Friday 22 July 2011

The Accursed Mountains, Albania 9th – 16th July 2011

A small group trekking holiday to the remote and isolated mountains in the north of Albania dubbed the Accursed Mountains – a range of jagged limestone peaks and deep valleys, close to the borders with Montenegro and Kosovo, linked by a series of high passes and all-but impenetrable bar a series of mule tracks and footpaths.

Our interest in the Balkans and the emerging states of the former Yugoslavia has been long-held, but the inspiration for this trip was a chance find by a friend some years ago – a copy of “The Accursed Mountains” by Robert Carver, given to me as a birthday present. The book describes the author’s three-month journey through Albania in the summer of 1996, during a time of increasing violence and anarchy. Although perhaps not representative of the country in recent years, it provided a fascinating snapshot of a country in increasing turmoil, and is well worth a read.

Because of the obvious and well-reported unrest in the Balkans, these borderlands have, until recently, been both dangerous and volatile. But in the last couple of years the wonderful, unspoilt trekking opportunities offered by the area have opened once more and become accessible again to those prepared to invest the effort.


Huber Verlag – Wanderkarte Nordalbanien: Thethi and Kelmend 1:50,000


Huber Verlag – Northern Albania Thethi and Kelmendi by Christian Zindel and Barbara Hausammann

Saturday 9th July 2011

Day 1: Arrival

We reached Tirana airport pretty much on time – always a good start. Stepping from the air-conditioned plane into the Albanian sunshine was like stepping from a fridge into a blast furnace, the mid-afternoon heat beating down on us as we crossed the tarmac providing a foretaste of what was to come.

Having passed through passport control, we met up with our guide, Aleks, as the ten-strong group gradually coalesced in the airport foyer.

Boarding the minibus for the 90-minute transfer to Shkodra we took the main road heading north. At times, two entirely separate carriageways ran side-by-side, traffic bumping across the rough ground from one to the other as progress was blocked on each side alternately. Melon-sellers and hand carwashes lined the roadside. Driving is a different skill to that practiced in the UK, especially overtaking: once we were passed by a car crammed full with bicycles on the back seats and in the boot and piled precariously on the roof to over double the height.

We arrived at our hotel and checked in. After a slight run-around and a hasty, “Oh, shit!” re-allocation of rooms, we settled in before gathering for a short walk through town and up to the ruins of Rozafa Castle, situated on a highly defensible bluff of rock standing over the town. From here we could see out over the lake and north, through the haze, to the mountains.

Later we walked back by the park, watching the locals go about their passegiata in the evening sunshine – very genteel, if slightly proper, and a nod towards things Italian. It was an interesting way to begin to get a feel for the country.

Back at the hotel, we had a delicious meal of grilled meats, cheese, salads and bread. As we turned in for the night we could hear the gentle babble of families and friends in conversation outside, and fell asleep to the strains of a foreign tongue.

Day 2: Into The Mountains – The Diagonal Pass (approx 7.50 miles)

Next morning, breakfast was early – an outdoor affair consisting of omelette, bread, cheese, jam, tea and coffee, and all well appreciated. We were walking today, albeit a bit later, so we packed accordingly and set off in our minibus around 8.15am.

Shkodra is a real mix of buildings old and new – some half built and some half falling down – and a lively, bustling place. Passing through the market area, trade in full swing, we were reminded more of a African town than a European one, with goods spilling out on to the pavement from a succession of small stalls.

Gradually we left the town behind and struck north on a surface of mixed quality towards Boga. On either side was a curious blend of new houses and old roads, piles of litter and well-tended allotments. For no apparent reason we would hit a stretch of good tarmac for a few hundred yards, then it was back to rough, potholed road again.

As we drove from the flat plain into the mouth of the Boga Valley, the excitement was mounting as the peaks suddenly soared skywards on either side.

We stopped for a drink at a café in the village as the church service ended and worshipers spilled out, then continued along the rough car track into the heart of the valley, rising all the time on sharp switchbacks. On the map this loose, stony track connecting Boga and Thethi showed as if a major road.
Half an hour later we reached the trailhead and jumped out, eager to get going. By now – mid-morning – it was quite hot, so our start was delayed briefly as sunscreen was applied generously to large expanses of un-tanned flesh. Then we took a narrow shepherds’ path up through the woods towards the Diagonal Pass (1676m) finally breaking clear of the trees into open, sunny alpine pasture.

The views from the pass were magnificent, surrounded as we were by high, jagged peaks rising to well over 2,500m. We paused for a while to take in the views, grab a drink, and pose for group photographs.

A short section of level-ish walking followed, before the start of the long descent into the Kaprea Valley. These open, grassy areas were brimming with meadow flowers, including wild strawberries that we picked and ate along the way.

Soon we were amongst the trees once more, and quite thankful for the shade they were providing as by now it was very warm. A little later (around 1.45pm) we found a spot for lunch with sufficient shade for the whole group to sit and rest. Our picnics consisted of bread and cheese, tomato, cucumber, apple and a drink – and a raw egg (a mistake, not a delicacy)!

Feeling better for some food and a rehydration sachet, we carried on – partly in shade and partly in the open. It must have been well over 30°C by now, even at 1300m altitude. We crossed a stream where everyone took the chance to cool down a little – some were struggling a bit with the sapping heat – then continued, losing height all the time.

Finally, the path levelled out a bit and we picked up a narrow track by a rocky stream, crossing to the far bank via a crude wooden bridge and following the gorge eastwards out of the amphitheatre. A short detour brought us to the “Blue Eye” pool – of course, in this heat, it was too tempting to resist a (very!) quick swim in the chilly waters.

Refreshed and re-energised, we set off through the gorge on a gently sloping path for the final stretch down to the valley junction.

The going was much easier now, and it wasn’t long before we reached the village – Nderlysa (500m) – located on a broad, stony valley bottom overlooked by ranks of steep-sided mountains.

Soon we came to our guesthouse – a traditional highlander farmhouse. As we were waiting to settle in we were welcomed with cold, fresh spring water. Accommodation was in dorms – girls in one room, boys in two others – so one by one we went to wash and change before dinner. My room had a wooden floor and ceiling, whitewashed walls, a single, bare light bulb and four beds – a bit Spartan, but very comfortable.

The place is really a farmstead, very rustic, and used by the family in the summer months only. Although the family spoke little English, we were all made to feel very welcome. Dinner was served at 7.30pm. All the food was home grown, and we dined on beautiful grilled trout, chips, cheese, stuffed peppers, salads and bread. The raki (the local hooch, and not too rough) was homemade, too, so apart from the beer and soft drinks, the food miles for this meal must be about as low as it gets!

Day 3: River Deep, Mountain High – Nderlysa to Thethi (approx 7.00 miles)

Next morning we had a leisurely start. After a long-ish day yesterday, and with a relatively easy day today, it made sense to enjoy these beautiful surroundings for a little bit longer. As we were assembling outside before breakfast, Grandma came out and offered us chai (mountain tea) or coffee – and raki! At 7.00 in the morning! Hot drinks were welcomed, but we all politely declined the hooch to the mystification of our hosts.

Breakfast came – bread and cheese, jam and honey, and plenty of it, along with refills of tea and coffee. So we all tucked in. Afterwards, we got our things together and assembled for a photo with the family.

We left around 9.00am in a flurry of hugs and handshakes. I said “Faleminderit!” to the chap and he gave me a huge smile and a big pat on the back. We began by following the valley northwards on a clear, stony track, rising in a series of long, easy switchbacks into Thethi National Park. Already, it was quite warm and humid, and we were sweating buckets.

Off to our right, the river tumbled through a deepening gorge, whilst ahead the distinctive summit of Mt Arapit came into view.
A little way on, at the bottom of a short descent, we left the track and took a path across the gorge on a narrow wooden bridge as the river rushed below.

Once over, a short climb on a rocky path brought us to a makeshift café where soft drinks were available, kept cool in a tub full of cool spring water. Needless to say, we took full advantage.

Continuing, we followed a scrambly path up the hillside to reach the base of the Grunas waterfall, a thin cascade tumbling down the steep mountainside. The heat and humidity were affecting some, so this shaded spot with its chilly water and refreshing breeze was a welcome relief. We spent some time here, getting our energy up and our temperature down. No swimming for me today, but I rinsed my hands and face and wrung out my cap, neckerchief and t-shirt in the icy water. Cool!

Heading back down, we retraced our steps briefly before following a contour path alongside a levada-like irrigation channel. We were approaching houses, again, dotted across the valley floor.

After crossing a sizeable tributary stream, we climbed briefly to a low, rocky knoll topped by the Kulla e Ngujimit – the “Blood Feud Tower” – a three-storey building where men targeted by a vendetta could claim sanctuary for a while.

The actual use of these towers, as well as the numbers of them, vary from account to account, with some considering them courthouses whilst others described them more as fortified safe-houses. 

Whatever the truth, it was interesting to go in and look round, to peer through the tiny windows and get a feel for the way life was for men in hiding.

Moving on again, we walked a short way further then stopped for lunch on a grassy bank by the church in the shade of two large trees, where we idled the time away eating and dozing.

One by one, though, we began to notice the cloud massing. So we packed up and walked the final half an hour up the valley to our accommodation in Thethi (750m) keen to avoid a soaking. Good job we did, too, as five minutes after we arrived the heavens opened, a gale picked up, and thunder and lightning crashed and flashed all around us for the next hour and a half – we would have been wet through if caught in it, waterproofs or no.

It was only early afternoon and our bags had not yet arrived, so I sat with Matt in the shelter of the balcony watching the weather, whilst the girls played cards upstairs. Once again our accommodation was in dorms, so once the bags arrived, the bathroom rota began. A dearth of hot water meant showers were taken quickly.

Gradually, the storm abated and the sun came out once more, so we went for a little stroll round the village. The Thethi valley is magnificent – wild and remote, with a tumbling river and a rocky floor that hints at the violence the waters can bring when in spate. In fact a flash flood swept through the valley last year severely damaging property and washing bridges away. We could see that new flood protection measures had been installed, and trees had been planted to try to stabilise the loose, rocky riverbanks.

Once back at the guesthouse, it was time for dinner – another tableful of delicious, local foods – soup, grilled meat, cheese, bread and salads, accompanied by a refreshing yoghurt drink. One thing to note – you are unlikely to go hungry on this trip: with our heat-suppressed appetites, every night we struggled to eat all the food.

A little more socialising followed, then bed and reading by torchlight.

Day 4: The Hotest Day – Peja Pass (approx 10.50 miles)

I woke early, thanks to the resident cockerel, wrote my notes and went for some fresh air before breakfast at 7.00am. Today’s walk was a there-and-back trip to the pass at the head of the valley involving over 1000m of ascent, so those who wanted to take it easy (prior to tomorrow’s tough must-do walk over the Valbona Pass) or escape the heat could do so by only going as far as they wanted.

We set off about 7.30am to take advantage of the relative cool, taking the rough track northwards. Men were already out in the fields, scything the meadow grasses for cattle fodder, while women drove the livestock to pasture.

Last night, at the guesthouse, we bumped into three English students on a summer trip through the Balkans from Belgrade to Istanbul! They seemed to be a great bunch, so when they asked whether they could accompany us on our walk today no one seemed to mind at all.

Gradually we left the houses behind. At a junction, we came across one of the half-million-or-so abandoned concrete machine-gun bunkers former dictator, Enver Hoxha, had built to “protect” Albania from attack – an attack that would never come.

From here, we left the track and picked up a rocky path rising gently past a cool spring where we refilled water bottles. Drawing us on was the sight of the 1000m high rock wall of Mt Arapit.

The path continued to weave in and out of the trees, starting to steepen as we reached the base of the headwall. A couple decided to turn back here as the next section looked formidable – a 600m ascent up a narrow gully on a steep, zig-zag path with little or no shade. Amazingly, this is an old trade route established to allow mule traffic between the valley and nearby Montenegro.

Although only 10.30am, the heat was building and was probably around 35°C already. Coupled with a lack a shade, this made for a draining ascent, but we took it slowly and drank plenty of water. What with my slow pace and photography stops I ended up at the back with Dick, who was sweeping up the stragglers, and we talked music for a while.

Eventually, we reached the top – a narrow gully with a smooth grassy floor. A cooling breeze was funnelled through the pass, so Missy G and I decided to stay here while the rest of the group went a little further. We ate our lunch, took our rehydration sachets, plastered on more sunscreen and had a good rest. Nearby, a couple of German hikers were resting, too. I took some photos of the summit of Mt Arapit and of the view north across the cirque towards the Montenegrin border.

Some while later we began our descent. By now it was approaching the hottest part of the day and we were perspiring freely, but a least going downhill was not quite as strenuous as going up, so we weren’t overheating too badly. The remainder of the walk passed fairly uneventfully as we retraced our steps back down the mountain, calling again at the spring for fresh water and taking a couple of rest stops when shade allowed. It was a tough walk – some even said brutal in such heat – but we all made it back safely.

We got back about 3.00pm and made a beeline for the beers, which have rarely tasted better. Then it was showers (cold, but it didn’t matter) and a change ready for dinner. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, reading and washing a few clothes, which quickly dried in the sun. Aleks later mentioned that a temperature of 41°C had been recorded in Shkodra.

Then we took another short walk around the village for a last look round and a few more pictures.

Thethi and the Shala Valley is certainly an exceptional place. Although we were not the only hikers around there were very few other people about, and there is a definite sense of “frontier town” about the village. We had a closer look at the new flood defences and went over the replacement road bridge.

Dinner was taken outside – another fine, fresh spread of soup, meats, vegetables and salads. In her book “High Albania”, Edith Durham describes taking a meal exactly like this – over 100 years ago!

Then Aleks cracked open the raki and a party atmosphere developed, shared between us, the students, a Dutch family travelling by public transport and some nearby campers. We joined in for a while then took our leave – tomorrow promised to be a tough day, so an early night was in order.

Day 5: Mules Rush In – Valbona Pass (approx 9.50 miles)

Up early again, this time for a 6.30am breakfast, as once again we wanted to make the most of the cooler conditions. Today, the bags had to be transported by mule as there is no road connection, and it also meant there was no alternative to completing the walk!

Gathering outside we waited for the muleteers who soon arrived with two beasts. Loading these animals is quite a practiced art, and it took a while to get them just so. Although seemingly bulky, the animals seemed to be quite happy under the load – balance probably more critical than weight.

By 7.30am we were underway, following at first the same track as yesterday morning before branching off towards the east on a steeper track. The pace then slowed significantly as we took a clear path up a very steep rocky spur. However, we gained height pretty quickly, and within the hour we had put the hardest section behind us.

The hike over the Valbona Pass is one of the classics of the area, a 1200m climb to the narrow pass joining Thethi to the Valbona Valley, supposedly taking in the region of 8 hours to complete – no mean undertaking given the heat.

Moving on, the gradient relented somewhat and we made swifter progress, partly through woods and partly in the open. As we rose, Mt Arapit came into view over the neighbouring ridge.

Fortunately, though, a good proportion of this section was through gorgeously cool woodland with easy going underfoot. We stopped quite frequently in the shade – mostly for the benefit of the mules – and took the opportunity for replenishing our water supplies at a convenient stream. Occasionally, gaps in the trees allowed us to look back over Thethi.

Eventually, after negotiating a narrow, scree-covered section with a big drop to our right, we emerged at the pass, a thin, narrow saddle at 1950m barely wide enough for us all to stand on side by side. It was 10.50am.

We took photos and shared a few moments of congratulation, spending around 15 minutes resting and soaking up the fantastic views. Frank scrambled up a nearby peak. The three students had again walked with us but were returning to Thethi, so we wished them well and watched them head back down the hill.

Our route lay ahead. First, we skirted round the mountainside on a narrow, shaley path high above the Valbona Valley. We could clearly see the pale, rubble-strewn valley floor standing out against the wooded slopes.

Soon, we began to zig-zag down towards an open pasture of wild flower meadows. The path was easy to follow, and the red-and-white striped waymarking clear if not always plentiful.

A short while later, we found a small clearing with a little shade and stopped for lunch. Even though it was still quite early (only just after midday) we had been on the go for a fair while and everyone was ready for the break.

Dropping further down from this mid-level plateau involved a series of steep, loose paths that required careful foot placement and good concentration. But eventually the gradient eased and we picked up a gentle woodland path bringing us to a group of isolated houses, some of which seemed derelict.

On the downhill section, the mules (and muleteers) made quicker progress than we did, so they took a slight detour to water the horses at the river. However, such was our progress they were soon catching us up again.

Eventually we reached the valley floor. The next couple of miles were hard going – a feint track had been imprinted on the rough, cobbled ground and we stumbled along, sweltering in the hot, humid conditions, with no shade for respite, while the collective heat of the day radiated back from the pale stones.

Luckily, the first building of note proved to be our stop for the night, and we tumbled in, gasping for a cold drink. Rrogram might only be a small settlement, but it marks the beginning of the car track out of the valley, so this place – a café-cum-guesthouse – was well stocked with beer and soft drinks.

Another bonus – this accommodation had plenty of options, so Missy G and I could room together for the first time since Shkodra. We had an en-suite bathroom and loads of warm water, so we could have a proper wash and I had my first shave for several days. Bliss! The remainder of the afternoon was spent relaxing and reading and catching up on some lost sleep.

Around 6.00pm the group began to gather for beer and conversation. Aleks told us (as I’m sure he tells other groups) that our time of 6¾ hours for the walk was a record for one of his groups, and that 7½ to 8 hours is more usual. It may have been flannel, but it made us feel a whole lot better! Apart from the heat (which has required a bit of getting used to) after the first day or two we have all coped pretty well with the walking physically.

Dinner appeared abruptly at 7.20pm. The waiter, a rather brusque individual, was obviously keen to be elsewhere – no sooner had the soup been served than he was out with the main course which we squeezed on to the table. Then, only minutes later, he was back with desert. We had to ask him to take it back while we finished the other two courses! Still, it was another nice meal and we were all full by the end.

As if by magic, more raki appeared. This brew was a different beast, though – a far more industrial version than the smooth stuff we had become used to, quite literally “breathtaking”, with a more chemical flavour and more than capable of bringing a tear to the eye. We went for a little walk to check that we still could, then popped back for a final round – this time well diluted with apricot juice and Sprite in a new cocktail known as Trekker’s Ruin!

Day 6: The Morning After – Rrogram to Dunisha (approx 11.50 miles)

Today was the final day of our trek. We had a leisurely start, with breakfast at 7.30am and departure around an hour later. Needless to say, it was another hot, bright morning, not entirely suiting the one or two thick heads and grumbling stomachs on display.

We began by following the car track along the valley towards Valbona, with a chance to photograph the mountains we walked over yesterday.

It was level, easy going for the first few kilometres with plenty of chance to admire the stunning scenery all round.

In and amongst all the magnificent grandeur, there was still chance for some intimate “people” moments. I had been quite careful not to be too intrusive with the camera, especially as it is not always welcomed on religious grounds. But I just couldn’t resist this scene of an old couple heading home.

Soon we turned off the road and made our way across the rocky river channel. A rough track led up into a side valley to the tiny hamlet of Kukaj where we saw two beautifully situated dwellings on the sunny hillside, surrounded by crops and livestock.

We pushed on up the valley. Once again, the heat was playing its part, with several of the group feeling less than 100%. We reached a shaded spot where our path split off from the main track and paused for a rest. As this section was a there-and-back walk, some decided they would wait there while others carried on higher up the valley. Janis wasn’t feeling great, so she and Paul stayed behind, as did Matt.

Suitably rested, those heading higher set off again. But after about 10 minutes climbing through the woodland I knew I didn’t really want to go any further. The heat  - and I don’t really do heat very well – had finally sapped my energy. So Missy G and I turned back and rejoined the waiting group, spending the next hour and a half reading and dozing in the shade, listening to nearby shepherd boys tending their flock, the buzzing of insects and the peace and quiet. Sometimes it is best just to sit and soak up the vibe of a special place.

The others returned, having reached a farmstead higher up the valley. Soon we were heading back down again, retracing our steps. Rejoining the main road we walked on for a few minutes, then found a bar where we could enjoy a cold drink. Nearby, we could see a group of men going about their work.

Another few kilometres of road walking followed, now paralleling the more briskly running river, still with amazing views of the mountains all round. 

Finally, we took a short-cut path off the main road round behind the village of Dunisha, all wooden shingles and wonky angles, to our stop for the night.

At our guesthouse we were welcomed in, asked to take off our outdoor shoes and put house shoes on (as is the local custom) and led into the large kitchen for coffee or chai (which we discovered was made from Oregano!). Once again, we were split into dorms for the night, a nice clean room with bunk beds and a tiled floor.

As we had a very early start in the morning, we were having an early dinner this evening and wanted a little time to repack bags for a non-trekking day. But the bags were late in arriving, so we showered as best we could – everybody just about being ready in time.

Dinner this evening was at a separate restaurant a short walk away, a nice, new-looking establishment close to the National Park information point. We had another lovely meal – what I might now refer to as the standard fare – plus some rather nice Albanian red wine, in a very convivial atmosphere. The group had really bonded over the past few days, and conversation and banter flowed freely, as between friends.

Day 7: The Longest Day – Dunisha to Tirana

The alarm went off at 4.30am. Amid much grumbling about lack of sleep, we threw our clothes on, finished packing, and loaded up the minibus for our 5.00am departure. We needed to catch the early morning Lake Koman ferry, which was a good hour’s drive away, otherwise we would be too late arriving in Tirana.

The road out of the valley was pretty spectacular, winding a twisting through the narrow gorge with the river rushing below us. Dropping swiftly in height, we came to Bajram Curri in about 45 minutes – the first town of any size since Shkodra – and emerged onto tarmac roads, which was something of a relief.

Half an hour later, we reached the landing stage at Fierza (3km down a rough track) and loaded our baggage aboard the good ship “Tropoja” for the 2½ hour passenger ferry ride to Komani.

The lake was formed as recently as the 1980’s when the River Drin was dammed for hydroelectric power generation and the valley flooded, and must rate as one of the more unusual and spectacular transfers that can be made.

It is very narrow gorge, steep-sided and fjord-like, and the early morning mist and rising sun made for some interesting lighting conditions and plenty of fantastic photo opportunities.

Although it seemed quite uninhabited, it soon became apparent that this was also used as a sort of hop on/hop off transport service for the sprinkling of farms and hamlets dotting the hillsides. From time to time we would pull over to the side, apparently nowhere near anywhere, to pick up or drop off locals.

We were about the only boat on the water at this hour, so apart from our own wake there was nothing to disturb the still surface. The only disappointment, especially for Peter and I, was the lack of bird life. In fact wildlife was a bit scarce throughout the trip.

In places the narrow valley opened out into a wider lake when the full grandeur of the scenery could be appreciated. But soon we were back in the narrow gorge, hemmed in by steep, wooded cliffs.

As we neared the end of our ride, we could see the busy landing stage beside the dam. Traffic and people bustled about. As we got off we saw the Dutch family from Thethi getting on! 

We loaded our gear into the waiting minibus. As is often the case, everyone was in a hurry to get going, but because of the crowding there was no space to move into. The only way to and from the landing stage was via a narrow tunnel through the cliff-side, which was blocked with incoming traffic!
Eventually we got underway, following a badly potholed road alongside a lower lake. The entire area has been given over to hydroelectric production and a large network of dammed rivers and manmade lakes exists specifically for this purpose.

The next hour or so passed quickly. In the warm bus we all began to doze and make up for missed sleep overnight, and I’m guessing a quick slug of raki had something to do with it, too.

We passed through a couple of towns, each looking more prosperous than the one before, and soon we were down on the plains once more where we joined the main road to Tirana, flanked again on either side by melon-sellers and carwashes.

Because of the early start, lunch was included today and we took a short detour to a smart, beautifully situated restaurant specialising in locally sourced, home grown, homemade produce. It was only 11.30am, but breakfast had been a long time ago.

We sat outside. Plate after plate of delicious food appeared before us, and, just when we thought we had eaten our fill, mountains of grilled meats and kebabs arrived as well.

Back on the bus, overfed and broiling in the searing lowland heat, we all fell asleep and perspired our way to Tirana. But within the hour we were in the city centre being dropped off at our hotel. The air conditioned, en-suite rooms were a godsend, and we spent a good couple of hours cleaning ourselves up and cooling ourselves down.

Tonight we were going to hit the town! We met at 7.00pm in the hotel bar and had a drink while Graham made a brief speech and a presentation to our exceptional guide, Aleks. In fact he definitely seemed more a member of the group than simply a guide, always joining in the fun, although he never once put the anything before the comfort and welfare of the group.

After a short tour round Skanderbeg Square and the central area, we made for the Sky Bar, a revolving bar on top of a tall building with views across all of downtown Tirana.

Then it was on to another bar where we decided to eat. The food all trip had been great, but it was nice to have a change. All too soon it was time to head back – at least for some of us! Tirana by night is a buzzing place and there were plenty of people out and about with nightlife galore for the youngsters. For those of us a little longer in the tooth, our hotel beckoned. On the way we picked up an ice cream, the first one of the trip – at gone 11.00pm it was still very warm – what a nice way to end the day.

Day 8: Departure

With a mid-afternoon flight, we had the morning free to explore the city centre by daylight. We had a bit of breakfast and a gorgeous orange juice – funnily enough, we weren’t that hungry after last night’s late meal – then set off.

We walked the few minutes to Skanderbeg Square, and took our life in our hands as we crossed the four-lane highway. Actually, it wasn’t too bad once we had the bright idea of slipstreaming a local. There is quite a lot of building work going on in the square, but eventually we made our way across and into the bookshop that had been pointed out to us yesterday. We spent a while browsing in the air-conditioned shop where we bought a map and guidebook.

Then we walked up another block or so, past an unusual building. It must have been an optical illusion but it seemed round at the bottom and square at the top, and appeared to get wider as it got taller.

We had a look round some of the souvenir shops and purchased tablecloths and runners for the folks back home. Shopping done, the rest of the morning was ours, so we wandered through the streets passing these two gents, pushed into an out-of-the-way spot, as we did. Seems apt, somehow …..

Again, it was a warm day. The thermometer in the Ethem Bey Mosque showed 36°C at 9.00am this morning. So when we came to this shady park we couldn’t resist lingering for a while.

We found a seat by the fountain, thankful for a little cool, and ordered a drink from the bar. Frank wandered by, and stopped briefly to compare purchases.

Finally, we worked our way back round to Skanderbeg Square one last time, and got a photo of the hero himself – thankfully without too much construction work showing!

We popped back to the hotel for a quick wash and brush up, then it was off to the airport for the journey back home. Apart from a slight delay in the flight time, all went well. We were sorry to be leaving this fascinating country, especially its majestic mountains and the friendly highlander people, and it is a trip that will live long in our memories for many reasons.

We had also been part of a great group. Considering we were living cheek-by-jowl for a week, we all got on very well and there were no frayed tempers despite the hot weather and living so closely together. So to Paul, Janis, Graham, Dick, Peter, Frank, Matt, Claire and, especially, Aleks, thanks very much – it was brilliant.

The only thing we perhaps wouldn’t miss was the heat.

Did I mention the heat?


  1. I see you visited my neighborhood nice journey you had.. beautiful photos :D

  2. Hi Tomba - Yes, not too far away I guess. It's definitely an area that interests us - Albania, B&H, Montenegro, Macedonia, etc - so hopefully we can make more trips in future.

  3. Looks like you had a really good week - and yet another brilliant trip report. Just surprised you never mentioned the heat :)

  4. I really enjoyed your report, Jules. May I ask, who did you travel with? Looks like a great break.

  5. @ Alan. No problem in asking! We went with Walks Worldwide, and I believe KE Adventures do a similar trip.

    As far as I know, both trips are orgaised on the ground by Outdoor Albania.

    Googling any of the names will take you to their respective websites.

  6. Tracey AKA dittzzy4 September 2011 at 10:04

    Thank you for sharing the pictures, experience and information. It looks fantastic. (Something else to add on my list).

  7. @Tracey. Thanks for the comments - glad you enjoyed the report. I have to admit, it was great - one of our best ever trips. If you get the chance, give it a go!

  8. I am off on Friday to do this trip - thank you for your wonderful insight into the trip, it is very helpful, how much money did you find you needed to exchange please?

  9. First of all, thanks for dropping by, and I hope you have a great trip.

    We found we didn't need all that much cash, as on the trekking part of the trip there wasn't much to buy apart from drinks. There is an ATM at Tirana airport, and I think (IIRC) we changed about £100 between two of us.

    If you have any left over, there is always the opportunity to use it up when you get back to Tirana at the end of the trip - if you do as we did, you might go out as a group on the last night. You can also top up in Tirana if you need more - there are ATMs there. We bought our guide (Aleks) a meal, and needed some for a tip as well. Even so, we didn't get through much.

    Hope that helps!

  10. Hi Jules - that helps very much thank you - do you have any useful tips other than the obvious ones? Is it really necessary to have a 35litre day pack or would a 25litre one suffice? My name is Launa btw but it seemed the easiest and quickest way to be anonymous :0)

  11. Hi Launa

    I guess the decision about the size of day pack depends on what you like to take with you on a full day's walk. You will need lunch and water, a layer or two and/or waterproofs - the standard stuff, really. And you will get to meet up with your luggage each night (unless your schedule is different to ours) so things like changes of clothing can be made then.

    As for precautions? Well, I can think of a couple. One, it was very, very hot when we were there, even at altitude, and the rocks are limestone that reflect the heat and radiation back at you, so a hat, sunscreen, water, SPF and/or clothing that covers well (eg: long sleeves) and rehydration salts - great things that weigh next to nothing as have a rapid effect if used).

    The other thing? Go carefully with the Raki! It was potent but OK at Nderlysa, in other places it was potent but rank!

    Otherwise, just pay the usual attention while you are travelling, and listen to the advice of your guide. To be honest, we never felt any kind of threat, even in Tirana.

    Good luck!

  12. Jules - thank you so very much, I was considering the hydration salts and will now pop out and buy some, also thanks for your "warning" on the rank raki, I will steer well clear of that as from reading the review most mornings are early ones!! I will let you know how the journey goes but am extremely looking forward to it, your review helped very much. Thanks again. Launa