Peaks of the Balkans, Day 7: Liqunat to Babino Polje

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Matt, 30 June 2017
Today’s hike revealed itself to us in three distinct segments that went from challenging to idyllic to frustrating, but all’s well that ends well. One’s perspective changes the moment you drop the pack for the last time, unlace the boots, peel off the socks and take a sip of cold Jelen, a beer new to us from Serbia by way of a Montenegro brewery. In addition, we are staying tonight at the luxurious and finely-appointed, by Balkan mountain standards, Triangle Wood House, run by Armand and Ardita, a young and friendly couple with an eye for style and a flare for novelty in the kitchen. But more about that later…

This morning we wake up early for a 6:30 breakfast. The plan is to eat and then share a car with the French couple who is also staying here for the short transfer to the beginning of our hike at Liqunat. Breakfast included a few new choices: palacinka (crepes), peppers in cream sauce (which we have only seen for dinner thus far) and ajvar, which is basically a roasted red pepper pesto, similar to a condiment we have had in Turkey. After slamming a second Turkish coffee, I join everyone in the back of our now familiar Land Rover and off we go.

Luckily this time it’s just a short ride on a paved road, and soon we are off-loaded at a log-cabin style guesthouse/restaurant overlooking another beautiful valley which has the feel of Glacier National Park in the US. Our guide, Adnan, tells us that the restaurant has flija, an Albanian pastry which is a local specialty, so we pick up a few pieces for the trail. They are incredibly dense and feel like bricks in our packs!

With that, it’s off for the first segment of the day, which is a vertical climb through pine forest to two glacial lakes. The trees keep the sun off us for the most part which is quite a welcome change after several days out in the sun. 

We reach the first lake and head to the opposite shore to take some photos of the pretty scene. It really is gorgeous here, and we hear that this area gets a lot of snow in the winter. Suddenly the idea of a snowshoeing trip to Kosovo at Christmas doesn’t sound out of the question!

We hike back to Adnan who is patiently waiting for us. The French couple we drove up with is there, too, and then suddenly all of our other trail friends converge at once: the French/German couple, James and Elizabeth, whom we first met back in Çerem and Die Drei Deutscher (The Three Germans). Both groups describe the segments that we skipped (Reke to Milishevicz and Milishevicz to Liqunat) as fairly lackluster with a lot of road walkingand rather uninspiring in terms of the photography, which further validates the modified route we are taking.

We all make our way up to a second lake together. It is smaller and drying up in the summer sun. The Frenchies go for a swim, but the rest of us opt to rest briefly on some rocks before making our way up to the pass.

It feels like we have gained a lot of elevation since staring out this morning, but the final approach is more of a gradual incline above tree line to a broad pass. The views back are impressive and include a natural arch, but the views ahead into the next valley are more stunning. We descend a 100 feet beyond the pass to an outcropping of rocks and stop for a long leisurely lunch in the noonday sun. Our backpacks, though heavy, make great backrests!

James and Elizabeth are there, and we enjoy getting to know them a little better. They live in Berlin and are on an extended campervan holiday throughout Eastern Europe. (Germans love their campervans!) They started their POB circuit in Montenegro and will pick up their car tomorrow night before visiting the Albanian coast and then moving on to Romania. James loves photography, so it is fun to talk shop with him.

Eventually, we will ourselves up and continue on to the second segment of today’s hike. For the next several kilometers we walk across high, alpine meadows, skirting the mountain on our left with the valley dropping off to our right. The views in all directions are satisfying, and the generally flat trail is a welcome change and a relief to our aching feet, especially Alison’s whose blisters are still showing no signs of improvement.

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After an hour and a half and several relatively easy kilometers, we decide to drop the packs for a short rest that turns into a pleasant afternoon nap in the sun for all three of us.  This is what summers are for!

We again reluctantly hoist ourselves up to begin the third segment of the day. After a short stretch, Adnan presents us with a fateful choice: Would we like the shorter but more strenuous climb over the last pass or the longer but flatter route around the mountain before descending to Babino Polje?

We are feeling well-rested and opt for the shorter route, a decision we would quickly come to regret. All’s well until we crest the hill, and our trail simply disappears into dense vegetation. We blindly follow Adnan as we descend down the steep slope, following the contour of the hill. We are tramping over thick vegetation at a severe angle slowly picking our way across and down the hillside at the same time. Our feet and ankles soon feel taxed, and Alison’s blisters are really killing her. I can tell that she is tired and every step is painful.

The precipitous descent comes at the worst time of the hiking day when our legs are dog-tired and the idea of dropping our packs is all we can think of. It takes us a long time to get down to the first flattish area, but still the trail does not appear obvious. At best, we are following sheep tracks that have not been recently used. Adnan seems confused by the route, and it’s no wonder. The ubiquitous red and white trail blazes that we find painted on rocks and trees are no longer visible. He knows where we have to get to but is clearly unsure as to how to get there. GPS can’t help us here.

Eventually we run into a shepherdess looking after her sheep and ask for directions, but she only speaks Serbian, and Adnan does not understand. We keep descending in fits and starts across grassy meadows, past horses and abandoned shacks, but it feels like we are also moving farther away from our intended destination. Finally we come to a steep gorge with a stream running down. There is no possibility of crossing and no clear path to follow either.

Adnan disappears into the forest to scout the trail as we sit tired and frustrated on boulders. Adnan returns to tell us that he’s found the trail, it’s no problem and only a short way down—none of which is actually the case.

We pick our way down again on a slippery trail through dense brush, thick vegetation, across a grass meadow with no trail, past someone’s farm and along a fence line. Adnan starts calling out Komshie, komshie! In my head, I am convinced that he is saying to anyone in earshot Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!

It turns out that this valley, although part of Montenegro, has a strong Serbian influence. We later learn, much to our humor and relief, that what Adnan was saying was something more akin to Friend, friend! meant to indicate that we are simply passing by and don’t mean to trespass. It sounds much nicer, but the intention is really the same, isn’t it?

After an interminable period, we finally end up on a dirt road, but it’s not clear which way to head to find our guesthouse for the night. Adnan asks three different people to make sure we are heading in the right direction.

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After several kilometers and a few second guesses, we finally complete the third segment and arrive at Triangle Wood House, exhausted but extremely grateful to call it a day.

And this is where Balkan hospitality takes over and turns a frustrating moment into one of our favorite memories of the trip! Armand and Ardita both come to greet us personally and offer us a cold Jelen beer from Serbia. It is served to us on a wood plank with a sweet dried fig garnish. We are sitting outdoors at a picnic table and are already loving our home for the evening.

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Our hosts have two sweet young daughters who are all smiles. They do not speak any English, but they are clearly used to having a house full of foreign hikers around. Armand gives us a tour of their beautiful home which they have clearly put a lot of care and attention into. There is an outdoor cooking area with a wood oven where they do most of their cooking. The outdoor patio has nice furniture, and two other couples are here eating their dinner, giving us a preview of the gourmet meal that is to come.

Inside on the first floor is a living area with low cushions and tables and Turkish style carpets and colors. The indoor kitchen has a nice bar with a funky LED light bar made out of wood above it. The bathroom is modern and cute! Then we are shown our room upstairs (the Deer Room) which has a balcony overlooking the hillside. This is clearly a special rest stop on the Peaks of the Balkans, and we couldn’t be happier to be here. We take showers and relax on the balcony until dinner is served.

When we head downstairs, we are surprised to see that our German friends, who are staying down the road, have shown up for dinner. They are eating outside, but we sit on the floor cushions in the living room and are served a 4 course meal on the traditional low round table. Each course—soup, salad, main and dessert—has been individually prepared and plated with careful attention.

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The garnishes include fresh, edible flowers, and the bread is freshly made in the outdoor oven. This is style and detail on a scale that is both refreshing and surprising to find in such a remote location. I have fresh trout that may be the best I’ve ever had. We savor every bite. To top it off, dessert is a piece of baklava, drenched in honey, that is to die for!

Armand, who bears a striking resemblance to American film director John Waters, graciously explains each facet of the meal. When all is said and done, he offers us a shot of homemade raki made from grapes. Despite my father’s claim that raki tastes like turpentine, I take him up on the offer and am delighted by the smooth finish and the flavor which lingers and enlivens my senses.

Sated, we trundle off to bed, already sad that we will leave this special oasis in the Balkans tomorrow.

Trail Report

Start: Liqunat, Kosovo
Finish: Babino Polje, Montenegro
Distance: 16 km
Date on trail: 30 June 2017

4 thoughts on “Peaks of the Balkans, Day 7: Liqunat to Babino Polje

  1. A real joy to read your blog, well written and great pictures! Looking forward to your next post 🙂 If ever in Norway and the Pulpit Rock area let’s hook up!

    1. Thanks, Doug! Great to hear from you. Hope you and family are doing well. How are the boys doing? Thanks for following along on our adventures. Currently backpacking in Colorado after a brief return to Iceland. What are your plans for summer?

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