Sunday, 4 August 2013

Valbona chillin'

I pause to catch my breath and wait for Gayle to catch up.  She's nowhere to be seen.  After rolling out of Bajram Curry down to a river crossing we've started to climb and the road turns to dirt and climbs up into the mouth of the gorge we've just passed.  The gap in the mountains seems impossibly narrow.  Gayle finally appears coming back from a turn-off going in the wrong direction.  Her head was down and she followed the tarmac - wishful thinking on her part.  A man had stopped her going too far and shouted to her to turn around.  We negotiate the climb up the dirt road carefully and the gradient is mostly quite moderate.  The sun beats down but there is some cool air floating up to us from the torrent of glacial water flowing in the river beside the road.  

This is reputedly the cleanest water in Albania - the Valbona river - and it looks tempting as the sweat trickles down our faces, down our backs, down our legs and into our sandals.  There's a car passing by now and again but the valley is quiet.  After passing through one village and climbing steeply on a rough section we finally emerge onto new tarmac.  We sense the valley is about to open out and we stop under a huge tree for lunch in the shade.  The percussive scraping of cicadas and the rush of the river are the only noise.  Up ahead and across the valley are impressive rough limestone peaks, some with patches of snow still showing.  These are the Albanian Alps - peaks of around 2500 metres which mark the borders with Montenegro and Kosovo.   

We reflect on Jenny and Ian's voluntary work in Bajram Curry and wonder how they will get on there.  They seem to already have got the measure of the place - most Albanian public servants do not work beyond lunchtime - and they seem to be adapting well.  It must be a real contrast to life in the States.  They had hoped for a posting in Africa.  Could they have expected to see such a poor country as this in Europe?  The town has no rubbish collection.  Locals put rubbish in specific piles in the streets (hard for us to identify) and the 'trash cows' would come along and munch through it.  We also saw some Roma salvaging stuff dumped on the edge of town.  The housing blocks all looked jerry-built but there was a gleaming new elementary school and Ian expects a new high school to be built here soon.  However, elections just held have meant a change of president.  Berisha, the local man, will be stepping down.  Will a new president invest in this region?  The small town seems to have about a hundred cafes - these provide the men with something to do all day.

We continue easily now up the Valbona valley and come to the first guesthouse.  There's camping down by the river and the owner is friendly and relaxed.  We decide to check out the rest of the options in the valley and cycle up to where the valley flattens and opens out.  The scenery is stunning.  There are mountains all around covered in trees.  A wide dry riverbed lazily stretches through the farmland.  The white stones dazzle in the sunlight.  The river must be running somewhere underneath because it pours down the valley lower down.  There's a scattering of old stone houses, some newer wooden ones and then a handful of guesthouses dotted alongside the road to where the tarmac finishes in a stand of pine trees.  The tourist development looks quite new and at first jars, but after a while it doesn't seem so bad.  Every restaurant or guesthouse has music playing.  We check out wild camping spots, but there is litter left everywhere in the trees.  It seems locals come up here to picnic and leave everything behind when they're done.  The music boom booms in the background.  We decide to return to the peaceful guesthouse lower down the valley.

The Rilindja is run by Alfred and his American wife Catherine.  Alfred's extended family live in a collection of farms just slightly higher up, tucked away from the new road.  They've built a much larger, 4 storey guesthouse, there but we want to camp by the river.  The climate up here is much fresher, and, joy of joys, it's cool at night.  We decide instinctively that we want to stay here a while.  Each evening we sit at a table and chat to other guests.  Like the campsite in Zabljak, we are meeting a variety of people on holiday and so we are having a bit of a social life.  It's only on occasions like these when we realise how much time we spend alone together cycling.

The two days we planned to stay here becomes twenty.  We meet loads of friendly folk and have a great time.  There's Alex (UK) and Ozlem (Turkey), Muriel & Yves (France), Zazie & Ari (Germany), Stefano & Alex (Italy & Israel), Linda & Jonas (Denmark), Martin (Poland), Manuel & Anna (Germany), Mariah (Netherlands), Koenrad, Truus, Simon & Nura (Belgium), Andreas and Mike (Austria) and in an old camper van Mechthild & Marc (Germany). Most people are stopping for a couple of nights and moving on, but those with their own transport who have made it up the dirt road, seem happy to spend a few days up here exploring.  It might be because we are in Albania, but the other foreigners we meet all seem to have an adventurous spirit.  This no longer the last wild frontier of Europe - but maybe only a certain kind of visitor will come to explore this country.  
Mechthild & Marc - two of the lovely people we meet here

We do a couple of short walks but otherwise spend many lazy days reading. We want some respite from the ruthless midday sun and we are not kitted out for long walks.  We would dearly like to return here one day with our boots and rucksacks.  The most popular trek here is crossing over a pass from Thethi in the next valley.  But there are plenty of other possible treks including the intriguing passes over to Montenegro and Kosovo - we think it might be stunning in the Autumn when the leaves start turning.  Another time.......

This part of Albania developed a reputation for lawlessness in the early 90's just before the country fell apart in 1997 when a huge pyramid scheme collapsed and about 70% of the population lost their savings.  So much for getting rid of the communist yoke and moving into the wonderful world of free-markets.  The country imploded and rioting, looting and violence erupted everywhere.  The army's arsenal was looted and I don't think many of the guns were ever recovered.  Some will have undoubtedly gone to Kosovo.  Most Albanians were horrified at what happened and it seems the exodus of young men seeking work increased.  It's estimated that there are 1 million Albanians now working abroad.  The current population is around 3.6 million, so the income being sent home is evidently helping the country to recover.  Alfred and his brother Skander both worked in England.  Our guidebook is about 4 years old but in reference to this region it says that Albanians recommend you only visit with a guide.  However, things have evidently improved and now we see many Albanians also driving up here on weekends to see some of their own country's beauty spots.
All of a sudden it's August and our holiday has come to an end.  We're excited about moving on again to pastures new.


  1. The Valbona Valley looks amazing - well, apart from the litter that is. I might have to add Albania to my itinerary too! (Is that a pic of a haystack by the fence?).

  2. The valley is beautiful - would be fabulous hiking. It's not a haystack - it's an old Albanian farmer's house. This one had an old couple and two pigs living in it.