Monday, 4 August 2014

Peaks Of The Balkans: Albania, Montenegro & Kosovo - Day 14

Day 14 – Mount Korab

10.20 miles / Total Ascent 1506m / Total Descent 1436m

And so to our final walk of the trip – an ascent of Mount Korab, the highest point in Albania. We had a long day in prospect, with a return trip to the top and back taking around 8 hours, plus a 4½ hour transfer to Tirana to fit in before our farewell dinner, so alarms were set for 5.00am in preparation for a 6.00am start.

The start of the trail

The early stages

Our intended route tackled the peak by a fairly straightforward route, rising at first beside a stream, then over meadows before angling up to the rocky summit, and gaining height steadily, and sometimes steeply, along the way.

Following the stream

In the early morning, conversation was subdued although we made good progress, passing a waterfall and chatting briefly to a shepherd who had spent a year in Britain before returning to his home. As we climbed we could see the weather round the summit was a bit iffy – OK sometimes, clouded over at others – and it was quite clear as we progressed that there were some who were going better than others.


Although we stopped occasionally to get the group back together, a decision would have to be made as to whether the top was attainable – particularly as time was not really on our side. In the end it was decided that we would split, with half going for the top while the other half waited at the ridge below the summit.

I would have dearly loved to make the top. And, had we had more time available, I would have gone for it. But for some reason – I don’t know why – I wasn’t going particularly well that morning, and decided I’d have to opt out. Looking back, I feel disappointed about not making it, but it was the right choice. Others felt the same, so a group consisting of Endrit, Tony and Matt continued to the top, while Gent, Laura, Rebecca, me and Missy G made it as far as the ridge. At least we got a chance to look over into Macedonia.

Looking into Macedonia

For the descent we simply retraced our steps. Our non-summit group had made it about half way down before the summit group caught up – they had made the top without too much trouble, but the views were limited by the low cloud, so they didn’t stay too long and soon set off back again.   

On the descent #1

On the descent #2

The last half of the descent offered up the best weather of the walk, and we enjoyed a pleasant trundle in the sunshine as we made our way back to the village. There was just enough time for a quick beer and an ice cream at the bar, then it was time to load up and be on our way.

Nearing the bottom

We dropped Gent, Laura and Vicki back at their hotel in Kukes, then made our way back to Tirana on the Albania-Kosovo highway. There was just enough time to check into our hotel, then it was off for our farewell dinner. We were rather too tired to paint the town red, but we did manage to squeeze in another ice cream on the way back. 

Peaks Of The Balkans: Albania, Montenegro & Kosovo - Day 13

Day 13 – Prizren & Transfer to Tejza

Today was mainly given over to sightseeing and the transfer back into Albania. As hinted at yesterday, Prizren is a city of some interest, so it was worth a look round at some of the main sights.

Having had a long history and a position of major geopolitical importance in the region, Prizren has over the years been under the control of the Albanians, the Romans, the Slavs, Byzantium, the Ottomans, the Serbs and Austria-Hungary before becoming integrated into Yugoslavia, as well as being subject to a number of other “occupations”. It’s a complex history – far too complex to go into here – but one which has left many places of interest for the visitor.

View over Prizren from the fortress

Missy G at the fortress

Our first objective was the fortress, a dominating structure perched on a rocky bluff high above the town. Although in disrepair at present, it provides a “birds-eye” view of the town and some of the more imposing buildings.

League of Prizren building, bottom right

Next was the League of Prizren Museum, with exhibits relating to the League and the organization founded in June 1878 where local leaders came together to agree to maintain the territorial integrity of Albania as part of the Ottoman Empire, and resist the advances of Bulgaria and Serbia. There were also examples of local art and traditional dress in the Ethnographic Museum.

Finally we looked inside two Mosques (one Sunni and one Shi’ite) – which was interesting, and unexpected given that it was Ramadan.

Decorated walls inside the Mosque


Looking up inside the ceiling dome

Decoration round the windows

After lunch at a riverside café, we loaded our stuff into the van and set off back into Albania via the “patriotic highway” – the new dual carriageway that eventually will connect Pristina and Tirana. The border checkpoint safely negotiated, our next port of call was at Kukes to pick up Gent (who was our guide in southern Albania, and who organized the ground arrangements for this trip) and his wife Laura, plus mountain hound Vicki, who were accompanying us on the last section of the trip.

It was good to meet again, and we did some serious catching up as we made our way southwards towards the small village of Tejza at the foot of Mount Korab.

Korab is the highest peak in Albania. It is also the highest point in Macedonia as well, as the border between the two countries runs over the summit. The plan was to climb it tomorrow as a finale to the trip, before returning to Tirana for a farewell dinner.

View of Mount Korab from the road, summit in cloud

Our arrival at the guesthouse in Tejza was expected, just not when we turned up. So we retired to a nearby bar for a drink while everything was sorted. Again, the accommodation was simple but tidy: dinner was served at a traditional low table, and we sat on the floor to eat cushioned by fleeces. Once the meal was over, the table was rolled away and bedding brought in so we could make ourselves comfortable for bed. Tomorrow was to be a very early start, so a good night’s sleep was essential.

Peaks Of The Balkans: Albania, Montenegro & Kosovo - Day 12

Day 12 – The Three Borders & Into Kosovo

6.20 miles / Total Ascent 653m / Total Descent 841m

We awoke to a bright, crisp morning. Despite some slight discomfort, the beautiful views and quiet serenity of the place more than compensated for a somewhat chilly, sleepless night.

Morning view from the camping barn

We breakfasted, said our goodbyes, and turned our attentions to the first of today’s objectives, the Tre Kujfit (or Three Borders) where the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo meet. As befits a point of such geographic interest, it is located on the top of a nearby summit – somehow its impact would seem diminished if it were simply a point in some non-descript field.

Looking back over Doberdol

Of course summits are great for views, but you have to get there first. In this case, that meant a fearsome 350m slog up the steep valley side – a rather rude awakening to the day.

Bigger mountains above Cerem

The mules made a far better pace that we mere humans (four legs good, two legs bad), but we eventually made the ridge where we paused to get our breath back. Then it was a case of picking up a contour path round the mountainside to reach the rear of the summit and the final steady ascent to the top.

Three Borders summit, 2232m

Although not huge by local standards, the summit stands clear of other, nearby peaks, and tops out at just over 2230m. Needless to say, there were some excellent views to be had into all three countries, and we spent some time soaking them up, taking photos and commenting in the mountain log book. We could see the route of the previous day, across the nearby hills to the jagged summits beyond, and the hamlet of Babino Polje, where we had stopped during last year’s Montenegro trip, was but a few hours hike away.

Since leaving Vusanje a week-or-so ago, we had been following the route of the Peaks of the Balkan trail pretty accurately. OK, so two of the days (Nderlysa and to Pyramid 18) were side trips, but other than that we had followed the route as set out – from Vusanje, over the Peja Pass to Thethi, over the Valbona pass to Rrogram, through Cerem to Doberdol and to the Three Borders summit.

Descending into Kosovo

Now, though, as we descended from the summit, we left the Peaks of the Balkans route behind and struck off on a different path into Kosovo. We crossed some boggy moor land, dotted with orchids and alive with frogs, descended through woods, took a wrong turning, found the route again, and finally picked up the car road at a scruffy mountain village whose name we never got to know.

Orchid #1

Orchid #2

Village, name unknown

Continuing down, we reached the valley bottom – the end of this section of the journey. We met our driver, said goodbye to Lumi and the mules, and ate our lunch in slightly subdued mood.

Valley bottom, transport waiting

Then we were heading into civilization once more. A bumpy half-hour drive brought us to the monastery at Decan, the largest Serbian Orthodox Christian church in the Balkans, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Noted for the beautiful and well-preserved frescoes, the origin of the monastery dates back to the 14th Century, the frescoes were added from the 15th Century and have remained largely intact despite being plundered by the Turks in the late 17th Century.

Decan Monastery

We had a look round the monastery, and it is indeed impressive. Sadly photography inside is not allowed, so I only have a picture of the exterior. However it is really beautiful inside, and well worth a visit. However, it is still under threat: as a Christian Serbian church inside predominantly Muslim Kosovo, its presence here is unwelcome.

For the sake of brevity and prudence, I’ll skip over the history behind the troubles and the recent war between Serbia and Kosovo: suffice it to say that there is a climate of strained relations between the two countries that will take some time to repair. So much so that the monastery has been targeted during the recent conflict (with attacks by suspected Kosovo Albanian insurgents as recently as 2007, I gather) and currently remains under the protection of KFOR, the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Seen from our hotel window, KFOR Land Rover in Prizren

After visiting the monastery, it was time to transfer to Prizren. We arrived mid-afternoon, with time to rest and explore the town centre for ourselves. We had a potter round the streets, and treated ourselves to an ice cream before going back to the hotel for a rest and a shower before dinner. We opted for a local restaurant, and had kebab, chips, bread, dips, and salads, all washed down with excellent Peja beer!

One interesting point of note: Prizren is a predominantly muslim city, and we were there during Ramadan. As night fell, the restaurant got very busy, with people ordering and receiving food, only to wait until last prayers were complete before tucking in.

Afterwards, we went for another short stroll. The city really came alive after dark, and for a mid-week night it was really buzzing.

Peaks Of The Balkans: Albania, Montenegro & Kosovo - Day 11

Day 11 – Cerem to Doberdol

11.20 miles / Total Ascent 1131m / Total Descent 501m

After an easy day yesterday, it was back to a full day’s walking today: a day of ascent accumulation starting with an initial climb, followed by and undulating path that dipped into Montenegro for a short way before the final rise to Doberdol.

Leaving Cerem

For the first hour or so we followed the car road, gradually zig-zagging higher before contouring eastwards around the hillside. Just as we were leaving the village, we met up again with an English couple (first encountered in Plav) who were doing the Peaks of the Balkans independently, but seemed to be doing quite a lot of it by 4 x 4.

It was an odd morning, weather-wise: overcast, but with higher cloud and occasional blue patches; cool, but clammy as well, and for some reason, I couldn’t seem to find the right combination of clothes to get my temperature right. At least we had a view of the gorge we had walked through yesterday, and a better appreciation of the scenery that had been obscured by the low cloud.

View to the gorge we walked through in the rain yesterday

Things began to improve as we left the car road and picked up a path through woodlands, crossing the border into Montenegro once more. It seems strange that in the space of one step we had switched countries, especially as there was nothing in evidence to mark the event: just an invisible line on a fairly non-descript hillside – and a warning not to stray from the path!

Return to Albania, derelict observation post just visible on hill top

Shortly we reached an area of open ground that marked our return to Albanian territory, and reached the car road again. Off to our left, a derelict observation post crowned a nearby hill top, whilst Doberdol lay directly ahead. However, there was plenty of walking yet to do before we arrived.

Doberdol in the distance

As if to mark a change in fortunes, the sun made an attempt to break through: a real boon, as the path we were following, which threaded between meadow and woodland in a more-or-less direct line towards our goal, was delightful. The middle of the day provided some of the best weather, so we took advantage of the conditions to stop for lunch, and spent a lazy half hour or so soaking up the sunshine and the views.

View from our lunch stop

We were now crossing a landscape of sharp, wooded ridges and plunging valleys. In the main, though, our route avoided too much in the way of height gain and loss, although that encountered was often steep.

Descending the slopes near Balqin

Wooded ridges and plunging valleys

We passed through Balqin – a summer settlement comprising a handful of houses, and the only village en route – where the horses seemed more inquisitive about us than did the people. Which was odd, really, since the arrival of strangers or friends in these parts is usually an excuse to stop work and have a chat, however brief.

Summer village of Balqin

Horses at Balqin

The dogs were quite interested in us, too: attention I’d be happier without, as they are not really pets but there to dissuade wolves and bears from attacking the livestock. So we moved on swiftly, waiting until we were in the shelter of the trees before taking another short break.

Woodland path in dappled sunshine

Rest stop in the trees

A short, sharp climb brought us to the rim of the hanging valley that is Doberdol, a small collection of farmsteads used by shepherds to pasture animals in the summer months. By any measure, it is a community on the edge: even by the standards of the area it is remote, and at 1800m above sea level must be one of the highest settlements in the region.

Approaching Doberdol

Our digs for the night were another half-hour further on, and achieved with relatively few mishaps: a simple camping barn of low drystone walls surmounted by a corrugated metal roof, and a tiny solar panel providing just enough electricity to power some meagre lighting. The loo was a long drop affair, and the furniture rough-hewn timber, both inside and out. 

Bunkhouse at Doberdol

Despite the simplicity we were all soon settled in, and took the opportunity to make up our beds while there was still some daylight available. We went for a short stroll behind the hut, and sat on the rocks absorbing the quiet and watching the cattle and sheep streaming across the hillsides at the end of the day.

Dinner time

Dinner was served at 7.00pm, the now-familiar fare of bread, soup, salads and grilled peppers, pasta and yoghurt. At this sort of altitude nights can be cold, and this one was no exception. So we made a fire and sat round it drinking beers, chatting and – in Matt’s case – drying underwear.

Making fire!

Barbeque pants, anyone? Drying underwear, with
bespoke hanging rack fashioned from raw timber
by axe for easy self-assembly (patent pending)

Keeping the chill at bay

With little light and cool temperatures, we were all in bed pretty early. In truth, it was not the most comfortable of nights: with no heating and a chill wind blowing through the gaps in the drystone walls, we all felt the cold and slept poorly. Despite a little discomfort, though, none of us would have swapped it for the privilege of spending a night in such a wonderful, wild place. 

Peaks Of The Balkans: Albania, Montenegro & Kosovo - Day 10

Day 10 – To Cerem

6.44 miles / Total Ascent 534m / Total Descent 95m

Today’s walk was a simple transfer to Cerem, a village located high in a side valley off the main Valbona valley.

Tahir's farm, Kukaj

After breakfast, we packed and loaded the bags into a van for the short transfer to the main asphalt road. After a succession of bright mornings, it was a shame to find that even the early promise of nice weather had been circumvented, and we had stepped out into damp, overcast conditions from the off. First off, we were to be meeting our muleteer (Lumi) for the next few days and, after heading along the road for a short way, we found him – just not quite where we were expecting! 

Loading the mules, just not where we expected

Never mind: a few minutes later we were loaded and underway, climbing a steep, narrow path through woodland to reach the car road to Cerem after about 15 minutes. Route finding was easy today, as was the walk: a simple case of following the road for six or seven kilometers to reach the village.

Looking into the Valbona valley

At first we paralleled the Valbona valley, then cut northwards through a steep-sided gorge that would eventually open out with the village surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains. That was the theory, anyway, but low cloud and increasingly heavy rain put paid to any real views, which was a shame.

Following the car road towards Cerem

The good thing about a short walk in the rain is that one’s destination can soon be reached, so we did just that and arrived at our next lodgings as early as late morning. As usual, we were made very welcome. Lunch was taken sitting round a sheltered table, our own picnics as well as a delicious Fli supplied by the family, plus tea, Turkish coffee and raki. While we ate, the stove was lit in the house so we could get warm and dry our wet belongings. 

Drying out in the room with the stove

The afternoon was given over to free time. Everyone in the party got on well, and we all enjoyed the walking. Sometimes, though, it was nice to have a little time to ourselves: to read, to rest, to contact family, to write notes, or simply to warm through and think or do nothing.

Looking round the village

As the weather picked up a bit, we opted for a walk around the village. Not that there was much of it – a dozen houses at most, I reckon – but a quick potter by ourselves was just the job, and saved us being cooped up inside for a full afternoon and evening.

Crossing the stream

We walked down to a small bar we had seen on the way in, and ordered coffee and beers. At first we sat out on the terrace, but then heavy rain came so we dashed inside to take shelter with the proprietor as we didn’t want two sets of wet clothes to dry out. Conversation was understandably limited, but we did our best in a combination of simple place names and gestures, and I think he understood the basics of what we were up to and why we were there. 

A little later, the village drunk popped in for a coffee and a quick raki: in an odd role-reversal, he hoped to counter our non-existant Albanian by repeating himself increasingly louder – a typically English approach, we thought!

Beers at the local bar

Anyway, a basic understanding was achieved, even though the proprietor had to step in and ask the drunk to quieten down a bit (we understood this quite clearly, despite the language barrier!). Still it was all very good natured, and helped pass the time until the rain abated.

House at Cerem

Back at the guesthouse, the remainder of the afternoon was spent idling and relaxing. This stop was much more of a homestay again, and it was fascinating to get an insight into the family and their way of life. The head of the family worked as a border guard near Bajram Curri, whilst the mother and wife attended to most of the chores around the house. They had only got into providing accommodation for guests relatively recently, and were keen to make a good impression.

Watching the daily goings-on, kitchen in shed (centre right of picture)

Interestingly, the “kitchen” was located in a small shed separate from the main house (something we had noticed but not fully taken on board at Kukaj, too). All afternoon, a quiet but constant activity of cooking and tea-making continued, so it was no surprise when a copious meal of bean soup, salads, grilled vegetables, cheese, stuffed peppers and fries greeted us at dinner.

Our beds beneath the Albanian flag

Our room was simple but clean, with proper beds and towels provided. It was a cool night, so the thick duvets were greatly appreciated and kept the chill at bay. We went to sleep cozy, watched over by the Albanian flag.