Peaks of the Balkans.
31 Aug. Theth to Valbone. 19km. 6.5 hours. 1080m up. 1020m down. After a huge breakfast to rival their enormous supper we left guest house Polia at 0800 with out pack lunched made. We past the century old well maintained village church beside the guest house and started the walk north through the scattered village for about 2 km. The small scale guest houses were very much family affairs and the food served in them seemed local with very little coming over the rough road to the west over the high pass to the town of Shkoder. Once this road is upgraded to tarmac the character of Theth will change as tourism booms and fancy fleshpots are forced onto the tranquil rural landscape. Towards the top end of the village we left the river bed of white limestone and the crystal clear stream and started up the valley side to the east.
We climbed up a very rough track zig-zagging to a small hamlet and then left the track and entered the lime green and shaded beech woods. It was a soft forest with enough light to allow some ferns and gentians to grown on the mottled sun of the forest floor. The path climbed up quite gently but with intent, passing many younger beeches and some venerable old specimens for a good two hours climbing high above the valley. When we were level with the pass the 4 wheel drive road came over yesterday we caught up with the larger Swedish group. Their guide said there was the most exotic cafe in Albania 10 minutes ahead.
The cafe was superbly located with a great view and a small breeze. Cold spring water emerging from deep under the limestone was fed into a wooden trough to keep canned drinks cold. The Swedes had a wonderful meal prepared for them with cheeses, polenta and soup. We had out packed lunches with local bread, cream cheese and plump beef tomatos, which we intended to have at the pass. After the exotic cafe we continued up for another hour to the pass. The beech now had given way to small pine trees and scrub, I think Pinus negra and Pinus mugu. With the scrubbier pines we could see the views better now and on all side where high limestone peaks, their bare rock faces dropped down into screes and then the shrub vegetation. None were high with 2500 being the most but they were very craggy and sharp, their bleached flanks contrasting against the sapphire blue skies.
The pass was busy with groups of day trippers doing the popular loop from Shkoder town up the Komani Lake on a boat and then bus to Valbone. Then they would walk from Valbone over to Theth where we met them and on the third day then would return to Shkoder by jeep over the road we came on. We lingered at the pass enjoying the views down to the Theth Valley behind us and the equally impressive Valbone valley to the east. In both valleys floods had scarred the valley floors and scattered the
After lunch we carried on down the steeper, parched, bleached slope through the small pines until we crossed a dry riverbed, with huge boulders strewn across the meadows beside it, and entered the beech forest again around 1500m, which seems to be the deciduous treeline. In the woods the path carried on down steeply until it reached Cafe Simona, another contender for the most exotic cafe in Albania. We stopped here and had a bowl of sheep’s yoghurt with and generous ladle of local honey. It was absolutely delicious and the honey had the mild, fresh, citrus flavour of elderflower which was growing everywhere, and were now heavy with dark berries. We passed many Albanian men either trekking or in the cafes and their friendliness was striking. They were largely men’s men with warm smiles, some backslapping and booming laughs.
After cafe Simona the path continued down to the valley floor, we passed a few homesteads with jars of honey at their gates and an honesty box nearby. Then the path left the forest and spilled onto the white limestone rubble on the floodplain. It was as bright as snow. The next 4 km were not that pleasant as we followed the 4 wheel drive track down across these stones. Jeeps passed us infrequently but it was rough underfoot with the tufa chuncks, the size of cobbles, lying haphazardly across the surface. We could not look at the view for fear of misplacing a foot. But after a good hour we reached a tarmac road and could follow it down the valley gazing at the jagged peaks far above us. Alpine cows sauntered along the road beside us heading back to the small farms to get milked.
We found the Kol gjoni guesthouse following the GPS track we had been given. It was a lovely traditional farmhouse in a hamlet of old farmhouses. It looked promising but the main old house was full so we were put into a new perfunctory annexe, but with a good shower to wash off the day’s salt and limestone dust. It had been quite a hard start to the trek with over 1000m up and down in the hot sun but the scenery, beech woods, wild flowers, hospitality and copious piles of food was all We had hoped for.
Sept 01. Valbone to Cerem. 19km. 7.5hours. 1275m up. 1150m down. From the Kol gjoni guesthouse, whose food was a lot less impressive that Polio in Theth, we returned to the road and walked down it for a couple of km past the burgeoning tourist village of Valbone. Just beyond it we left the tarmac road and crossed the small clear stream on an old bridge to the north side. Immediately we were plunged into the tranquil shade of the beech forest and very quickly the valley vanished. We climbed up past a new telecoms mast, just 10 minutes from the stream and then started the sustained ascent.
It was a reasonably steep climb for nearly 2 hours through beech forest with the occasional small meadow. It was quite loose underfoot but this mattered not on the slow ascent. There were great views down to the valley from the rare break in the beech woods. Above us to the north east towered the precipitious slopes of Kolata whose ramparts were layers of limestone from a long gone ocean floor before geological forces rammed the sediment layers high above any ocean. We stopped for a snack at the top of the beech forest in some relative shade as beyond were rocky hillsides and dry meadows in the full sun.
We started up these around 1100 and went from false pass to false pass as we slowly climbed to the NW of Kolata. The limestone path was often bare rock which was eroded into small sharp ridges. Here and there were meadows. We passed a “stan” or a summer farm where the cattle and sheep & goats were brought up to graze. It looked like they were kept behind stone enclosures in the night to protect them from the very rare wolves found in the area. As we continued from one rocky lip to the next, assuming each one was the pass, a pair of kestrels played in the valley using the updrafts near the buttresses to gain height. At last we got to the Prosllopit Pass, 2039m, and caught up with a group of 10 walkers who were on a guided tour. Remarkably they were all from Edinburgh. The pass was the border between Albania and Montenegro.
We did not stop here for lunch but continued into the grassy karst valley for a good km until we got to the lip of a large sinkhole. Like the walk up, the meadows were heaving with butterflies searching out the last of the summer flowers. It was mostly the small mauve gentians and the larger saphire blue gentians which were left. We ate our goat cheese rolls with huge rich tasting beef tomatos. After lunch we carried on down past a cave which an icy breeze was coming out of and then clambered down a series of small steps to gain the valley full of browning grass below. We turned east now and sauntered up the grassland towards the very shallow Borit Pass and crossed back into Albania.
There was a great view from the pass down to Cerem valley and we could just make out the homesteads some 6 km away. The first km was easy as we passed a few small streams and drunk our fill before skirting a forest near another “stan” which looked liked it served cold drinks. I wanted to avoid it but one of the Edinburgh group approached to say if any of us had medical experience our help was needed. The teenager at the summer farm and burnt himself with petrol on the stove an hour ago. Fiona went over and had his dry bandages off and was running cold water over his burns which did not look to serious with only one small blister. After half an hour the family took over while a horse was dispatched from the valley to take him down to a local hospital to have more treatment.
We all left together, but our route took us down into the valley, while they contoured the hillside, so we parted company with the Edinburgers and entered a wonderful beech wood. The soft path wove down through the trees on easy terrain for about 4 km. Occasionally the forest cleared for a meadow where there were great views of the surrounding crags before the dappled lime green of the forest swallowed us up again. Down and down we went until we met a track which in a short distance discharged us on the main gravel road at Cerem.
Our guest house, The Kujtim Gocaj, was an old farm run by 3 generations of the same family. It was quiet and traditional with no wifi and just solar panels for the lights. It had a gas shower and I washed my clothes again and then retired to the small enclosed pergola to write and for dinner. Went it arrived at 1900 it was very impressive; huge and delicious with vast servings of very local food they had grown themselves. It fully restored the reputation of Albanian hospitality which suffered a dent at the Valbone guest house. Out hosts said the Cerem is abandoned in the Autumn when all the inhabitants descend to Tirana or even abroad as in the winter there is 2 metres of snow here. None of the young want to stay here and there is a constant migration of people away from the village. Perhaps the imminent tourist trade will change that.
Sept 02. Cerem to Doberdol. 18 km. 6.5hrs.1160m up. 700m down. After a great stay at the Kujtim Gocaj guesthouse, who helped us with a large and early breakfast we set off at 0730 after a hearty goodbye to the welcoming family. The first stage of the day was a walk up the rough track which zigzagged up through the village past homesteads. At one, a family were milking their 100-odd sheep in a small field. The forest was largely beech but as we climbed more conifers appeared. After an hour we got to a small cafe which we resisted and continued up along the track. There were great views at the frequent meadows back to the limestone faces of the towering Kolata which dominated the landscape to the east, and also down to the valley to the south where there were many homesteads. The trees were all conifer now with a 5 needled pine, spruce and some firs.
Some two hours after leaving Cerem the track reached a saddle at the top of the ridge. It continued east, while our route headed north from Albania into the lush north facing slopes on the ridge in Montenegro. The grass was less parched here and there were many beech among the conifers. We followed a small path through the forest whose floor was covered in two varieties of the large sapphire blue gentian. We met some shepherds on the path with a few cows and a dozen sheep who greeted us with warm smiles. We walked for a good hour in Montenegro slowly climbing through the thick forest and crossing meadows until we reached another notch in the ridge which was the border with Albania and our high point of the day, called Qafa e Aljucit, 1920m. There was a small cafe in a wooden shack here but we skipped it and sat on boulders gazing across the valley to the south and east which was full of summer farms.
The descent from the pass was ideal through pine forest on a gentle path for half an hour until we reached a hamlet, called Balqin, of old summer farms, each one perched on a ledge in the steep meadow. There were perhaps 8 farms here in all and at least 4 had people at them. It was the first time I noticed poverty as middle aged ladies rushed out of each farm to sell us cold soda as we passed. Apparently one of the houses also served local food. There was plenty of pastoral activity at each farm, but the animals, except for about 10 horses, were all away at the pastures in the forest glades or on the ridges. The houses and barns of these small summer farms all had very steep roofs made from long wooden shingles, presumably pine, so the heavy snowfall did not crush the buildings.
Below this hamlet the path continued its gentle descent for almost 2 hours initially through conifer and then beech. We passed two more summer farms, one with a herd of healthy cattle gorging on the plentiful fodder. All the time we could see the summer farms of Doberdol scattered across the large meadow in the bowl which formed the head of the valley. It was a surprisingly long but easy pastoral descent in soft woods. Towards the end of the descent the path dropped more steeply to cross a side valley and then climbed up quite steeply to reach the lip of the large bowl in which Doberdol nestled. On the climb up we could hear the constant hiss of the stream in the valley as it tumbled over boulders.
We reached the lip and there before us was a vast meadow with about 10 summer farms. It seemed busy and it was easy to see herds of sheep grazing on the sides of the bowl and others returning in a group to the farm to be milked. There were horses and cattle everywhere on the valley floor grazing the grass which was not close cropped at all and had many seed heads bending in the small breeze. Our prebooked guesthouse was Leonardi, the first one we came to. We were greeted by a 7 year old girls who was the daughter of the enormous man who owned the place, although it was his wife who ran it. There were a few rustic rooms, but then we were offered a small newly built rustic cabin which was clean and cosy. There was a fantastic shower with water heated in a log fired boiler.
We had an early dinner at 1800. When the salad came with all its portions like pickled green tomatoes and homemade cream cheese and a roasted pepper we knew we were in for a treat. Bean and vegetable soup followed. Then came spaghetti with a garlic butter sauce and a savoury pancake. With large chunks of the sweetest watermelon to finish. It was a healthy feast and they had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to prepare it. Albanian hospitality seems second to none. We retired early to the cabin as darkness fell and a distant thunder rumbled, perhaps heralding the end of the fantastic weather we have enjoyed since starting.
Sept 03. Doberdol to Milishevc. 18km. 6.5hours. 1010m up. 1210m down. After an uncomfortable night on the old lumpy mattress Leonardi guesthouse was redeemed by its great breakfast with much bread, homemade fig jam and sheep’s yoghurt. We managed to get away before 0730 on a cooler and slightly overcast morning. We walked up through the rest of Doberdol passing 2 other guesthouses and half a dozen farms whose sheep were just milling around and about to leave for the pastures. Perhaps 200 cows, healthy and bright-eyed were grazing and hardly batted an eyelid when we passed nearby.
There was no path in the meadow so we just climbed the steepening grassy slope until a path materialized. It zig-zagged up the hill for nearly an hour until we reached the ridge. There were 3 people ahead of us, two in white jackets, who were waving. At the ridge there were three Germans camping in a secluded hollow. We however headed up the steep ridge just before them skirting the odd buttress to gain a steep grassy slope which led up to Tromeda, 2366m. We wove our way up the buttresses on a small path to reach the summit. Here we met the two men in white jackets who were officials and the third man who was out host at Cerem. It turned out he was also the village policeman and had to escort the officials up here to do some triangulation. It was an important summit as the borders of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro all met here. We discovered we had come up the hard way and there was an easy way down the north ridge which took us down to the walking path again.
We now headed along the ridge with our left leg in Montenegro and our right in Kosovo leaving Albania behind. On each side the bare grassy slope dropped off down to forested valleys with the one on the Montenegro side to the west looking particularly idyllic with a string of homesteads surrounded by bright green fields on the valley floor and spruce forests surrounding them. We continued north for a good 2 hours along the gentle undulating ridge passing a few saddles until we climbed up to the last pass of the day at Roshkodol, 2258m. We had been going for 4 hours now and it was midday so we had a picnic here in a meadow full of gentians and surveyed the route ahead.
It seemed there were two possibilities; the map, the GPS route a local company had given me, and the 3 Germans following their Rother guidebook all indicated the valley was the way to go. However the Cicerone guidebook we were using said it was the old way and instructed us to go further along the undulating ridge and seemed to have a grudge with the valley route. As we were going to be walking that same ridge in 4 days we took the much shorter valley route which turned out to be very rewarding and much shorter.
The path went down into the bowl where there was a signpost to Roskodol summer village. We took it and headed down passing a few springs which eventually formed a small beck. We stayed on the south side of the beck sauntering down through small pines and tall grass. Slowly we descended to the spruce forest which was riddled with pastures. Large brown and white cattle grazed them under the sun, ripping out the tall grass with a twist of the tongue. Towards the bottom of the pasture we came across a small viper sunning itself on the grass. Fiona did not like that at all. The path crossed and re-crossed the beck which was now a small clear stream and descended quickly to reach an opening on the valley floor and the summer village of Roskodol.
Roskodol was a cluster of perhaps 30 households. Many would have been summer farms once but were now converted into weekend and summer homes by the descendants of the original farmers. There were a few old retired people here repairing their cabins and we spoke to one who had spent 30 years in Switzerland and spoke fluent French. Roskodol looked too big now and some of the converted farms almost looked out of place and took away from the idyllic pastoral heritage. Beyond Roskodol we followed the track for 4 km down the valley a bit and then up the side of the valley on the heavily forested north side. Just after Roskodol we saw another small viper across the track and this caused much concern.
A couple of km before the track reached Milishevc we reached guesthouse Lozja where we were booked to stay. It was idyllic. It was a log cabin which sat in the middle of a small meadow with a great view of the forested valley. The owner, Zeki, came out to meet us and showed us into the cabin. It had 3 bedrooms and a very cosy living room. Rich smells came from the kitchen. Zeki was very welcoming and gave us a beer each and joined us for a chat. Then he made us a huge sandwich. It turned out Zeki was a paraglider also. After a shower heated by firewood I sat on the verandah of the cabin overlooking the valley and wrote the blog, while Fiona sat inside the cosy living room in front of the stove chatting to Zeki while he cooked the dinner. WWhen it came it was excellant and the best so far and that includes the stiff competition from Butjina Polia in Theth.
Sept 04. Milishevc to Reke e Allages. 19km. 7hours. 930m up. 1400m down. Apparently it was a short day today so I was persuaded to have breakfast at 0700. It rained a bit in the night and it was misty outside so the cabin was lost in the fairy tale woods of Hansel and Gretel. We ate inside due to the mist and Zeki excelled himself again with a large omelette each and much more. We set off just before 0800 and headed up the track to Milishevc some 2 km away to the west. Initially we passed through the working summer hamlet of Zllonopojes which had at least 4 sheep farms. Massive dogs strained at their chains, barking furiously, as we went past. They would go up with the sheep during the day to guard them as wolves and bear exist here but are rare. The summer farms here were very traditional log cabins and a pall of smoke hung over each one in the clearing mist.
We climbed through the spruce woods to the high point on the road. This was the west end of the large Milishevc pasture and village. We should have headed up the hillside from here but instead followed the track down to the characterless Chalet Rusta at the west end of the hamlet of Miilishevc. After consulting the opposing map, guidebook and GPS track we had be given it seemed best to start the climb up the northern side of the valley from Chalet Rusta. We passed the 3 Germans again who were camped at the bottom of the slope and carried on up the grassy hillside peppered with clumps of juniper scrub. There was no path and we were not following the GPS now so we just made our own route up for almost an hour until we intercepted the GPS track which did 2 sides of a triangle. Once on this GPS track we veered north again and climbed up a grassy path to an unnamed pass. Wild boar had been turning over ground here and some of the boulders they rolled with their snouts, in search of worms, must have been well over 100kg.
At the top of the pass the weather was clearing significantly and large patches of blue sky were appearing as the sun burnt off the mist. This meant we could walk across the high grassy valley which flowed down from the southern flank of the highest mountain in the area called Guri i Kuq, 2522m. We crossed the open grassy valley like a prairie in the High Rockies and then climbed slightly to to another shallow ridge. Here we could look north and see the mountains to the north of the Rugova Valley where we were heading. There was another gentle grass covered high valley to cross first, this one had a small lake, called Pusi i Magareve, across the shallow valley floor. We skirted the lake which had some wildfowl on it but I could not make out what type. At the small ridge on the north side of the lake we reached the highest point of the day and stopped for lunch as it was nearly 3 hours since leaving Zeki at Guesthouse Lojza. There was now a grand view to the north down to the Rugova Valley and beyond.
The desecent to the Rugova valley was relentless and we dropped about 1200 metres in one go. Initially it was across grassy pasture which was lush. Then after 20 minutes we met the first small pines and the path entered a shallow gully which descended quite steeply. It was OK now but in the wet it would be slippery. The flowers were still in their glory on this high north facing slope, especially the larger gentians. As we descended the trees grew in statue, the flowers were spent and it became warmer. There was a huge cliff to the west which rose up from the shallow gully we were descending. Further down the path became a logging extraction route, but it was far to steep for tractors. It was a small forestry enterprise using horses who dragged the logs down for a good km until it reached a track. Here the forester had stored up about 100 logs, mostly spruce but also a few beech.
The track continued down and came to the foresters cabin. It was idyllic and naturally made out of logs. On the side were 4 yokes for horses to drag the logs. He had a small yard with some hens and about 20 sheep. Beside the house was a small shelter which was the outside kitchen. I suspect there would be 2 metres of snow here in the winter and it was just a summer enterprise. As we passed we met the forester who was brown as a nut with a rugged mop of curly hair. Just below the foresters cabin the GPS route and the guide book route diverged again. We did not want to go down to Rugova Camp on the steep path and then walk up nearly 2 km of busy road to our turn off to Reke e Allages so instead we opted for the guidebook route. It took us along the 4 wheel drive track for a couple of level km in beech woods before it descended in a series of zigzags to the main road at the bottom of the Rugova Valley just opposite the turn off up the small road to Reke e Allages. We crossed the main road and a bridge over the clear stream and started up the minor road.
It was 5 km up to Reke e Allages, most of it on a tarmac road. However the road was very quiet and we could walk up the middle of it chatting. Although it was a climb it was quite easy underfoot on the smooth tarmac which wove up beside the stream in woods with smaller deciduous trees like hazel and alder. As we climbed the spruce returned and soon dominated and gave us shade. There was a small hamlet after about 3 km which seemed to cater for tourists with a tranquil boutique guesthouse and some cabins. Just after this hamlet a rough track left the tarmac road and headed up through the spruce making a short cut to the village of Reke e Allages. It was a good km on the track until we reached the first houses of the village. The village was a rich cultural landscape but it was deserted in the winter from November to April when 1-2 metres of snow lay on the ground. We walked past log cabins in homesteads surrounded by fruit trees and log barns. The grass in the fields was grazed but not close cropped. Altogether there were perhaps 30 houses or homesteads, each surrounded by a small field. The trees, especially the damsons, were very heavy with fruit which was so plentiful no one picked it off the ground.
We found Guesthouse Ariu easily at the west end of the village. We had a room with 6 bunk beds but we would have the room to ourselves. There were a couple of middle-aged German ladies in the other room and we were the only guests as the season was tailing off. After a great shower and clothes wash I sat in the dining room while the host served me a fortifying Turkish style coffee. There was both wifi and electricity at the guesthouse but I made sure I did the blog before connecting to the wifi. Through the window cow bells rung out from the fields around the houses where large cattle grazed. When the meal came it was sumptious feast of local dishes served with great pride. Roast peppers simmered in milk and layered roasted pancakes and a salad of sweet tomatoes. It was all washed down with a litre of easy-to-drink local red wine.
Sept 05. Reke i Allages to Guri i Kuq. 23km. 8hours. 1080m up. 1030m down. After a large breakfast with heavy bread rolls, clotted cream and jam, and feta cheese we were off at 0730 under blue skies and cool morning sunshine. We walked up the steep field at the back of Ariu Guesthouse past a small log barn full of cattle chewing cud and building up the need to step out into the field. We hoped the gradient would ease off but it did not for a good hour and a half as we climbed on a plethora of small forest paths and tracks in the predominantly pine woods. The description in the Cicerone guide book and the information on the GIZ map were totally useless in this terrain, but luckily we had the GPS route and could follow it on our gadgets with remarkable accuracy. Despite the relentless climb the woods were pleasant with plenty of flowers and blueberry bushes, now in fruit. At last the gradient eased and we emerged blinking into the bright meadow below the steep and somewhat craggy flanks of Ahmica mountain straight ahead. Just 10 minutes up cross the meadow was a rough track which was our high point for the day at around 1800m.
We now followed the track down its gentle slope to the SW passing a spring before descending round a spur on the south side of Ahmica to reach the open sleepy hamlet of Pepaj with its 20 houses, a few of which kept sheep. A flock passed us heading up to the pastures with a shepherd as we entered the hamlet. The book and map now showed a small track heading off into the woods and down to the valley half way to Dungaive. While the GPS track we had been given suggested a much longer way via the hamlet of Drelaj. We dithered a bit about going off piste and heading off into the forest armed with poor information, or following the GPS and its tortuous extended route. The book and map also instructed us to go on this extended route via Drelaj. Perhaps the background for this is that the guide book and most guided trips go to Drelag and then skip a section of the Peaks of the Balkans by taking a taxi from Drelaj to Guri i Kuq. Lily-livered and a spoiler for slow continuous footsteps journey and unacceptable for a purist. So with optimism and considered judgement we plunged down the track in the woods from the knoll to the west of Prelaj.
The track was infact a forestry road and it had recently been widened into a gravel road I think in preparation for tarmac surfacing. It was easy to follow and led us down through the mixed conifers into the valley to the west of Prelaj, where a stream descended from the southern slopes of Halja, 2403m, the highest mountain in the region. I was reassured to see many trees had the red and white markings of the Peaks of the Balkans trail, so once this must have been the route before the Drelaj taxi option became popular. After a short hour on this trail we eventually emerged from the forest track and met the quiet tarmac road from Drelaj to Koshutan. We walked down it for a km until a track on the west led up to Dungaive.
The track was just for 4 wheel drive vehicles and was deserted. This road was also being upgraded in time as blasting holes had been drilled in all outcrops beside the road. However for now it was a peaceful forest track and we covered the 4 km quite quickly as we chatted in the warm sun. Just before Dungaive we met an American walking group on a day tour. Dungaive itself seemed deserted. It was sited on a large meadow full of crocuses and surrounded by conifers. I think there were two types of spruce and fir in these woods as well as a smaller 2 needled pine and a larger 5 needled one. What we saw of Dungaive was a sleepy almost deserted hamlet with a mix of old summer farms and some grand new prestigious houses. It seemed the prestigious houses were perhaps built by emigrants who had worked abroad and saved money, returning to Kosovo and building a large house on the old family farm.
From Dungaive the GPS took us down a steep track through mixed woods for almost an hour to the valley village of Kucishte. The guidebook was lazy about this section and dismissed the whole second half of the day and this section especially describing it as “not clear”. The frequent markers and obvious path down through the conifers and then beech, with an understory of blueberry bushes were easy to follow however. Kucishte was an busy village with quite a few chalets and holiday lets in the Rugova Valley where two streams met, and the main road crossed from Kosovo to Montenegro. It would not have been pleasant to walk along this road from Drelaj, but the route we took was through forest, with rural Dugaive en route was a great alternative. In Kucishte we met a charming Kosovar family who lived in London and were here on their holidays. We chatted with them for 20 minutes, bracing ourselves for the final stage.
There was no avoiding a quieter tarmac road now which went up a side valley for a km before climbing steeply up the hillside in a series of hairpin bends for a further 3 km. It was our third climb of the day and it taxed our tired legs. There were more frequent cars now, perhaps one every 5 minutes, passing us, many with Central European number plates, as we slogged up through the coniferns which closed in on both sides. After a good hour we finally reached the last bend and reached Guri i Kuq restaurant. It was one of two here the other being Le Liqenat.
Guri i Kuq was originally a quaint log cabin, which had a monstrous concrete structure, looking like a 2 story council carpark, attached to it. It was half finished but the lower carpark deck imitation was full of tables and afforded great views over the Rugova Valley we had descended into and then walked up. We sat at a table and had a well earned drink and snack and then were shown to our rickety charmless cabin. Fiona managed a shower but the neighbouring cabin finished all the hot water before I got my chance. We returned to the restaurant in the concrete framework for supper which redeemed the place. We both had a traditional meal with 6 traditional dishes. It was quite superb, especially the pickled pepper stuffed with garlic cream, the multi-layered butter pancake called fli, roasted peppers in hot cream and sheep’s yoghurt. They were very apologetic about the hot water and allowed me to use the shower in another much grander cabin, which was empty. It was not the best hiking day of the tour as it linked the south side with the north side but it certainly was good enough not to warrant a taxi.
Sept 06. Guri i Kuq to Babino Polje. 18km. 7.5hours. 1140m up. 1170m down. After a cosy night in the small cabin we went down for breakfast at the earliest time of 0720. As is normal in hotels there was no sign of staff and it took a while for them to get going. Andy, a bright well educated young German joined us at a table as we waited. When the breakfast did arrive it was easily the best yet, generous portions of omelette, fried eggs, boiled egg, 3 cheeses, copious meats, and toast topping and great Italian style coffee instead of the usual Turkish stuff with sludge at the bottom. But we left late at 0900 which was not ideal for a long day.
We headed up the track from the hotel passing a few working summer farms with small barns full of sheep even midmorning. There was also lots of cattle on the forest edges in the small meadows beside the tracks. Up and up we climbed until the houses thinned and the forests closed in. We climbed a shallow gully with a steep crag on the west side. The forest was of mixed conifers with a lively undergrowth of blueberry bushes. After a good hour we reached the first of the lakes, called Liqeni Kucishtes. It was shallow with the bottom covered in limestone blocks and dust. As such it reflected the light in hues of turquoise and green especially when the rare sunlight hit it. We walked round the south side of it and then into the forest again for a short sharp descent through large conifers and full blueberry bushes which overhung the path
At the bottom of the slope was a small climb up to the second lake, Liqeni Madhe, which was completely dried up like an African waterhole in a drought. We again passed to the south side of it and started climbing up the valley to the east of it. The forest disappeared now and the rocky landscape was covered in pine scrub and large patches of the big leafed geraniums. As we climbed Andy caught us up. We chatted a bit and then he stormed off to the pass where we agreed to meet for lunch. There was an easy to miss south fork as we climbed and we took it past the last of the scrub to reach the grassy pass called Qafa e Jelenkut at 2272m. It was the end of the uphill section of the day and it took us 3.5 hours to climb the near 1000m to get here. The views were unfortunately obscured by haze and large patches of mist. The sky was completely overcast now, and rain threatened.
We left the pass and headed south across the hillside to the west of Guri i Kuq mountain for a good km until we got to the ridge line which descended to the south of it. It was drizzling now and the mist enveloped us as we descended slightly into the pine and spruce woods with huge clumps of willow herb rampant in the glades. Fiona was constantly stopping to collect and nibble on the bountiful blueberries. The forest was lovely and easy to walk along and it was surprising that this ridge top was so fecund. We met an English couple doing the walk who were 3 days behind us and chatted for a while. When we left them the rain started with intent and there was no question about putting on waterproof jackets and rucksack covers. There were flashes of lightening and loud thunder claps over the higher jagged massifs on the Albania/Montenegro border 20 km to the SW and these were slowly coming closer.
We continued along the ridge which would have been a great walk were it not for the rain and the mist obscuring the views. To our left was Kosovo and the valley we walked down to Roskodol hamlet 3 days ago and to our right were the forested valleys of Montenegro. We walked along the undulating ridge until the rain turned to hail and the lightning was nearly overhead. The occasional salamander marched down the path with intent as water started to pool in the ruts. The ridge top then became bare grass as we went to the east of Ravno brdo to the Zavoj saddle where the rain and hail was now pelting down, despite some clearing skies. At the saddle we could look down to the Temnjacka valley on the west side with its homesteads and green fields some 700m below.
The route down to the valley floor took a good hour and a half. The first half hour was across open grassland on an obvious path which took us into a small stream bed which was easy to cross. The next half hour was more taxing as it was steeper and there were multiple paths. We just followed the obvious ones checking the GPS frequently to make sure we did not stray too much until we got to a dilapidated log cabin which will not see many more winters. From here the path veered to the south and descended even more steeply on a mix of cattle path and walking trail until it reached a cluster of cabins on the edge of a field where the descent essentially finished.
We were just about open a gate when someone from a cabin nearby shouted at us with a haunting wail. As far as I could make out he beckoned us over so we went. When we got to his cabin I could see he was an old man of perhaps 80. He wailed more and shouted at us and was quite irrational and totally unintelligible. I thought he was either mad or senile so we walked away climbed a fence, and walked across a field with him hobbling along behind us on two sticks still wailing. Perhaps he was lonely and wanted us to drink with him, or perhaps he was angry with people crossing his land but encountering the mad dotard was not a pleasant experience. We walked down the track which led from his cabin to the main valley road and turned NW and followed the road down for 2 km to reach the Triangle Wood House were we were booked to stay.
The owner, Armend, was a large man who had worked in Germany. He showed us to a great room which was comfortable and cosy. The trouble was there was a group of 13 English staying and also the two middle aged German women and Andy. 18 in all and the main room was crowded and full of loaded drying racks. The hot water was exhausted and it seemed futile to wait for more from the electric boiler so we abandoned the idea of a shower and just got into our evening clothes. I wrote in our room before supper which was at 1900. When it came all 18 of us were seated at a big table while Armend made a speech presenting the meal we would serve composed of 6 courses. The first was soup and the last watermelon but the intervening four were all traditional dishes. One particularly tasty one was called Pita, which was a pie of filo pastry filled with both creamy spinach and potato gratin. Amend made a few speeches as the 3 hour feast unfolded and I made one on behalf of the recipients thanking him and his family for going to such effort.
Sept 07. Babino Polje to Plav. 21km. 7hours. 780m up. 1350m down. Armend made up a fantastic breakfast and presented it with modest fanfare and showmanship, constantly making small speeches about us eating our fill and encouraging us to take large packed lunches. He was from the area but during the winter months worked in Bavaria helping his brother in a restaurant the brother owned. After some photos I asked him if he felt more akin to the tri-state Accursed Mountains or Montenegro and he said the former. There was a shortcut from the Triangle Woodhouse through the thick spruce woods on a track cvered in autumnal mushrooms. After a km the path emerged from the woods at a charming summer hamlet with cabins, small barns, haystacks and a small guesthouse called Samels. It was a charming community just an hour from the Triangle Woodhouse and with a marvellous view. A little further we reached the hamlet of Katum Bajrovic which looked very quaint, if not a bit tired, and it did not have the view of Samels 10 minutes earlier.
After this bleached summer hamlet, which looked empty, the path entered the mixed conifer forest with an almost total cover of blueberry bushes on the forest floor. It climbed steadily for a good hour to reach Hridsko jezero lake. As we approached the lake the soft path, cushioned by needles, became stonier and the spruce were largely replaced entirely by 5 needle pines. We found some logs which made a good seat on the waters edge and ate the first of our rolls. The wind gently rustled through the pines while a salamander slowly crawled across the shallows of the lake just in front of us. It must have both lungs and gills as it never surfaced for half an hour while we watched it. Andy and the Middle Aged German ladies soon arrived and joined us.
When we left the skies were beginning to darken and rain seemed certain but it did not materialize and after an hour the sky went grey, and then blue patches appeared, and soon took over, sparing us a deluge. The route took us round the south side of the lake on large boulders and then climbed a ridge to the high point of the day at Veliki Hrid, 2062m. There were great mountain views here to the small craggy peaks which rose from the bowl where the lake lay. Here we left the path and met a track near an unlocked stone cabin with a shingle plank roof. Inside were benches and sleeping platforms. There was a bench outside with a sweeping view to the west over the soft pastoral and forested landscape to Plav.
We followed the track for a good km until it veered down the hill by another small unlocked mountain shelter. Here there was a path which branched off above the track and we followed it as it slowly climbed to a gentle undulating ridge which ended in a steep descent through a fantastic pine forest with some grand specimen trees. This path was quite steep in places and we plummeted down a few hundred metres in no time until we spilled out of the forest onto the uppermost of the pastoral fields. There were more great views of the tranquil summer pastures peppered with small log cabins and barns. We passed another guesthouse and then continued the descent down perhaps another 4-500 metres through fields and rough pasture where cattle grazed as if winter was approaching. A few shepherds herded cows and sheep from one pasture to another and watched over them.
At the bottom of this track the route crossed a small stream and then headed up a much smaller muddy track which was overgrown, into a dark green tunnel of deciduous trees especially alder and hazel. At the end of it the trees thinned and we wandered through more fields of grass. In one a tall strong man was scything the long grass with huge sweeps. After it dried it would be piled into another of the many haystacks in these pastures. People waved at us as they worked in the fields and we passed by, reminiscing a time long gone in Northern Europe. As we continued west the landscape became much drier and the hedgerows much thornier, although the hazels proliferated here with their clusters of nuts maturing. Along this track we came across a slowworm and an adder but Fiona seemed less panic struck than 4 days ago when the 2 vipers caused terror.
At last we were on the final ridge above the old, possibly medieval town of Plav with the gorgeous lake beyond surrounded by lofty sharp mountains. We could see the minarets of at least 4 mosques towards the town centre among the brown tiled rooftops of the old town. Plav town was surrounded by a 2 km mantle of pastoral houses with large gardens. Flowers were in full bloom and the orchard trees heavy with fruit now. In some of the gardens and orchards cows were tethered to keep the grass down. The gardens got smaller as we entered the heart of the town. The hotel we were booked into was in the east side of Plav and we reached it very soon. There were cafes full of men drinking coffee and many small shops, especially grocers with huge displays of peppers and melons. The hotel, Apartmenti Ambient, was great and we were shown a huge room. After dumping the rucksacks we went into town to get Fiona some insoles and snacks. The bathroom was great and here was plenty of hot water to wash our dusty clothes in the shower The meal in the hotel was poor and we would have been better off walking about the area to find a local restaurant, as the Middle Aged German ladies did.
Sept 08. Plav to Vusanje. 24km. 8 hours. 1250m up. 1200m down. We had a great stay at Apartment Ambiente despite the small dinner, which they redeemed with the large breakfast and huge packed lunch. The friendly staff at the hotel, as most locals in Plav, were tall and lean and most made me look like a plump dwarf. We set off at at 0800 and went through a couple of blocks of the town centre and then headed out on a small lane skirting the heart of the old town, which was a shame but it took us through more areas with houses surrounded by larger gardens full of fruit trees and large vegetable beds. The GPS route we followed slowly climbed up the lane for a few km to a saddle in what was once a moraine ridge called Vardiste. Here we met the official Peaks of the Balkans route which came up on the other, that is NW, side of the moraine ridge. Frome here our GPS route followed the offical way for the rest of the day.
After gently ascending perhaps a km on the deserted tarmac road the route branched off to the east and started to climb up a forest track. Near the start of it we entered the Prokletije Natonal Park and there was a bored official from the Park office who must have been dispatched in the morning to collect 1 Euro off the very few hikers who passed this way into the park. We paid our dues and then carried on up the track. It soon started a long series of hairpins climbing 3-400 metres over the space of an hour. The track was quite rough and just suitable for a 4X4 or tractor. On each side were large spruces, some 40 metres high with boles of a metre. The trees totally hemmed one in and there were no views as we zig zagged up this green tunnel, chatting in the cool of the shade.
Some 2 hours after leaving Plav the well marked route left the track and continued to climb up a small forest path in the woods which were now largely beech. The GIZ paper map we had was full of mistakes for this section and I was glad of the GPS route we had been given. We knew we would emerge from the beech woods to reach a meadow at around 1660m, at Ferotovica Katum, but it seemed longer than we anticipated. At last at about 1750m were emerged from the forest into the meadow but there was no view as described in the Cicerone book. Then we realized that the path we followed was not the same as the book description which was now out of date. We had lunch here eating the enourmous sandwich among the rampant willow herb. Andy arrived and we chatted a bit before he carried on. After our feast we carried on up to a saddle and then spotted Ferotovica Katum on the other side of the ridge some 200m below us with the great view down to Plav and Mount Visitor. From this saddle it was a short steep section straight up the ridge covered in small pine to the summit of Bajrak, 2072m. The cloud which had threatened earlier where now vanishing and the sun was out. However it was hazy and the high mountains some 20km away, where soft in the opaque hue.
The graft of the day was now over and we had climbed some 1100m in 4 hours. It was now time to reap the reward and walk along the undulating ridge to the south on a gentle ridge sparsely covered in small pine. We walked towards a high craggy mountain across the valley and then realized it was Kolata from a week ago. It was only some 4-5 km away but even it looked hazy. To the east we tried to work out the route we had taken through the jumble of peaks and where the various pastures and cabins were where we slept. To the west were the most impressive peaks in the Accuresd Mountains around the Grbage Valley in Montenegro which we would unfortunately be missing. The ridge we walked along was about 2-3 km and took and easy leisurely hour. It was perhaps the easiers hour of the trip so far as the views dragged us along freewheeling in a slipstream. The ridge eventually ended at the highest of the knolls along it called Vrh Bora, 2106m.
We stopped here for out second lunch lying in the tall brown grass of late summer. Ravens, the most acrobatic of birds, played in the updrafts from the windward slopes. They seemed to be playing, diving and twisting in the wind by just adjusting the angle of there wings and tails, and never beat their wings. It was now past 1500 and we still had 8 km to go so we set off down the ridge towards where we crossed the Borit Pass a week ago when we came across the boy with the burns.
After 10 minutes we came across 2 herds of sheep and two shepherds. The first here was guared by a large Sarplaninac guard dog and another dog looking like a giant retriever. The giant retriever had a bad limp. The shepherd was in the herd and pacified the dogs to allow us past. A few of the sheep were also limping. Right after them we came to the second herd with another two large Sarplaninac dogs who immeadiately ran off to place themselves between us and the sheep as the shepherd was with his friend and the other flock. There were some small tarns here each side of the ridge, just before the path veered to the west and dropped down into the valley. The terrain now was difficult and the path covered in tufa blocks. We descended past large cattle peacefully grazing and then passed a few springs to re enter the woods, this time beech.
With a good hour to go we passed a sign for “beer, pivo, coffee 200m”. I was sure it would be closed but when we go there Andi and a couple of large Poles were there. I ordered the sheeps yoghurt and honey but it came from a dirty pail and I was not too convinced about the hygiene, but ate it anyway as did Fiona. We then heard it was their family’s sheep we had just passed. The man said the sheep were corralled here last night but about 10 wolves had attacked and killed one of the sheep and dragged it away. The dogs had defended the sheep but they were no match for 10 wolves and one was injured and it was the giant retriver we had seen earlier. As we ate and chatted they got a phone call to say the wolves had just been spotted near the sheep again. All the able bodied men in the household went to a knoll with binoculars to see if they could spot them. In the morning they had also seen a mother bear with two cubs in the beech woods so they must have felt under seige.
Fiona and myself left the others and headed down the pastoral path into the soft beech woods with dappled sunlight on the leaf litter on the forest floor. The path fell gently and the terrain was easy underfoot and we made good time soon reaching a track which lead us down to the pastures surrounding Vusanje. We had a clear view of the village now and it was a Shangri-la loosely huddled together on the green floor of the Ropojana Valley. There was a mosque among the 30 odd buildings which had a carved wooden minaret. After a few sections of tarmac road we reached the lovely Vucetaj Guesthouse. It was an old farmhouse with a garden full of flowers and a small adjacent field. In the field were some 4-5 cabins, some quite large. We got one with 3 bedrooms and a very clean bathroom to ourselves and Andy got a smaller one nearby. They had a great view up the valley. It was cooling down when we arrived at 1800 so we went inside and enjoyed the views from the cabin up the valley. Tomorrow we would walk up it to the pass and then cross over into Albania again before descending to Theth and completing the loop. Looking up the valley with its towering limestone buttresses, crags and mountains we knew it would be a long but spectacular day.
Sept 09. Vusanje to Theth. 24km. 7,5hours. 920m up. 1280m down. We had a great breakfast at the Vucetaj Guesthouse to compliment out large comfortable cabin. Except for the parsimony of the guesthouse in Valbone everything else had been fantastic. As we ate breakfast we noticed the mist rolling in and obscuring the mountains on each side of the Ropojana Valley where we would be heading. In fact it even looked like rain in places among the high jagged peaks.
We left and headed SW past the rest of the homesteads in Vusanje and then continued up a forestry track back into the Proletije National Park where we were nabbed again for another Euro each by a young lad as an entrance fee. The track continued up the valley floor but the weather deteriorated to a light drizzle, or heavy mist, and we even had to put on our rain jackets. We trudged up the track hands in pockets for a good hour. Occasionally the mist cleared from one of the looming spires which seem to hang threatingly over us. Between the spires were steep gullies and stone chutes where debris would ricochet down from the spires in the thaw of spring and land on the alluvial fans on the valley floor.
After about 2 hours a path left the track and headed up into the deciduous woods on the right. It climbed to a pass and for one moment I though it was the watershed as we were on the valley floor. The path then descended down the other side to a very green pasture which was fantastic grazing. I then remembered we were in limestone country and this was infact a great depression and in most other rock types, more impervious that this, it have been a lake, but here drained away underneath the rise we just came over. The dried up lake bed was about a km long and flat. We sauntered across the lake bed between the tall grasses as the weather started to clear. There were spires towering above us on each side, each one peering over the shoulder of the next in frozen curiosity, the mist making their appearance all the more more dramatic.
At the south end of the lake bed we crossed into Albania and climbed through beech forest on a path which zigzagged up to another plateau on the valley floor. This one was a pasture called Fuca e Ruinices, and there was a large herd of sheep grazing here on the cropped grass between the small pines and exposed outcrops of limestone. We passed a few shepherds shelters but they were just a framework of branches and twigs covered in sheets of plastic. They looked makeshift and perfunctory and one wondered if they were just here for a week or fortnight. From here the path climbed again past a couple of small derelict concrete bunkers which would have defended the valley some 60 years ago in the time of Hoxha, who built some 500,000 such bunkers.
After the bunkers the mist enveloped us again as we continued to climb on a rough path full of tufa blocks, skirting the hill side until we got to the rim of a deep depression with a shallow tarn in the depths of it. It must have been a large underground cavern which had collapsed millennia ago. The roof of the cavern was now a series of jumbled blocks lying round the tarn. We stopped for our second lunch here before climbing up to the rim on the other side of the crater and the highpoint of the day at Qafa e Pejes, 1707m, at the end of a long but mostly gentle climb. Here a scrambling route headed up 500metres the sharks fin mountain of Maja e Harapit. At this pass the mist cleared and the south side of it was clear but overcast. Far below down in the valley we could see the hamlet of Okoli, the uppermost hamlet in the Theth Valley.
The route down to Okoli was very, very steep but the path was a well constructed mule path which zig-zagged down the precipitous slope at a easy angle. In fact we passed one old shepherd riding up on his mule to the pastures above. On the west side of the path was a huge cliff which dropped down to the valley floor, while on the east side of the path huge crags, often overhanging and ochre, towered above up, so we were essentially on a large ledge which ramped down to the Theth valley. As we descended the dry rocky path among the pines, many of which looked like giant bonsai they were so contorted, we noticed the path was full of small reddish toads. There were so many we had to be alert not to step on them. The south face of Maja e Harapit unfolded as we approached the bottom of the slope. This face was 8-900 metres of vertical limestone and was the highest cliff in the Accursed Mountains. One day it will be a popular big wall climb. At the bottom of the slope we entered the mixed forest which grew out of the limestone screes and then arrived at an oasis of a cafe on the valley floor where we stopped.
It was still 5 km from the cafe to the the Butjina Polia Guesthouse where were were staying beside the church in Theth. The route was easy as we followed a series of 4WD tracks down through a mix of small copses and homesteads. It was a soft and easy cultural landscape and each field or farm had some interest. After 3 km we reached the place were we headed off up the hill to Valbone 10 days ago and we thereby completed the loop. A bit beyond was a busy cluster of larger guesthouses, small hotels and an a cafe with an extensive and lively terrace. We still had 2 km to go to the church, which we could clearly see now. We stopped for a photo at the church before arriving as Butjina Polia. Here they remembered us and greeted us with warm handshakes and backslapping. We got a great room with a balcony and just had time for a shower and clothes wash before the huge supper was served in the busy dining room. The next day we would have a slow start before taking a jeep over the rough road to Shkoder and down to Tirana airport some 4-5 hours away.