The Most Blissfully (and Unnecessarily) Complex Ways of Arriving and Departing Valbona

old pictureHave you read your Kadare, your Durham, your Rose Wilder Lane, your Edward Lear and seen a couple of Kinostudio films (highly recommended!)?  Do you picture Northern Albania as a land in black and white, to be traversed in long periods of silence broken only by the creaking of harnesses and intermittent bursts of noise in busy wayside coffee houses (the Inn of Two – or was it Three – Roberts – or was it Robbers?)  Well despite the fact that a lot has changed, in some ways not much has changed at all, and it’s still perfectly possible to have the kind of arrival and departure which are marked by long periods of silent endurance, bursts of euphoria when your creeping worry of several hours that you may not know where you’re going at all is relieved, and the kind of epic and exhausting all night meals in which your hosts’ generosity with food, coffee, raki and cigarettes is only outweighed by their cruelty in not seeming to notice you might want to go to bed (see:  Rose Wilder Lane).  Northern Albania is still a land rich in culture,  of small farmsteads hacked by hand out of a wide, large landscape, and the twinkle of lights on a hillside is still an infrequent but blissfully welcome (and welcoming) sight.  The only difference may be that if you time your trip well, it won’t be in black-and-white, but in the brief but gloriously green, riotous burst of rich life that marks our short and precious summers.

Here are a few of our ideas – which we’re happy to arrange for you – of how you might like to arrive and depart (PS:  Please feel free to borrow or steal any of the ideas we suggest here.  Contact Details and/or Maps are also available, if you want to try to do it yourself – see either our “Resources” section, or contact us for maps, and if you manage to do it cheaper, let us know!):

The Old Road:  Valbona via Gjakova, The Culture Tour (mostly guided with a bit of walking, with stays in posh hotels)

The Lost Village:  Valbona via Curraj i Eperm, The Adventure Tour (mostly hiking, some camping, with guides and a lot of adventure)

From Mali i Zi: Peaks of the Balkans (Boo, Hiss)

From Mali i Zi: As we suggest (applause, bows and general hoo-haa)

The Old Road – Moving around the North the Way we Used To, aka: The Culture Tour

Gjakova to Valbona

2 days, Cost = 200€ per person, all accommodation, meals, guides and transport included

Gjakova Tourism InformationThis is a short and sweet tour, allowing you to arrive in Valbona with maximum cultural exposure beforehand.  Understand to begin with that the 500 year old town of Gjakova in Kosova is the natural economic, urban and cultural center for our entire area of the Malesi (Highlands).  After the 1919 decision to carve off Kosova, the elimination of Gjakova as an accessible economic center was the single contributing factor to the ensuing poverty of Northern Albania, and it is only recently that practical steps are being taken to re-link our neighboring areas.

P1050157Imagine, a short while ago . . . . Gjakova (which as far as I can tell MUST translate as something like “Blood Bucket”) would be the annual destination for small migrations of (probably super-excited) villagers, who would truss up whatever they had to sell – most likely pine wood torches and cheese, maybe furs – and strap everything onto a horse and begin the week-long walk to the amazing metropolis of Gjakova. The Valbona road which everyone still likes to shriek about was actually carved from the mountain sides in the 1960s, by every available villager working with pick-axes and shovels in 3 months, to be ready for a state visit by Enver Hoxha.  Before THAT, the “road” to Bajram Curri and Gjakova was actually the marked footpath now known as the “Bregu i Lumit” (river banks) trail.  Thus we invite you to travel backwards in time, beginning in the beautiful small city Gjakova where you can get a gentle course in Malesori culture, as well as stay in the romantic “Old Hotel” of Carshia e Jupave at the heart of the Old Pazaar and end up (after a series of arranged adventures) arriving in Valbona on foot, the way our satisfied and exahusted forebears must have done.

Gjakova Hotel AlleyBegin Day 1 in Gjakova, which you can easily get yourselves to from either Prishtina (cheapest way of flying to Albania), Fierze (if you’re wanting to arrive on the ferry) or Kukes if you’re arriving by bus from the South.  After checking in at the Old Hotel, you’ll be taken on a tour of Gjakova, arranged by our friend Kujtim Rrahmani, the person most responsible for doing exciting, creative touristic things in Gjakova.  The tour will include visits to the Ethnographic museum, the Bektashi Tekke (from which no one emerges sober, from what I hear), the  16th century Mosque of “Hadum Aga” (featuring the most beautiful frescoes in all of Kosova) and the numerous craftsmen’s workshops (and cafes!) of the Old Pazaar, er, as well as a bunch of other stuff (like the old Clock Tower).  Dinner we arrange in the ancient and romantic restaurant of Kulla e Koshit – there may be fancier places in Gjakova, but none that feel as likely to stand in for “The Inn of the Three  Roberts” (or two robbers, or whatever they are in Kadare).  Sleep at Carshia e Jupave – which to be honest I’ve never done, but I ALWAYS stop by just to ride their elevator up and down – it’s a prime touristic feature, if you ask me!) (and come to think of it, they’re super nice about me doing it!)

The Old RoadDay 2 begins with an hour’s transport from Gjakova to the border hamlet of Kamenica (birthplace of Alfred’s Mother!), for a visit in old style Albanian hospitality, just as many old footsore travellers before you enjoyed for generations.  To be honest we have our doubts about how quickly you’ll be able to get away – especially if you play “Shah” as chess is called around here – but assuming all goes well, it’s back to transport for 45 minutes through Bajram Curri to the Kulla of Mic Sokoli for a quick visit.  Read about local hero Mic here.  His Kulla (or tower) is a 200 year old Kuvendi (council meeting) tower, lovingly restored by some (nameless and unthanked?) Kosovans who then totally forgot to advertise it, making it an undiscovered jewel of tourism.  Kadare fans will spot the portrait of wise and feared populist judge Binak Alia on the wall.  Back into the taxi for just one more hour (maximum!) as we drive you through the impressive gorge(ous) entrance of Valbona Valley, and deliver (dump) you in the village of Ismalaj in Dragobi, where you pick up . . . . the Old Road, and hike something like 2 hours along the river banks, to arrive in Valbona in the most perfect and approved traditional fashion:  On foot.  The taxi that left you in Dragobi will have delivered your bags for you, and we’ll be ready at Rilindja to make you a fabulous dinner, and then tuck you into one of the most luxurious rooms in Valbona, at our Rezidenca building, which, after that day, you’ll richly deserve.

Valbona via “the Lost Village” of Curraj i Epërm, aka: The Adventure Tour

Curraj i Eperm to Valbona (via Koman Lake)

4 days, Cost = 250€ per person, all accommodation, meals, guides and transport included – for One Night Camping, bring your own Tent!*

currajAdventure purists who bemoan the disappearance of basic dis-comforts and in-conveniences in “Wild Albania” (and damn Valbona for being ruined by having things like “Coca Cola” conceivably available – usually right after asking if we have wi-fi) (which we don’t) – will be glad to know there is still at least one thoroughly, marvelously impractical place: the “Lost Village” of Curraj i Eperm.  Once home to some 300 families, Curraj is now inhabited in summer by only 3 families: Flora and her mother with their tragic history (and who had a badger skin nailed to their balcony when we got there, and were cooking in an iron pot over the fire on the hearth, and made small talk by asking me (sensible – and in their lives pertinent) things like “Where do you get your flour?”), the family of Ded Gjeloshi who are indefatigable in their hospitality, and the family of the Bajraktar (or ‘head man’), Martin with his super smart daughters, the sophisticates of Curraj.  This ghosting is mostly because you can still ONLY get to Curraj on foot, through one of 5 fabulous, and difficult, routes.  Curraj is at least a day’s walk away from anywhere – more likely 2 – and if you really want to see vanished Europe, this is the place to do it.  Curraj is a village forgotten (for now) in time.  One of the most interesting things to me was that, since there are no motor cars or lesser forms of fancy transport (like horse carts), there are no streets – everything is connected by footpaths, so there is a bizarre lack of ‘center’ to everything – which is probably how it used to be everywhere, and now (of course) is nowhere.  We at Journey to Valbona may be unique in having collectively walked (and GPSed) every one of the possible approaches to Curraj – Ded’s family laughed at me a LOT for being able to proudly claim “It took me 2 years of trying to get here – but I have slept in Every Single One of the Passes to Curraj!”  (Ndroq, Zhaborre, the Nderlysa route, Qafa e Mrrethit AND Rrasa e Currave)  The point is, if you want a real adventure that you can wow your neighbors or theoretic grandchildren with, this is it.  Against that, I will put that you should NOT attempt this on your own.  Well, not unless you have oodles of time to waste getting lost, backtracking, giving up and trying again.  Take it from me (or the pair of Poles who were trying to get there last week and had to be airlifted out of wherever the hell they were by a commandeered KFOR helicopter) you won’t find it on your own.  At least, not quickly.  Point is, if it’s 2 days of walking to get there, and 2 days of walking to get out, you won’t really enjoy (or have enough food for) the extra day or two of Most Certainly Getting Lost which it will take you the first time.  Our Plan goes something like this:

Gillian on the PathDay 1:  Take the Koman ferry, but get off before Fierze (by pre-arranged plan – er, THIS one) in Lekbibaj.  Be met by taxi and driven (bumpity-bump) as far as possible, to the last hamlet of Pepaj.  Meet your guide, presumably Kol Gjeloshi, and hoick your stuff onto a mule, to make the 6 hour hike through Qafa e Mrrethit to Curraj i Eperm.  Dinner and accommodation (which will be BASIC but DELICIOUS) te Deda.  Hint:  study the names carved into the trees along your route – they add new meaning to the term “family tree.”  You can trace the Gjeloshi generations, as Kola Deda, Ded Kola … etc have been carving away for generations.  I asked about this on arriving, and was met by gales of laughter, and the story of me reading the trees was repeated gleefully to everyone we met.

Accommodation at Ded GjeloshiDay 2:  Stay in Curraj?  I would.  Plus then you have time to hike to Rrasa e Currave, which is a beautiful and easy to find (unmarked) trail.  But you can cut this out, if you’re in a hurry.

Day 3: The Epic Day.  Serious hikers may be able to make it from Curraj to Valbona in 1 day . . . . but I doubt it.  It’s considered a 14 hour day of walking by locals, but these are the same people who trot back and forth to Theth in one day.  And anyhow, if you’re on holiday, why would you want to rush?  Furthermore, the path from Curraj to Qafa e Ndroq is AWFUL.  Despite what it might have once been, it isn’t really a path anymore,  more a really irritating scramble up a dry riverbed overgrown with brambles and hazelnut bushes.  Though certainly much less irritating and much more enjoyable if you aren’t in a terrible hurry.  And anyhow you want time to enjoy the little blue cabbage butterflies that settle all over you. Therefore:  We plan this leg with a guide, if only to have someone to help you carry your stuff (as a horse would have to be a monkey to get over the scrambles), and recommend camping somewhere near the pass.  ie, Plan on Sleeping Out.  The Gjeloshi will pack you food, but it won’t be lightweight.

Old Stans near QafaDay 4:  Your guide can lead you down as far as the marked trail from Zalli i Motines (the Sands of Motina).  From there you can carry on on your own, if you can carry your own stuff, to the village of Ismalaj in Dragobi.  Or we can have you met by horse.  You might as well have a big celebratory dinner in Dragobi.  From there we can pick you up, or you can walk the last 6 km on the Bregu i Lumit (riverbank) trail, AFTER which we tuck you in to one of the luxurious (and richly deserved) rooms at the Quku i Valbones “Rezidenca.”  A stop for drinks, and More Dinner, and Tale Swapping (which you will deserve, because even locals don’t do this route anymore) at Rilindja is highly suggested.  We will even light a celebratory bonfire for you.

*A rider here, per our “tent” section:  if you bring a receipt for your tent, we will buy it off you for 80% of purchase price, if bought within the last year.  I mean, as long as it isn’t a 600€, all weather, Everest-ascent sort of tent.  On account of whenever we buy expensive stuff, the mice usually eat it within 2 years. (For some reason, they never eat the cheap stuff.)  (Or maybe, they only eat Alfred’s stuff . . . .?)tar

From Mali i Zi: Peaks of the Balkans

peaks of the stupid balkansTo be fair (or informative) we have to include this.  But it comes with a rider that we really actually kind of HATE Peaks of the Balkans.  “But WHY?” I can hear you asking . . . well, don’t get me wrong:  GIZ has done a TREMENDOUS job with marketing and publicity.  Within one year, they put this trail (and the area) on the map (mostly of course by paying journalists to write about it) . . . . but what they mostly did was put it on the map.  I imagine they got paid a lot of fat German salaries for this.  In the first years, they did nothing to actually identify or mark the trails, and while they may have worked with local people elsewhere, in Valbona they neither consulted (nor employed) local people, but instead brought in “outsiders” which on top of being insulting has resulted a bunch of spurious trail creation by people who don’t actually know the area (not to mention not benefiting locals, but the sons of some friend of the organizer in Shkoder), viz the totally unnecessary (and confusing) DOUBLE marking of TWO paths to Cerem (like climbing the ‘two peaks of Kilimangaro’?).  It also seems odd to me to base an entire marketing campaign on suggesting that foreigners illegally cross borders (since they did exactly nothing to facilitate crossing at ‘unapproved’ border sites).  Also, call me paranoid, but it’s hard to get warm and fuzzy about a marketing plan which erases most of the struggling-to-be-born businesses in Valbona (see their map, which recommends taking a TAXI – some hiking! –  from Fushe e Gjes – the most unlikeable hotel in Valbona, but supported by the local government – to Cerem, since “There is nothing in between”)(NB: this is not outrage on our own behalf, since we’re “doing quite nicely” – it’s for Mark Lamthi, Kol Gjoni, Skender Beqiri, Sherif Selimaj, Tahir Hysaj, Adem Brahimi and any one of the numerous other people who are struggling to be known).  (Yup:  to be 100% fair, I just checked their website, which states (cut and pasted!): “There are no accommodation possibilities along this trail for separating the hike/drive. People at Fusha e Gjes Hotel can help you find a taxi.” Jerks. Not to mention suggesting you skip the 8,000 hectares of Valbona National Park, in a taxi.  Wow.) To be even more fair, in 2014 they started marking trails.  However, this has resulted in total chaos, since they didn’t inform anyone that they have, and so now there are some bizarre trails that people keep getting lost on since (despite the fact that they show up on no local maps) “they look so nicely marked.”  Peaks of the Balkans.  Ya Hoo.

Still, all of that aside, it’s a nice idea.

Therefore, if you’re set on it, we thought we might as well add our 2 cents.  Let us know how we can help.

PS:  I should revise:  We don’t “kind of hate” the Peaks of the Balkans, we “REALLY hate” it.

Mali i Zi: As we suggest, and including some actual Peaks (rather than taxis) (applause, bows and general hoo-haa)

4 days, Cost = 150€ per person, all accommodation, meals, guides and transport included.

crossing the borderOne good way of avoiding the still-existing difficulties of getting border crossing permission (since it’s a bit much to expect the 3 governments involved to create whole new offices for the as-yet relatively small issue of the several-dozen people a year who want permission, especially as said governments aren’t the least bit worried about the 100s of locals who wander back and forth each year), is to start and finish in the same country (hey-presto, entry and exit stamps become “moot”).  Thus we propose a nice little side tour of Mali i Zi (which you might know as ‘Montenegro’).  It’s the one tour included here which involves arriving in Albania, departing, and arriving again.  But Albania is so nice – why wouldn’t you want to?  And did we mention, you take in some actual Peaks on the way.

IN PROGRESS OF PLANNING:

Day 1: Stumble down the path from Theth, walk past (and avoid) the noisy Mecca of Fushe e Gjes (destination of dozens of overdressed Albanians every weekend, who particularly enjoy the top-volume, all-night dance parties)(don’t worry, it’s the only awful thing in Valbona, and easily avoided)(so far), and take yourself off instead a further 1.5 km to the houses of Rraxa e Brisë.  Here we recommend staying at any one of the nice little guesthouses, like the home of Mark Lamthi (best ceilings ever).    They can either make dinner for you, or you can enjoy a walk to the small wooden restaurant at Kol Gjoni’s.

Day 2:  After breakfast, meet your horse and guide to set off from Rraxa e Brisë and follow the 4WD track to Kukaj.  From Kukaj, follow the series of signs and marked paths to the peak of Maja e Rosit (2252m).  Decend again to the pass of Qafa (pass) e Rosit, and pass (totally illegally!) into Mali i Zi.  From the pass, it’s a xxkm, yyhour walk to nearby Vuthaj (Vusnje).

Then you do something tricky to end up coming back into Albania by Maja e Kollata (which gives you 2 peaks), and then trot around by Qafa e Borit to return to Valbona via Cerem.  Stay tuned for this one!

It’s also possible to do without and use a map (which we can provide), although some of the later bits around Maja e Rosit can be tricky.

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