Wild Albania: The Allure of the Accursed Mountains

Albania

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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