Peaks of the Balkans, Day 1: Theth to Valbona

Peaks of the Balkans_Day 1_Title

Alison, June 2017
The quaint village church is only about 100 meters from our guesthouse in Theth, and we want to wake up early to photograph it in soft, early light before meeting for breakfast in the dining room at 7. But, when the alarm goes off at 5:45, we are too tired to even look out the window to see if we are missing a great shot. Two snooze tags later, we finally realize that we are going to be late if we do not get out of bed and get moving.

Our cute, little room has a shower, and we both partake before packing up our bags for the final time before heading out for the next ten days. We have a small bag that we are leaving behind until we return to Theth, and the temptation to ditch weight is strong. Out goes the solar charger, out go our “city” clothes, out go the titanium cups and inflatable pillows. In goes the gear that we will be taking.

I finally have everything all ready when I realize that we have forgotten to fill our water bladders. Aargh! There’s no one in the kitchen yet, so I help myself to the water and run back upstairs to finish packing.  Even with the morning’s offload, our bags are still bulging and way too heavy for our liking, but it’s too late now to make any big changes now. As always, it’s the camera gear that kills us, but, what can we say? We suffer for our craft.

We head down to the dining room about 15 minutes late. For breakfast, we have delicious pancake fritters with homemade jam and honey. After eating, the lunch makings are brought out, and we make a sandwich out of homemade bread, tomatoes, cucumber and cheese. We are provided with some plastic wrap, but we see a family putting all of their lunch into some Tupperware containers. What a great idea. We don’t have any containers, so we wrap our sandwiches as best we can with the plastic. We hope that it won’t leak as we put the large sandwiches into the tops of our bags. Time to go!

It’s 9 am as we set off walking through the village of Theth with our guide, Adriatik, showing us the way. It’s already hot. At the bridge, we continue walking and head into a large field of rocks to make our way to the trailhead which is very inconspicuous among all of the trees. We start up the trail, and almost immediately we are in a full sweat. I also feel my heels rubbing against the back of my boots and hope against the odds that this is not going to become a problem later on.

The trail is surprisingly steep from the get-go, and now we are both questioning each item that we decided to carry with us on this journey. There are numerous trail signs marking our way, and we are grateful for a nice footbridge to cross our first river. It looks like some nice trail infrastructure is in place, at least on this popular route between these two villages.

We stop for a short break at the first viewpoint and try to appear to our young, fit guide that we are not in quite as bad shape as we must seem. We know we will get stronger each day, but the first few days in the mountains carrying a full pack are always a rude wake up call no matter how much training we do in pancake-flat Chicago ahead of time.

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We continue on and reach a beautiful meadow with our first taste of the mountain views that we have come here for.

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From there, it’s into the forest, and we are grateful for the shade even though the ascent is still quite steep.

At a rest break, a hiker comes up the trail. He is from Sweden but of Iranian descent. He is wearing Converse sneakers and traveling light with only a tiny cloth bag that makes us extremely envious. Even so, he complains about the steepness of the trail, which endears him to us immediately. Misery loves company, right? He bounds off, and we figure we will never see him again, but, just ten minutes up the trail, we find him being served a Turkish coffee in a cute Bar Coffee right on the trail.

If Matt has one weakness, it’s definitely coffee, so we decide to take another break at this cute little cafe in the middle of the woods. It has terraced seating areas and wooden tables and chairs cut from logs. There is a fireplace with the ubiquitous Albanian flag and a clever system of keeping sodas and beer cool using running stream water. As we are sitting there a young couple (he’s from England and she’s from the Czech Republic) arrive and join us for drinks. Who knew hiking in Albania would be so civilized?

We take off from the cafe first, and it’s another steep climb up to the pass. Now we are above tree line, and the views just keep getting better and better. It’s still crazy hot, and I feel like I am running out of steam. Lunch will be at the top of the pass, and, even though I am really motivated to get there, it’s a real effort to keep the legs moving.

Somehow we finally make it to Valbona Pass, and the views into the Valbona Valley are magnificent. The mountains are rocky and grey, but everything below treeline is vivid green. The skies are bright blue, and there are puffy white clouds in the sky. The combination of it all is mesmerizing and instantly makes us realize that coming to hike in the Dinaric Alps was definitely a good decision.

We take a side trail at the pass up to a viewpoint where we find a nice spot to eat lunch. The Swede is there, too, and we enjoy chatting with him again before heading up to the small, steep peak where we get a magnificent 360 degree view of the mountains all around us.

Going down from the pass proves just as challenging as going up. We skirt the mountainside on a narrow, rocky trail that requires a lot of concentration to avoid slipping on the loose rocks. I try not to look down on some sections, as a fall would be highly undesirable if not deadly. We eventually make it to a drainage and start zigzagging our way down the mountainside in tight switchbacks. When we finally make it to the bottom, we turn to look back up from where we came, it is impossible to make out the trail in the rocky slope.

After a few kilometers of gentler descent we come to Simoni Bar Coffee, Adriatik’s favorite mountain cafe, where the Swede and British/Czech couple (Adam and Yarcha) are relaxing and chatting. We join them in the cute, little cafe, and the proprietor, the Albanian Nathan Lane, convinces us both to try mountain tea, which we can take either hot or cold. It’s a local specialty in these mountain villages and is made from herbs harvested in the mountains, which is reason enough to try it, but it’s the breathy way he says “herbs” with a strong emphasis on the “h” sound that seals the deal.

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We spend at least an hour chilling out and enjoying the company of our new hiking buddies. Adam and Yarcha start down the mountain with us, and the four of us will end up staying at the same guesthouse, but not before completing the steep descent down the rest of the trail and the long, long road walk to our abode for the evening. Every so often, we come across a patch of tiny alpine strawberries that pack the most intense strawberry taste into their tiny size. They are incredibly delicious!

Despite the frequent stops for strawberries, we are making pretty good progress, that is until we run into a herd of sheep grazing in front of a traditional kulla, and there’s no way we can let this beautiful photo op pass by.

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When we finally reach the trailhead, we have a long walk along the road that seems to go on forever. We are staying at Kol Gjoni Guesthouse, and the owner is a striking older gentleman with thick eyebrows and an impressive mustache. He has a great raspy voice and bears an uncanny resemblance to the statue of an Albanian war hero that we saw in the center of Shkodra. There are a few super cute kids playing in the garden who oblige me with some photos.

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We have dinner with Adam and Yarcha, and the two of them have us cracking up about everything from Bronies (Bros that love My Little Ponies—it’s a thing!) to tales of being body slammed in a wrestling match.

Our meal is delicious, traditional Albanian food similar to what we  have eaten everywhere so far (tomato and cucumber salad, fresh cheese, bread, burek, a grilled pepper in a tasty cheese sauce, roasted potatoes), but we all agree that the tomatoes taste fresher and more delicious than any we have eaten anywhere. If all of our meals are going to be as good as this one, we are going to do just fine on this trip. We call it a night at 10 or so and fall fast asleep after a great start to our Balkan adventure!

Trail Report

Start Point: Theth
End Point: Valbona
Distance Hiked: 15 km
Date on Trail: June 24, 2017

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