“Where are you headed?” the woman we rent a room from in Montenegro asks us, eyeing our touring bicycles. “Albania,” I reply. Her eyes widen. “Have you been there?” I ask. “No. They’re gypsies,” she states. “You’ll see.”
Ever since my husband and I started pedaling our bicycles east from Germany, we’ve been advised against visiting Albania—from well-meaning family and friends to the Balkan country’s closest neighbors. None of which have visited themselves, conceivably because the Albania of today is worlds apart from the Albania of even the 1980s. Until his death in 1985 and beginning around World War II, Albania’s fierce communist leader, Enver Hoxha, beat the country into a recluse state, killing communist party opponents and banning religion, among other atrocities.
These days, Albania has emerged from isolation and the post-communist country offers a host of incentives for visitors, not the least of which is an abundance of unspoiled natural beauty.
But reputations die hard.
Just before arriving at the border, we stop in a bike shop looking for a replacement hydration bite valve after animals made a feast of mine while wild camping. When the shop owner discovers where we’re headed, he tells us to sleep with one eye open or we’ll be walking instead of pedaling.
During our first few pedal strokes in Shqipëria, as Albanian’s call their country, we share the road with spotted pigs, donkey carts, shepherds, and tractors. The first town we come across to withdraw a few thousand Albanian Lekë gives off an air of (ever-so-slightly organized) chaos, which I imagine stems from generations of totalitarian control. It wasn’t until the collapse of Communist rule in 1991 that Albanians were permitted to own personal cars, and today most are big, luxury sedans. “Who wants to drive anything else?” a Tirana taxi driver shared with a New York Times journalist who revealed most of the Mercedes-Benzes we see come from Albanian émigrés.
Not a minute too soon, we point our bikes toward the mountains, immediately beginning a 24-kilometer ascent that will take us deep into the glaciated peaks of the Albanian Alps. The surprisingly smooth pavement is lined with brightly-colored houses that showcase grazing cows and goats out front, men pass us traveling on horseback and we part a sea of sheep being herded down the middle of the road. After a while, the climbing gets steeper and the air gets misty as we make our way into the clouds. Surrounded by mounds of green and blue, we feel completely isolated from the rest of the world.
On our right, a row of emerald trees leads to a tiny chapel made of stone that looks as at home in the mountains of Albania as on the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Though Islam accounts for more than half of the country’s religion, it unfurled much slower here in the North, partly due to the area’s rugged terrain. Deeper into the Alps, when the road turns to gravel and then to dirt, the air hints at autumn’s arrival and we pass donkeys hauling wood in preparation for winter. Something we can’t identify is spread out on the road to dry. When we stop to inquire, shy smiles creep across the rural women’s sun-tanned faces. They consult with each other before confidently announcing in English, “mountain tea.” Further up the road, small voices beg us from a distance to stop. Children race toward us from simple homes, fumbling over their flip-flops. When we cease our pedaling to chat with them for a few minutes, they are overjoyed.
In Koman, a rickety ferry takes us across Lake Komani, created by a hydroelectric project during communist control in the 70s. Limestone mountains jut from electric blue-green water as our boat—which is overflowing with travelers, locals, motorcycles and our touring bicycles—twists and turns through the flooded Drin River. Halfway to Fierza, we make an unscheduled stop. There is no sign or shoreline to speak of and it isn’t until we are mere feet away from a cliff side that I notice a small goat path leading to a rustic farmhouse. A young local hops out and enthusiastically waves goodbye until we can no longer see him.
After making landfall, we make our way over rough gravel roads, passing hay mounds taller than houses and handmade fences made of twigs, until we reach Valbona National Park, 8,000 pristine hectares in the heart of Albania’s “Accursed Mountains.” Here, in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, bears and lynx share their home with fiercely autonomous people who possess world-class hospitality.
Their kindness originates from a collection of 15th century Albanian laws called the Kanun. The centuries-old code of honor that makes this rarely-visited region so welcoming is the same one that permits honor killings among villagers. “Blood feuds,” as they’re called, have led to generations of feuding families forced into isolation for fear of being killed if they venture outside their home. They haven’t done anything good for the country’s reputation either. “It creates an impression of Albanians as a uniquely violent and dangerous people. This is something that those of us who live here know is not true,” said British Ambassador Nicholas Cannon in a 2013 speech.
In a day’s pedal in the region referred to as the Malësi, or “The Highlands,” we pass more free-roaming cows, sheep and mythical-looking horses than natives. Then, just before sunset, we find our way to a guesthouse brimming with backpackers who, like ourselves, have surrendered to the allure of the Accursed Mountains. The warm home has hot water, soft beds and inexpensive rates, but something doesn’t feel right about sleeping inside. The owner offers us the rugged wilderness behind the house. Without hesitation, we pitch our tent between an actual babbling creek and a tree as charismatic as the native peaks and people we’ve encountered. I lay awake for a while pondering this perfect and unexpected journey into a misjudged country before sleep is too overwhelming to fight off.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” – Abraham Lincoln