Peaks of the Balkans, Day 3: Çerem to Dobërdol

Peaks of the Balkans_Day 3_Title

Matt, June 2017
We begin the day outside at the picnic table with another breakfast al fresco. It is a beautiful sunny day, and we are loving the clear blue skies and gorgeous alpine views we have woken up to, especially after yesterday afternoon’s downpour. It definitely feels like a fresh start, and we are eager to see what today will bring.

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All of the guests gather around the breakfast table for breakfast, and there is plenty of food to go around. This morning, we are served petla, a traditional fried bread that is delicious with jam and butter. There is also yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, mountain tea and fresh-brewed coffee. After eating, we make the standard tomato, cucumber and cheese sandwiches to take with us on the trail.

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Before packing up, we need to gather our clothes that we hung in the little hut with the wood stove last night. Everything is dry, which is a huge relief. It is still quite early in the morning, but we notice that there is a pan of bread baking in the oven, another loaf rising under a towel and a pot of beans that were no doubt picked fresh from the garden this morning. 

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There’s no doubt that a day in the country begins early and ends late for the women who are running this guesthouse. The woman who greeted us yesterday was still working after we went to bed, cleaning up the dishes from dinner and preparing our food for this morning. And look at what she has already accomplished this morning. No rest for the weary, indeed!

As we set out for the day’s hike and make our way up above the village, we see that even the 80 year-old guesthouse grandma is taking the family’s four cows out for their morning walk to a nearby pasture for grazing. The customs and rhythms of life in a traditional village such as this are so interesting to observe. Every minute of the day is used to accomplish vital tasks, and everyone, even granny, is required to do their part.

Today’s route is, mercifully, an easier one than yesterday’s. We won’t be facing any dramatic gains and losses in elevation. Instead we walk along the two-track dirt road for 2-3 kilometers, occasionally short cutting through meadows. We are passed by one truck, 8 cows and a few hikers headed in the same direction we are. This is a quiet road in a tranquil place.

After only an hour or so down the road we stop for a coffee at a roadside Bar Koffee. I can’t imagine they get too much business, so we are happy to stop and support this little local business. When we pay our bill, we are surprised to discover that our coffee costs a mere .50 lek/euro. With prices like that, we won’t be skipping any of the little coffee houses on our route!

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Back on the trail, we meander in an out of forests and meadows with loads of purple, yellow and white wildflowers in bloom. 

It is noticeably cooler today than the previous two days, so we are not sweating like crazy, which is a nice change. We stop frequently to photograph some of the smaller details of the trail. We see a lot of insects today, including at least three different kinds of crickets. They seem to really like these grasses, and we can’t recall ever seeing so many in one place. Albania is full of interesting surprises!

The trail takes us across the Albanian border into Montenegro and back several times throughout the day. Only a few border stones indicate that we have crossed international borders. Where there once used to be barbed wire and government police with guns, there are now only these stones, grass and wildflowers.

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At the first “border crossing” we run into two villagers moving a small herd of cows up the mountain, followed by groups of hikers from Poland, Italy and Germany. We enjoy the opportunity to socialize for a bit. It turns out that one of the groups is being led by Andrit, the son of Kula, who was the owner of the guesthouse where we stayed back in Valbona. He seems like a very knowledgeable guide. Everyone gets excited when he points out a steppe eagle flying overhead.

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A few hours down the trail, we stop for lunch at a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the next valley. From there, the trail ducks into a forest again reminding us of all the ups and downs of the Wonderland Trail. We follow the contour of the valley but stay on the high side with a river we can’t quite see through the trees far below.

Rain and thunder threaten just enough to force us to pull out our pack covers and rain jackets, but we have nothing substantial like yesterday. We come across a shepherd’s camp and stop briefly to take it the view from afar.

Even though Adriatik tells us we are getting close to our destination, there is still plenty of hiking to go. Luckily, the beautiful scenery helps make the miles pass by quick enough.

After one final break we finish the final climb up to Dobërdol, a collection of summer farmsteads in a gorgeous green valley surrounded on three sides by mountains. The sounds of cow bells clinking and sheep baying are a constant. Our guesthouse is about half way up the valley. What a location!

We arrive early enough for the first time to enjoy a delightfully hot shower. We take advantage of the opportunity to wash some clothes and set them out on a line to dry. After three days my t-shirt can almost walk on its own!

We eat dinner al fresco and enjoy another wonderful meal. Highlights include burek (layered pastry with onions and spinach, not unlike Greek spanokopita), fresh sheep’s cheese, and bean, carrot, onion soup with fresh cream and oil. There is a super cute, three month-old puppy amusing himself by chasing his tail and nipping at everyone’s ankles.

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We are exhausted by all the fresh air and quite content to call it an early evening. As a bonus, our room is a “treehouse” room that can only be accessed by a ladder. It feels quite cozy and reminds us of the mushroom hut we stayed in in central Turkey many, many moons ago. The sounds of folks sitting outside and chatting lull us to sleep.

Albania is proving to be a very hospitable country. The villagers always stop to chat with our guide as we pass by. Apparently, they often invite us into their homes for coffee, but Adriatik politely declines, explaining that we need to hike on to our destination. We will have to tell him to accept next time an offer comes. That is something that we would jump at the chance to do if it were up to us. The rules of hospitality here very much resemble the world of Odysseus as Homer relates it in his eponymous poem. Even the dogs are loyal like Argos!

As we drift asleep, we recall the day and Adriatik’s story of how some of the first foreign hikers to walks these trails found themselves without a place to stay for the night. They knocked on doors and were invited into the villagers’ homes. When the hikers offered to pay in the morning, the villagers always refused out of principle. It’s refreshing to be in a place where the presumption of goodwill is paramount.

Trail Report

Start: Çerem, Albania
End: Dobërdol, Albania
Distance: 14 kilometers
Date on Trail: 26 June 2017

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