Matt, June 2017
Slam, bang! It’s one trip to the next, and another classic Take a Hike Photography summer adventure is underway. I’ve been touring ancient sites in Greece and Rome for the last two weeks with 25 high school students. Alison just finished school two days ago, when she jumped on a plane and landed in Rome yesterday. I spent today hoofing it through the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, while Alison made her way to the hotel from the airport to drop off her bags and get sorted.
Rome is an old friend to us. Alison studied here after college for a year over 20 years ago. I followed her and turned our short reunion into a five-month stint, living and working for a family in the outskirts of Rome. This time, we’ve only got this afternoon to revisit a few favorite spots. So we meet up in the centro storico for a slice of pizza, grab a gelato and then a quick espresso before jetting off to see a few lesser-visited churches in the Rione i Monti neighborhood.
Then it’s back to the hotel to repack for our next trekking adventure. We can send our city clothes home with John, one of the other adult chaperones, so we pare down all of our belongings to only what we can carry comfortably in a backpack…for the rest of the summer! Ah, living the simple life is so romantic.
But before we do that, we have one night together in Rome, the place that helped put Roman in romantic! So it’s off to Piazza Navona area for a delightful meal with fellow leaders John and Sue at a quiet hosteria. Everything tastes amazing, and the cold Frascati is refreshing on a warm, summer night in the Eternal City. We grab a gelato at our old favorite, Giolitti, before heading to the Trevi Fountain, where we toss a coin into the glowing waters guaranteeing us a return visit to this beautiful city. After that, we call it a night and corral the kids back to the hotel. We will be leaving early for the airport in the morning, and we all need some sleep.
By 7 am, we see my students through check-in and security and, after a last cappuccino with John and a hug to Sue, we say our goodbyes and head for our gate. The flight to Albania is a quick hop over the Adriatic and, before we know it, we are gathering our bags at the Tirana airport and looking to meet our guide from Balkan Natural Adventures. Adriatik is his name, and, although his English is broken, he is friendly and pleasant.
Adriatik leads us to the car, and we drive to the town of Shkodër which is about two hours from the airport. We stop for lunch at Tradita Geg & Tosk, the most popular restaurant in town. It is in a kulla, which is a traditional Albanian stone house. This one is decorated with old cooking implements on the walls and has a fireplace over which flat bread is cooked. We have a mix of local food including sheep’s cheese, yogurt sauce (like Greek tzatziki) and a salad of fresh cucumber and tomato. Delicious!
After lunch, we transfer from the car to a four-wheel drive SUV. Soon we discover why as we leave the highway for gravel roads that eventually turn to rocks. We drive up and over a mountain pass, stopping at a roadside pull-out to take in the views before descending slowly into the valley below.
After another hour or so of increasingly rocky roads, we are dropped off in the village of Theth at an attractive guest house near an old stone church with a stunning mountain backdrop. This is our first taste of the visual feast that we have come to see on a nine-day trek through the Dinaric Alps.
The Peaks of the Balkans “official” trek is relatively new, although the trails we will hike in the days to come have existed for hundreds of years connecting small villages in neighboring valleys to one another and to the mountain meadows where the villagers from these farming communities graze their sheep and cattle. The full circuit of the Peaks of the Balkans crosses between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro and is 192 kilometers or 119 miles in total.
The modern history of this area has been quite volatile with a war between Serbia and Kosovo in the late 1990s. Before that the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist and kept the country closed off and isolated from the rest of the world for over forty years. It wasn’t until a German NGO started to develop and market the Peaks of the Balkans trek that backpackers started coming to the region. Even so, it remains a hiker’s hidden gem with only a handful of people, mostly Germans, out on the trail on any given day. If having gorgeous scenery all to yourself sounds like your cup of tea, this is the place for you.
The entire Peaks of the Balkans trek usually takes about 10-12 days to complete. We are squeezing this trip in before we start the Tour du Mont Blanc, and, unfortunately, we don’t have quite enough time to do the entire thing. We have hired Balkan Natural Adventures, a local outfitter based in Kosovo, to create a customized itinerary that will include some car transfers, allowing us to maximize our time and have a “best of” experience while skipping a few of the less scenic sections. We would love to do it all, but it’s not in the cards on this visit.
Once we are settled in our room, we meet Adriatic and yet another driver for a late afternoon hike. We drive for over half an hour on a rough road to a trailhead where there are some old stone ruins surrounded by high mountain peaks. We cross a footbridge and begin our hike. Along the way we pass small pools of water carved into rocks where we could swim in if we were hot or had more time. Right now, it just feels nice to stretch our legs after a long day of travel.
From there, the trail leads through the woods to a clear blue pool of water called Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye. There is an small waterfall flowing into the pool, but it is actually a deep spring that fills the clear turquoise-blue pond from underground. The color of the water is mesmerizing, but it is way too cold for a swim, which is just as well. It is getting late and we need to get a move on.
We enjoy a late dinner at our cute guest house. The food is simple, but everything is super fresh and made from scratch. As we head to bed, the stars are out, and dogs are barking in the distance. Enjoying the quiet life in the country means we are back on the road Take a Hike Photography-style, ready to start our Peaks of the Balkans adventure.