After the Financial Times, The Guardian, FAZ and many others, the Balkan Natural Adventure tourism service provider has been featured in yet another well known media company in Ireland, The Independent.
Walking break: The Accursed Mountains can be a blessed experience
Hiking the heights of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro means tough climbs amid turbulent history!
A constellation of limestone rock is protruding skywards with the sharpness of a crocodile’s tooth. It looks like the Burren on steroids.
This morning, these sweeping mountain lines were hidden behind a swirling fog. But as we passed forests and crossed fawn-coloured hills, the fog started to dissolve. We hauled ourselves up a steep 800m ascent and picked our way across an almost ramrod-straight ridge before we reached the place that gave us this high-definition view of these entrancing limestone peaks that endow the Grebaje Valley in Montenegro.
Yesterday, we lay out in the midday sun after a bone-chilling dip in a glaciated lake; its glass-like surface reflected the spiky pine trees that surround it. Local lore insists that a swim in the lake guarantees you a happy marriage. In the afternoon, we hiked downhill through a forest trail as the sun dappled between its leafy canopy.
Over the last eight days, we’ve walked in lime-green valleys that were sculpted by glaciers and through wildflower-splattered meadows under mouthwash-blue skies. Nudging us on the way are occasional makeshift, ramshackle cafes. Outside one and lying flat is part of the trunk of a huge tree. Its bark is ripped out. In its place and bobbing gently in the cool water from a hosepipe are cans of Fanta and local beer.
I’m hiking through the mountains of Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro along the Peak of the Balkans – a circular, cross-border trail opened in 2013 and designed to promote unity among a region fractured by politics and religion. Before the route was established, parts of this trail were not mapped and the area’s bloody history meant these Balkan borderlands remained out of reach.
We start and end our hike in Theth, an Albanian village encircled by gun-metal grey mountains. In the early 1900s, the English traveller Edith Durham wrote of Theth: “I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world.”
Indeed, the sense of the forbidden is embodied in the name of the mountains our route criss-crosses: the Accursed Mountains. The daunting name, it’s believed, stems from the adversity faced by those who live here. Local legend, however, offers another take on the name’s origins: God spent six days creating the world, but on the seventh the devil escaped from hell for one day and conjured the Accursed Mountains.
Wherever it came from, the name belies the welcome. When our group of 11 hikers – including Belgians, Dutch, Austrians, English, a German, and an American, led by two local guides – arrives at our accommodation in the afternoons, the owners greet each of us with big smiles and warm handshakes.
As the trail descends through a honey-coloured meadow, we meet a shepherd taking his dreadlocked sheep to a lower pasture. As he talks to Fidan, our head guide, the shepherd laughs heartily and makes elaborate, sweeping gestures with his arms. When we ask for a photo with the shepherd, he fizzes with coiled excitement.
Fidan is from Kosovo and tells us he wants the trip to be “perfect”. Always friendly and occasionally intense, he became a tour guide after working in various jobs – running his own shoe shop, clearing landmines, and training NGO staff in conflict and resolution.
Days before this trek, he ran an ultramarathon through the mountains. The finishers received a medal made by a woman who was brutally assaulted by Serbian soldiers during the Kosovo War.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” Fidan said, his voice cracking. “I will give the medal to my eldest daughter and she will keep it forever.”
It’s a reminder of the potency of the Balkans’ turbulent history. After the Ottomans defeated Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Ottoman Empire occupied modern-day Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro for nearly 500 years. Albania gained its independence in 1912, but for 40 years from 1944 it was ruled with an iron fist by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
Kosovo (then part of Serbia) and Montenegro were incorporated into the newly formed Yugoslavia in 1918, but the break-up of the country in 1992 triggered a series of ferocious ethnic conflicts.
In 1999, after Nato airstrikes ended a war between them, Kosovo won its independence from Serbia.
That bitter history is franked into the Peak of the Balkans trail. On a desolate path between shepherds’ villages, we stop at a memorial dedicated to three members of the Kosovo Liberation Army killed here by the Serbian army in 1998. Red and white carnations rest on a slab of black marble embossed with images of the three men underneath a crimson flagpole.
The previous day, as we hiked to Velika Rudoka, Kosovo’s highest point, we passed the former Albania/Yugoslavia border. When Albania was a totalitarian state under Hoxha, this was one of the most fortified borders in the world. When Hoxha sealed one section of the border, he separated many families from each other for years because they inadvertently found themselves on opposing sides. Hoxha gave locals just two days’ notice before he closed the border.
Underlining the newness and remoteness of the trail, some of our accommodation was specially built because of the absence of lodgings or villages along the route. The accommodation ranges from polished chalets to simple huts, from comfortable individual bedrooms to mattresses on the floor in communal areas. On the more outlying parts, the extent of the facilities are cold showers and squat toilets. Throughout, there is almost no phone or Wi-Fi coverage.
Each evening we sit down to big dinners bursting with flavour – soups, spaghetti, chicken, stews, and veal, often accompanied by fresh local tomatoes and cheeses. Our hearty breakfasts consist of bread, rice, yoghurt, and sweet fig or plum jam.
Peppers are a thread running through our meals. For one breakfast, we’re served mashed fried peppers; at a dinner, mincemeat oozes from denuded peppers. For lunch at one guesthouse, I eat an orange pepper cooked and served in butter and cream. Such is the reverence for peppers here that Fidan jokes (at least, I think it’s a joke) that when Albanians go on holiday, they take their peppers with them.
On our last day, we hike through the craggy Ropojane valley. Framed by razor-sharp cliff faces and flecked with tall trees bent out of shape by the violence of winter storms, it marks the Montenegro/Albania border. Here we come upon another relic of the area’s history: small, concrete military bunkers scattered across the valley.
Convinced that Albania’s enemies were about to invade, Hoxha, Albania’s dictator, built 500,000 of these bunkers throughout the country so that Albanians could repel the attack by fighting a guerrilla war from these rectangular lookout points topped with mushroom-shaped domes. The invasion never materialised, but the bunker-building programme remains a testament to paranoia and underscores how Albania became Europe’s North Korea.
Yet as we move through this haunting valley, there’s a tangible sense of the past and present colliding. If the military bunkers were a desperate attempt to keep the world out, the cross-border Peak of the Balkans trail is a generous attempt to invite the world in. Accepting that invitation can make the Accursed Mountains a blessed experience.
- Flights: Brendan flew Dublin to London Gatwick with Ryanair (ryanair.com) and from there to Tirana, the Albanian capital, with British Airways (britishairways.com). Ryanair also fly from London Stansted to Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital.
- Getting around: Brendan travelled as a paying client of Balkan Natural Adventure (bnadventure.com) on a 10-day tour (nine days hiking), starting and ending in the Albanian city of Shkodër. The Peaks of the Balkans trail is 192km. The tour is roughly 130km, mainly on the official trail but with diversions, and an average ascent of about 1,000m a day. This year, tours run June to October; from €850, including accommodation, meals, and guide.
- For the latest Covid entry criteria, see dfa.ie/travel/travel-advice and gov.ie
Source: TheIndependent.ie, February