Friday 1 August 2014

Peaks Of The Balkans: Albania, Montenegro & Kosovo - Day 8

Day 8 – Thethi to Rrogram via the Valbona Pass

10.27 miles / Total Ascent 1449m / Total Descent 1176m

The Big Day was upon us. Or at least that is how it is pitched. Somehow the crossing of the Valbona Pass has reached an almost mythical status: a tough trek, and one that embodies all that is good about trekking in this area. Don’t get me wrong: it shouldn't be underestimated, but in truth it was no harder than several other days on the route, and one that would be well within the compass of most regular hillwalkers. 

A much brighter morning: view southwards from the guesthouse

And, having done it once before, we already had an awareness of what to expect. It’s undoubtedly a long road journey to get to the same place by vehicle, so most travelers need to take themselves and their luggage as well, something that usually requires the assistance of a mule team.

Setting off in the sunshine

The morning dawned bright, and filled us with a guarded optimism after that last couple of days of iffy weather. We were away, with mules loaded, by 8.30am, and although nowhere near as hot as last time, it was certainly warm enough for that time of the morning.

Distinctive Mt Arapit dominates the view to the north

From track to path, flat to steep, we began to climb, and the distinctive summit of Mt Arapit – entirely hidden in clouds during the previous two days, including when we passed right by it crossing the Peja Pass – dominated the skyline to the north.  

Flower-filled meadows on the way to the Valbona Pass

The route winds steadily upwards – sometimes steep, sometimes steady - through cool woods and flower-rich meadows threaded by butterflies. We took our time: after all, the scenery was worth it, and to rush on such a sublime morning would have been sacrilege.

Tony relaxing in the sunshine

The path was familiar, albeit that it was three years since we had last been this way. So what struck me as we climbed was how much had changed in such a short space of time. Certainly the infrastructure has improved, and – by the look of things – accommodation has increased in both quantity and quality. OK, this may not be universal, but from what we could see bridges, guesthouses and paths had all undergone refurbishment.

I must be dreaming.

Around three-quarters of the way up, we came across an unusual sight. Three years ago, this would have been a mirage. Now, this vision ahead that looks like a bar is a bar! We stopped for a drink and to fill up our water. As it happened, though, they also had Fli, the traditional pancake-based dish so beloved in northern Albania and Kosovo. So we had to have some, just to check if it was as nice as we remembered.

Enjoying some of the popular layered pancake-like Fli 

Although I was happy to take advantage of the facilities, I felt a sense of disquiet, too. Enterprising it most certainly was. But appropriate? I’m not so sure. I mean I know that tourism will bring changes, and that life is hard in these parts, so any form of income is vital to the community as is anything that helps to keep that community together. But I couldn’t help think there was something not quite right about it, too: that in an area whose main attraction to visitors is its remote feel and pristine nature, a line had been crossed in some way. Is that wrong of me?

At the top of the pass

The remaining climb to the top was completed in about an hour, so around 3.45 hours after setting out, we were standing at the pass. Unlike last time, we had a little energy left to climb a rocky knoll for fine views into both valleys during lunch.

View into the valley, with cloud rapidly building

What was also clear from our viewpoint was that the sunshine of early morning had given way to dark clouds to the west, and that rain was on its way. So we didn’t linger, and managed to get the first, steep part of the descent behind us before the rain hit. Sometimes steady, sometimes a deluge, we progressed carefully through the rain: although the path was not so steep, there were still sections where a slip could occur – something we hoped to avoid.

On the first part of the descent

We kept going down – past other new bars, and on to a waterlogged track in the valley bottom. For a few minutes the rain came very heavily, then – just as we were contemplating taking shelter in a nearby bar – it relented enough that we opted to carry on.

The Valbona valley is an unusual place, strewn with loose rock and boulder fields that tumble down the mountain sides, and unlike anywhere else I can think of. Judging by the amount of loose rock, there must be a hell of a lot of water flowing down the mountainsides in the spring thaw, and erosion here must happen at an alarming rate. The car road here simply cuts across this scree, and is in reality just stones and pebbles compressed into something approaching a passable surface. Still, it meant we were on track, and gave us something to follow as we headed for Rrogram.

Walking the car road along the valley floor

Last time, we had overnighted at a modest hotel sited at the point where the boulder field gave way to the gravel road to Bajram Curri. Now this road has been asphalted, and the hotel is several times bigger than before. It was also heaving – "build it, and they will come" - more people than we had seen since Shkodra! So we moved swiftly on, took once more to the riverbed car road, and reached our guesthouse a mile or so further on.

View back from near the guesthouse as the clouds lifted

Cozy, well-situated, with nice rooms (3 to a room, with en suite shower rooms) and a warm welcome, we had time for tea in the garden before a rest and a clean-up before dinner – one of the best so far, with a delicious soup to begin with, grilled goat with salads and potatoes, and watermelon for afters.

That evening was the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, and in the corner of the dining room was a large TV. As kick-off approached, the generator was coaxed into life, and we all sat expectantly round the screen. Sadly, though, the generator wasn’t quite up to the task. A few tiny lights is one thing, but powering a large TV something else entirely, and after a couple of false starts, it finally admitted defeat after about 20 minutes. Some trotted off to a nearby bar to watch the rest, but we called it a night. After all, it was 9.30pm, so well past our bedtime!

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