicier.

And prettier as we went through big woods.

And

Then came the part I was really dreading–loose rock. A lot of loose rock. I managed.

The reward, or so I thought, was the Sopotit waterfall, which was about 100 feet tall and is fed entirely by a spring.

And

Silly me. I thought we were done. Oh, no, we were just beginning. Up on to the loose rock again, worse than before  and upward to a 1000-meter-high cliff face. Pictures don’t do it justice:

I stopped at the first tree we came to, 630 meters above the road.

Roger and Çimi went up another 300 meters to the base of the cliff.

They were gone a couple hours. It was an interesting feeling: here I was alone high on a mountain in Albania and the only two people in the world who knew where I was were even higher. I had great views, though.

And

And

I was dreading coming down those loose rocks, but it turned out that was the easy part. At one point when the trail was one stone wide between the canal and a serious drop-off, I stepped across a void onto a stone that was slanted toward the drop-off. Let’s just say I learned a new dance.

This goat knows how to dance, too.

Speaking of goats, we loused up a goat herder’s day. His goats got spooked and went in different directions. One kid had a hard time finding his mother.

Mother Nature wasn’t finished with us. Before we got to the road, it started to rain. We had not brought coats. We sheltered under a tree and had Borneos, Albania’s version of Oreos.

Finally, a car came along and Çimi bought us a ride back to town.

After drying out, we had an early dinner and strolled a bit with the locals.

Tomorrow, we go to a nearby village for two nights.

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Back to Permet: 22 May

It was a short but steep walk down to Permet. We said good-bye to Çimi for the day and went back to our same room.

Our first priority was a shower and washing our clothes. A shower can be a challenge when the water temperature fluctuates from hot to cold, and the pressure from full-on to nothing, in an instant.

Then we sought lunch, which was no small task. When there is little tourist infrastructure and the locals eat at home, the restaurants become coffee bars mid-day. We did finally find some gyros, which were good. We also found ice cream, which is much cheaper here than in Greece.

I also found a new cord for the iPhone–I was having some connection issues. The phone stores didn’t have it, but a tiny hole-in-the-wall did. Speaking of phones, every time we pass the Eagle store where I got my SIM, the lady gives me a big smile and wave.

Next stop was the market to shop for tomorrow’s lunch, then I did the unthinkable–I took a nap. I normally never take a nap, but the intensity of the last week finally caught up with me.

Not many pictures today, but some:

The Lëuse church, very similar to Hosteve.

and

And

And

Italian WWII barracks in Hosteve. There were a group of them around a courtyard.

Mussolini quote in interior wall

And

WWII plaque on building

Low spot on horizon is pass we came over. Roger says I have walked 35 miles since we were here last.

Tomorrow a short bus ride then hike to waterfall.

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Lëuse: 21 May

Today we ascended 600 meters (about 2,000 feet) to the Dhëmbelit pass then descended 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) down into Lëuse, which is quite near Permet. I am surprised that our knees don’t hurt.

The trail over the pass was well-marked. Even though significant sections went across loose rock which slowed me, it is an excellent trail–much better than sections of the E4 we encountered in Greece.

We are staying with our guide’s family. He has 9 brothers and sisters.

Some photos:

Communist bunker

Looking back

This rocky trail was easy.

This wasn’t.

Peonies for Carrie

And

White mountains in the distance

Çimi’s donkey

Brother’s horse and foal

Approaching Lëuce

And

And

Exploring the village

And

Tomorrow, relax in Permet.

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