Tuesday 8 October 2013

Albania: The Labëria Highlands & Ionian Coast – Day 1

Sunday 22nd September – Dukat to Tërbaç via the Pass of St George

Total Distance: 9.60 miles / Total Ascent: 1142m / Total Descent: 933m 

Altitude Max 1140m / Altitude Min 347m

Sunday morning in the coastal town of Vlorë dawned bright and warm. Despite being early in the day, as we gathered outside the hotel in preparation for our transfer it was already apparent that heat would play a part in proceedings. Even though October was no more than a few days away and the British summer a memory already beginning to fade, in these latitudes the autumn months are still nicely warm and the days sunny, if not overly long – as was evident at last night’s welcome dinner in the dark at a nearby waterfront restaurant. 

Straining at the leash: getting ready for the off

A forty-five minute drive south along the coast brought us to the village of Dukat, from where the first part of our trek would begin. After two flights and a three-hour transfer by road yesterday, we were all champing at the bit to get started.

Looking back to Dukat

We followed a road out of the village beyond the last spring and on to a path beside a dry riverbed. This gently rising arterial route was to be our highway into the hills. 

Highway to the hills

It was a glorious morning in stunning surroundings, with blue skies above, green trees to the hillsides, and pristine white rocks beneath our boots, with the walls of the superb ravine gradually tapering as we were drawn further into the mountains towards the head of the valley. After the frustrations of the last few weeks all seemed right with the world once again. In fact there was only one minor detail that marred the hiking idyll in which we were reveling: it was the wrong way.

Praying for guidance

Still, it was nothing a little backtracking and some local help couldn’t fix. The actual route we required struck off up the hillside from much lower down the ravine on a path so well hidden as to be practically invisible from the riverbed. Beyond the curtain of vegetation, though, the route became obvious once more, and soon we could clearly see the St George Pass ahead.

Pimp my ride: a traditional Albanian wooden saddle

After a short stretch of easy walking, the slopes began to get steeper as we moved beneath a canopy of stunted pine trees. The going became tougher, and an indistinct path led us falteringly upwards over loose ground scattered with rock and tree debris, while sharp brambles and thorny branches raked at legs and clothing in a vain effort to prevent our passage. Judging by the evidence on the ground, it would seem St George hadn’t passed this way in quite a while.

Arriving at the top of the St George Pass, thorny dragons slain

Eventually we reached the top of the pass at the head of a stony gully. Since leaving the riverbed cloud had gradually been accumulating, and the skies were now grey with more than a hint of rain about them. Now, as we stopped for lunch, a stiff breeze blew through the pass, and jackets were required to fend off the chill as we ate our packed lunch.

Looking into the Shushica Valley

The views ahead were impressive, though, with the peaks of the Lightening Mountains rising formidably across the Shushica valley beyond an exciting-looking descent. This began with a steep, rocky drop down another tree- and stone-choked gully before striking off to one side – first on a level but narrow balcony path, then following a switchback route down, crossing and re-crossing the streambed.

Narrow balcony path
(Photo courtesy Gent Mati/Outdoor Albania)

Lightening Mountains ahead - named not for the mellow evening hue that
bathes them but for the frequent fierce electrical storms they attract

Eventually the path levelled out and we began to contour round the mountainside. Forward progress became a little easier. Our earlier diversion had us running a little behind time: so much so that one of our hosts for the night came looking for us to guide us into the village in case we were “off course” a bit.

 Descent into the valley

In the end it was just after 6.00pm before we reached the village. Tërbaç proved to be a higgledy-piggledy collection of houses clinging to the lower slopes of the mountainside. We wound a sinuous route through the village before reaching our digs for the night – two adjacent homes overlooking the valley. Here the party split into two, and our sub-group – us two, Miriam, Merete, Emma and Jane, along with our guide, Gent – lodged with Adnan, who had met us on the path into the village, his wife, Monda, and their three children.

Nearing Tërbaç

The house was comfortable and cosy on the inside, with a mix of traditional décor and some unexpectedly modern touches. Monda produced a wonderful and substantial meal – grilled meat, flavoured polenta, loads of salads, cheese, bread and honey, with plenty of çaj (herbal mountain tea) and Turkish coffee to go with it – while Adnan held court over the guests, dispensing raki to guests and orders to Monda, which is the way of things here.

A fantastic spread
(Photo courtesy Gent Mati/Outdoor Albania)

Bread and honey: home-made and home produced

The youngest boy, "super" Mario, was (shall we say) a bit over-excited to have visitors in the house. In between trying to keep him out of mischief, we talked as best we could to Adnan about the farming way of life – one of their principle crops is honey, and their 50 hives produce some 300kg annually – and to Monda about her needlework and tapestries and the beautiful treadle-driven sewing machine in the corner. Missy G is a keen sewer, and has an old hand-driven Singer sewing machine at home, so naturally this proved a great talking point and helped reduce the language barrier a few levels.

A stitch in time: breaking down the language barrier

The raki flowed as well – this innocuous-looking but lethal spirit is always in plentiful supply in these parts, and tonight was no exception. In a way, though, it was those traditional values of hospitality, family and shared food that created a bond between us – if only for a short time.

All in all we had a great night. Come 10.00pm when we crashed out on the sofas, we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.

1 comment:

  1. Gosh how did you find time to write? Certainly brought back memories! Miriam