Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Albania: The Labëria Highlands & Ionian Coast – Day 2

Monday 23rd September – Tërbaç to Kallarat, then to Kuç

Total Distance: 10.30 miles / Total Ascent: 470m / Total Descent: 637m

Altitude Max (1) 528m / Altitude Min (1) 254m
Altitude Max (2) 495m / Altitude Min (2) 395m

Rising early, we began to prepare and pack for the day’s walking. Breakfast was served on the terrace beneath a vine-wreathed trellis, with a view overlooking the valley. A very different kind of light illuminated the Lightening Mountains this morning, lending them a dark, brooding quality that contrasted noticeably with the soft, warm early evening light of yesterday.

Outside the house

Monda came up trumps again – cheese, boiled eggs, milk, yoghurt, bread and honey swamped the table, with caj and Turkish coffee to wash it all down.

On trips such as this, beer o’clock is usually mid- to late afternoon, timed to coincide with the end of the walk. Sometimes, if circumstances allow, this can be brought forward to lunchtime if refreshment of that ilk is especially desirable. Or, sometimes, the pre-prandial timeslot works best. 

Raki o’clock, on the other hand, has a more definite timing. In these parts that’s usually around 7.30 – in the morning! Yes, shots of this rocket fuel of a beverage are traditionally served at breakfast alongside Turkish coffee.

Breakfast on the terrace

Over the week, we saw this was very much the norm for the locals, who often had two or even three hefty noggins just to get the motor running of a morning. This amounted to a cupful or more of 50% proof hooch that according to Tom, one of our team sporting a slightly singed finger, ignites readily.

So a large bottle of it making an appearance at the breakfast table was a perfectly normal occurrence as far as our hosts were concerned. I have to say, I tried a small shot for myself – just to be hospitable, of course! – and it does work. Sort of. “Taking one for the team” was how Emma put it.

Local transport, Tërbaç-style  

With goodbyes exchanged, we re-united with the other half of the group and set off down the hill towards the lower half of the village. As might be expected, the trails hereabouts were not especially delightful in that the ground and bushes round and about were dotted with the typical detritus that a village can generate.

In what was fast becoming a regular occurrence, we cornered a local chap to show us the way – past the village, across the river and on to the undulating valley floor, where behind us we could see the obvious notch of the St George Pass.

Looking back to the St George Pass

A pleasant path took a winding route through deciduous woodland, and shortly afterwards reached a track that led in time to the next village, Vranisht. Although somewhat rough and unkempt nowadays, this road must once have been an important thoroughfare if this bridge was anything to go by.

Bridge near Vranisht

We made a drinks stop at the café, and took the opportunity to have a look around the village. In early January 1943, Vranisht was the site of a notable WWII battle (the battle of Gjorm) where local resistance fighters won a decisive victory against the occupying Italian forces. The glow of victory was only short-lived, though, as the Italian air force bombed the villages of the valley in reprisal.

Vranisht village square

Remembering those lost in WWII

Freedom fighter and local hero, Sali Murati

Moving on, we found another local chap to guide us to the next village. After a short stretch along the “main road” – a stony track just about wide enough for two vehicles to pass side by side as long as one pulled in – we struck off across the valley on a narrow, undulating path that disappeared into the bushes. "Disappeared" being the operative word: the scrubby vegetation rose to above head height, and the path – indistinct at the best of times – bifurcated often, delivering us to dead ends from which retreat was the only option.

"Where's the path?" Must be this way

After several false starts we finally made it to Kallarat, only to find ourselves entering the village through someone’s garden. Perhaps the one true path still eludes us. The poor householder could only watch dumbfounded as a local bloke and twelve hot, sweaty, bedraggled foreigners wearing rucksacks and weird clothing traipsed through her property to an embarrassed chorus of “Hello” and “Sorry”.

Arriving in Kallarat, correct path optional
(Photo courtesy Dan Painter/Walks Worldwide)
Holly leaves on an Oak tree? All vegetation in Albania is either thorny or scratchy,
so this Oak seems to have grown spiky leaves to compete. Not, as you might think, a
Hollyoak, but most likely a Kermes Oak, the tree from which cochineal is derived.

Pomegranates: effective in reducing heart disease - as are holidays

The kerfuffle of our arrival didn’t go unnoticed by other villagers either. A neighbour invited Miriam to pick grapes, which proved a real hit, and we got ourselves caught up with traffic on the high street.

"Fancy a quick grape?"
(Photo courtesy Dan Painter/Walks Worldwide)

Right, I've found the haystack. Now where's the needle?

Time was moving on, though. The original loose plan had been to walk to Kuç from Dukat over two days, with an overnight stop planned for somewhere round Vranisht. But given the lost time due to our “temporary misplacement” on the first day, plus the general underfoot conditions of the paths (as they are now) and the difficulty of route finding - even for a local guide in his own backyard (and someone else’s!) - that would’ve been a tall order.

R & R in downtown Kallarat

So instead we stopped for drinks at the local bar, while a minibus was organised to take us to Kuç where we were due to have lunch at a specialist fish restaurant. I always think there is something about a simple meal that is hard to beat, and this seasoned grilled trout served with bread, cheese and salads was about as good as simple food gets.

Something fishy going on: restaurant, Kuç

Feeling somewhat stuffed, we hiked up the road to our digs for the night – again a pair of adjacent houses on the hillside with a view looking out over the valley. The team was split into two groups as before, and we were led to a nice, new-looking house and shown to our rooms by Gramoz, the chap who ran the fish restaurant. Two areas were arranged like the previous night in Tërbaç, with couches that converted into beds, whilst the third, to which we were shown, was a room with a double bed – ours by default, perhaps, as the married couple amongst the group, but we weren’t complaining.

Soviet-style artwork: this mosaic memorial is huge

The room was comfortably furnished, and spread around with a variety of nick-nacks that hinted at a feminine touch. A wedding photograph on the wall confirmed our thoughts: this room belonged to Gramoz and his wife. I must confess to feeling quite moved by this gesture: although we were, in a way, paying guests, it still seemed a very generous thing to do – especially when we later found out they had slept on couches themselves.

Gorge leading to the headwaters of the Shushica River

Having dropped our stuff in the room and had a quick tidy up, we went out for an optional stroll up a nearby gorge. A rocky track leading from the road soon began to switch back and forth across the river as the ravine narrowed. 

Water channel: good balance and a head for heights required

To avoid repeated crossings, we took a route beside a levada-like water channel that required a head for heights and good sense of balance. Soon, though, we reached another crossing – this one unavoidable – and here we decided to head back (although some others pressed on a little further). If I’d known, I’d have brought my sandals, but I’m not at all good at bare feet on bare rocks.

River crossing

Dinner that evening was prepared by Gramoz’s wife – salads, bread and soup, plus grilled meat and rice, with an assortment of drinks (water, çaj, beer and raki) to wash it all down. It was all quite delicious, but the large lunch had blunted our appetites somewhat. All that food, fresh air and exercise had done for most of us, though, and by 9.00pm we were all heading for bed.

1 comment:

  1. I'm loving reading this blog and how you have captured the very essence of the trip