Whilst staying in the Albanian Alps at the Rezidenca, Valbona, we had two days to enjoy the amazing mountain air and scenery.
Our itinerary told us we’d begin by going up the mountain by 4WD. This turned out not to be the swanky 4WD I was expecting, and whilst it was a Mercedes (which are big in Albania), it was a truck with four seats in the cab.
After a short drive, we turned off onto a narrow track and began climbing up the twisting bumpy road for nearly 30 minutes. It was so steep, I didn’t care about the state of the vehicle, I was just grateful I wasn’t walking. Eventually we arrived and hiked for 15 minutes to the home of our driver, Florant, 1250m above sea level.
Florant lives in a stan or summer shepherds house, Stani I Arif Kadris, and has recently added two guest rooms. We enjoyed excellent Turkish coffee sat at an outdoor covered terrace with a long wooden table, benches and amazing views. Life in rural Albania is hard and the family has three cows and 100 sheep, kept for meat and wool. Florant’s father takes the sheep up to a higher grazing area, where he stays with them for 4 summer months. The sheep are then brought down to the middle station for 4 months, and for winter, they’re moved even lower due to snow. Because of the remote location, Florant’s wife lives in the village of Valbona, from Monday to Friday as they have two school-age children.
Fortified by the strong coffee, we set off walking along a narrow track high above a green grassy plateau. Eventually, the path developed a sheer drop on one side and as the undergrowth was quite thick with ferns and thorny bushes, I was pleased I’d ditched my shorts for the day. Roy didn’t and ended up with scratched legs. As well as negotiating the flora, we had two rubber hoses underfoot to contend with, as these took water from the mountain top to a wooden water trough for the animals.
Having reached a wonderful, open, viewing point overlooking the valley, the path became very steep and rocky. The weather was variable with sun and showers alternating and we decided it was best to turn around. On the way back we hiked down a lower, easier route along the grassy plateau. However, this meant at one-point climbing over a large barbed wire fence, protecting our trousers as we scrambled over the twigs and branches.
Back at the stan, we enjoyed a pre-lunch glass of natural home-made yoghurt which has a short shelf life as there are no preservatives. Once I got over the lumpy consistency, which made it looked curdled, I found it delicious.
Lunch started with a very good minestrone soup, followed by a baked pepper stuffed with rice and vegetables served with bread, salad and a plate of olives, cheese slices and pickled cucumbers. We then had pastry triangles and a bowl of what looked like a thick yoghurt which turned out to be an accompanying cheese dip.
Although we had the option of walking back down, we decided to have another ‘Albanian massage’ in the bumpy truck.
Having had a shorter hike than expected on Day 1, we wanted more of a leg stretch on our second trip to the mountains.
A short drive took us to our starting point, a small hamlet, Kukaj, where we parked up near an abandoned bunker from the communist era. Our guide, Alban, told us that the steel is of such high quality, they’re often bulldozed to remove the valuable commodity.
We crossed a dried riverbed on a wobbly plank and quickly started climbing along a tree-lined path, right up to 1300m where we eventually stopped at a guesthouse, Tahir Avdyli. Alban suggested a Turkish coffee and raki (a strong alcoholic shot) which wasn’t exactly what I had in mind at 10.30am, but I went with the flow. From our table at an outdoor covered terrace, with amazingly good WiFi, we took in the mountain views.
Fortified by the raki, we continued climbing for a further 30 minutes. Eventually the going got tougher and steeper and, having reached a natural stopping point, we turned around and headed back down.
Albania’s north is probably less visited than the rest of the country, but if you’re into hiking and have the time, it’s well worth the trip.