We departed Greece by ferry to Saranda in Albania. Possibly the world’s most unhelpful and rude woman (except the nun in Peja) gave us our ferry tickets and waved us disinterestedly in the wrong direction to the boat. Fortunately other passengers pointed us in the right direction as she stood idly by smoking and scowling at everyone and everything.
Ferry to Saranda, bus to GjiroKastra and straight to the Hotel Gjirokastra with a taxi driver with whom much needless haggling over a price took place.
The town of Gjirokastra is the birth place of the dictator Enver Hoxha and the famous author Ismail Kadare (we are both reading a couple of novels by him as we travel, one of which is about his childhood in the town). Situated on the side of mountains overlooking the Drina valley the streets of Gjirokastra have seen much history and a huge number of changes of ‘ownership’ (Germans, Italians, Greeks) in recent years as well as world war 2 bombardment by the British. The cobbled streets and quaint alleyways are impossibly steep. We dragged ourselves around the town visiting the castle looming above that was quickly falling into disrepair and needing a facelift of sorts. We wandered around Hoxha’s childhood home and saw Kidare’s childhood home as well. The views were outstanding and the sense of history was all around.
Dinner at the hotel would have been that much more enjoyable had we fully understood the quoted price which was considerably less than we initially thought.
Photos from Gjirokaster:
Breakfast at the hotel consisted only of mounds of salty cheese – or at least that’s what I remember. There was probably less cheese than I remember and some bread and coffee involved and maybe an egg thrown in somewhere, but they do like their salty white cheese in this part of the world.
A travel day. Bus to Tirana. Taxi to where the bus to Shkodra was departing (again, just a bus on the side of the road – no bus station!). Then up to Shkodra in Northern Albania staying at Tradita Hotel – a crazy place that used to be a museum. Our room had 3 mannequins, a desk on top of which were huge porcelain pig and cat’s heads and a gun.
After a quick wander around town and a drink we returned to the hotel, booked travel arrangements for the following day and ate at their brilliant restaurant. A huge open fire in the corner of the room served as the BBQ and the food was excellent.
An early start – 6-00am. A minibus in town took us north to Lake Koman. The road gave fantastic views of the Accursed mountains and eventually of Lake Koman. We caught the 9-00am local ferry, a boat that could comfortably seat about 20 passengers. But, no-one sat inside. The views outside throughout the 3 hour journey were spectacular and everyone collected on deck to watch the scenery pass by. Put simply, this was the best boat journey I’ve ever been on. The lake, formed by a damn from which the boat departed meandered through the stunning gorge. It twisted and cut its way through nature’s rocky skyscrapers looming above us. It was impossible to take a bad photo. The boat would turn another corner and we’d be faced with yet another panorama of stunning beauty that would make us smack our foreheads in disbelief. Snow topped mountains in the distance climbing high above rugged mountains and tree lined slopes dipping into the quiet waters as we peacefully glided by kept us entertained throughout the 3 hours.
On occasions we’d park up and drop a local man off on the edge of the lake. Behind him was an impossibly vertical cliff face with a ridiculous path stretching up hundreds of metres above. On one occasion a man that had just been dropped off turned and gave a forlorn wave as we backed away from the bank. It was a wave that suggested he’d not see civilisation again for many months – as indeed he would probably not. Carrying his gun, he then started the long climb up.
The boat ride cost $5. As word of Albania’s beauty in the north of this country spreads and the tourist industry subsequently grows, I can only imagine what price future sightseers will be paying for the privilege of taking this boat ride. The thing is, whatever the cost, it’ll be worth it.
The other end of the lake we were met by another minibus, more haggling, and eventually ourselves and 3 Czech fellas were taken to the area of Valbona. Once again, the journey was stunning, a blue crashing river accompanied us upstream, as did the towering mountains overhead. Eventually the road simply came to an end; there was no further for it to go as ahead lay an amphitheatre of mountains each with snow still on top despite this being July. We checked into the hotel alongside the end of the road and had a salted cheese based lunch. After admiring the view for some time, we walked back down the road for about 7km. We passed several concrete bunkers (as we had seen throughout Albania) built by Hoxha to defend against whomsoever wanted to invade. The walk took ages as we constantly stopped to take photos of the raging river and the rocky scenery above. We stopped somewhere for a drink and then walked back.
The cold shower wasn’t great but a small price to pay for one of the most aesthetically pleasing days I’ve ever enjoyed. Dinner for me was a trout pulled from the streams that passed only metres from where we sat.
Photos from the boat journey and arrival in Valbone:
Our room with a view
The end of the road!
And today was even better.
We walked from our hotel in Valbona to the village of Theft. We left at 8.15am and arrived at our place to stay in Theft shortly after 6pm. We climbed to a height of nearly 1900m before reaching Theft which stood at 800m. On the way up we couldn’t work out how we would get to the other side – mountains surrounded us and we were heading straight for them. It was only about 2 hours in that we realised we would have to actually go over the top of them. We passed a makeshift café on the way up and enjoyed a drink with his family and goats (what an interesting existence). We passed alpine meadows with a sheepherder minding his beats. We climbed above the snowline – indeed, the sheepherder followed us up and collected his drinking water from the thawing snow. In the distance we saw the 3 Czeck fellas scaling a snow packed path up a distant mountain. Finally, passing more deep snowdrifts that collected and stayed in parts of the mountain we reached the Valbona pass and the signpost indicating Theft far, far below. Exhausted, but exhilarated we started the long track down. This time we walked through gigantic forests that again opened up into beautiful meadows. Throughout the whole walk we had a permanent smile of appreciation etched onto our faces.
In Theft there were no real roads, just tracks through the dry river bed that must change every time it rained. We stayed at the Harusha guesthouse. There was no power we were told and so we had a drink nearby and returned for food. Alongside mounds of salty cheese was hot soup and peppers which were very good. We were in bed and probably asleep before 9pm.
Photos of the walk:
We walked to a nearby waterfall and back in the morning. The whole walk took nearly 4 hours but was mostly just following the river – I don’t think our weary legs would have coped too well with much gradient today. Even so, we got lost on the way and needed the help of a couple of goat-herding, wood carrying women to point us in the right direction. On the way back we stuck to the river and it was much quicker.
The bus back to Shkoder was supposed to leave at 1.30pm but left a couple of hours late for some reason. Now, we have been on the Death Road in Bolivia which is reputed to be the most dangerous road in the world. I assure you, that the road out of Theft made that road in Bolivia look like a quiet cul-de sac in a sleepy little village in England. Treacherously narrow rutted tracks spiralled forever upwards. Rain started falling (our first in a month) and lightening occasionally lit up the sky beyond the snow capped mountains surrounding us. The ridiculous track up was accompanied by an ever present sheer drop of hundreds of metres inches to our left or right. Death has never been closer. Indeed, the track was littered by graves and crosses that served as a reminder as to the very real peril of the road. We climbed higher and higher. As our altitude increased my worry was that what fell as rain may soon fall as snow and that way lay as puddles of water may soon lie as ice and transform the already impossibly dangerous road into a skating rink. At one point another passenger in the vehicle hit his head on the side as we rounded yet another corner carved into the mountainside. Our driver turned and laughed maniacally at his misfortune and then worryingly continued to look, laugh and point as the bus drifted towards the edge of the track and certain death about 10km below once the bus would have stopped rolling. Fortunately, he turned his attention back to the track just in time, and on this occasion, we survived. A quick photo taken out the back of the van doesn't convey anywhere near how scary the whole thing was...
Of course, as these words have clearly been written later, we made it up and out and back down the other side. We encountered one other crash on the way – but not a serious one. By 7pm we were in Shkoder – unfortunately the Tradita was full but the owner kindly took us to a hotel nearby where we stayed. The door wouldn’t shut which wasn’t great. That is, unless you swung it with incredible force which is what I tried to do. In managing to shut the door I also managed to dislodge a window pane which crashed to the floor inside our room. Dismayed slightly, we cheered ourselves up with another meal at the excellent Tradita Hotel.
Breakfast was good at the hotel – lots of terrible cheese of course, but much more besides. The hotel arranged for us a taxi which took us north and across the border into Montenegro. We left behind Albania hoping that someday we’d return. It had been a fantastic place – surprising in the people’s hospitality and the stunning scenery. If you ever get the chance – go.