Matt, July 2017
Overnight our room in Plav is uncomfortably warm, and there is too much noise from people and traffic in the street. After a rather fitful night of sleep, we make our way to the restaurant downstairs to join Adnan for breakfast. The same surly waiter from last night begrudgingly serves us as Adnan tries to pay the hotel bill.
The breakfast is fairly good in contrast to the rather average dinner we had last night, but the sandwich we are given for our pack lunch is a giant hunk of bread with tomato, ajvar and pickles. Granted we haven’t tasted it yet, but it seems kinda weird. Am I right?
Today feels strange because we have made the tough decision to split up. Alison’s blisters are not healing, and we are worried that the final push to Theth may further exacerbate the problem and jeopardize the next stage of our summer hiking adventure. We will be traveling en route to Switzerland for the next two days, and, if Alison takes today off, it may allow just enough time for her blisters to heal before starting the Tour du Mont Blanc. We debate whether or not she should take a bus to Theth or Tirana (is that even possible on a Sunday?) and then learn from Adnan that there is no way to get to Theth except by walking.
Fortunately, we recall that James and Lizzie, now reunited with their VW campervan, are planning to drive to Shkodër Lake today and make it a rest and laundry day. We text James and ask if it’s possible for Alison to tag along. They come to the rescue and say yes, so Alison books a guesthouse for us in Shkodër. The plan is that she will go to Shkodër by car to relax and rest her feet while Adnan and I finish the Peaks of the Balkans by hiking over Qafa Pejes and then down to Theth. From there we will get a ride to Shkodër where we will be reunited. Fingers crossed that it will all work out.
Splitting up is a first for us, and it feels strange when we drop Alison off at the campground where James and Lizzie are staying and say goodbye. I know it’s only the better part of a day that we’ll be apart, but it still feels disorienting, especially at this time of year when we are accustomed to spending practically every minute together. We are grateful, however, to have met two friends on the trail who are willing to help us out in a pinch.
With Alison in good hands, Adnan and I set off in the taxi to drive around Lake Plav. Along the way we stop briefly to view a crystal clear spring where the water bubbles up out of the ground. The spring is located in a shady grotto which is considerably cooler. It’s a nice chance to get out of the car and stretch our legs before continuing down the bumpy road to our drop off point.
We continue driving through the village of Vusanje until the road is no longer passable by car. At this point we set off on foot at a pace to tackle the route to Theth.
Beautiful views welcome us as we head up a green valley with steep mountains on either side that narrow in as we approach the pass. Maja Jezerca and Maja Arapit dominate on either side. I enjoy the opportunity to walk fast and chat with Adnan one on one. We talk about his future plans, his girlfriend in Pristina and his desire to live a simple life—to travel is to live, he says. We couldn’t agree more!
We stop for water at a spring before the pass and see a few more Communist-era bunkers and a shepherd’s cabin.
Just before the pass, we meet a group of four Germans (two couples) and chat amiably as we make our way over a lower pass, down and around a mountain tarn and up to the real pass, just as the rain really starts to threaten. The clouds are ominous and moving in quickly as we hit the pass. We only have time for a quick picture before we start to scramble down. The rain starts to fall and so we quickly put on our rain gear and pick our way down the steep trail until we find shelter in a rock overhang surrounded by high cliffs. This seems like a good opportunity to break for lunch and it gives us a chance to chat more with the Germans.
After a short lunch break, Adnan and I set off once again down the mountain and into the valley of Theth. We can see the first houses off in the distance, but of course it takes longer to reach them than I expect despite the swift pace at which we are hiking. I off loaded as much weight as I could with Alison before leaving her today so I’m enjoying this rare opportunity to travel light, and it feels good to move fast.
After descending through a scrub pine forest the trail intersects with the “road” which is made of rough, largish river stones that proves difficult to walk on. Luckily the trail shortcuts the switchbacks in the road several times saving us both time and pain. Soon we are down to the level of the valley and strolling alongside fences that mark the first farms of this quaint Albanian village.
A lone cow sits quietly in the freshly cut grass and eyes us lazily as we pass by. The river is to our right, and there is a fog rising above it as the air temperature is much warmer than the cool water. We pass the junction that took us over the hill to Valbona. The valley is longer than one would think, but, after a few more kilometers, we hit the center of Theth. We walk past several guesthouses with recently-arrived backpackers lounging in the yards at covered picnic tables. I’m envious but determined to get to Pavlini Polje ASAP.
Finally, the quaint church near our guesthouse comes into view. We stop for a few pictures with the mountains serving as a stunning backdrop before fistbumping as we stroll up the lane toward the finish line. It seems like only yesterday that Alison and I set off with Adriatik on our Peaks of the Balkans adventure. The finish seems incomplete without my hiking/life companion alongside.
At the guesthouse, I double fist a coffee and a cold Birra Pejë while we await our driver who is making a few last minute arrangements for his next group. Then its off in the Landrover for the bone-jarring 2.5 hour drive back to Shkodër. After switchbacking our way up the rocky roads for more than 2000 feet to get out of the valley of Theth, we switchback down tight hairpin turns on tarmac to get back to the near sea-level town of Shkodër. We passed through here before on our first day in Albania, but I guess I didn’t get a real sense of the place. I am surprised to discover that it is a fairly large city, located on an equally large lake.
We find our way to Florian Guesthouse a few kilometers out of the center, which is set in a vineyard next to a vegetable farm. Alison is there waiting for me, and we are both glad to be reunited, even if it’s only been since the morning.
The guesthouse is simple and quiet, and we are the only guests. We sit outside over dinner which is a wide selection of home cooked Albanian specialties, including burek, grilled eggplant, fried zucchini fritters, bean soup, fresh cheese, cucumber and tomato salad, etc. We enjoy a bottle of homemade red wine, a little sweet and a little strong and tasting of raisins.
Our host, Florian, joins us and chain smokes as we talk about politics, the economy and the negative effects of social media on people’s perceptions of Albania. Before long, it’s off to bed. We have been able to do our laundry here as well, so, despite being a bit rough around the edges, we will at least be set to begin the next phase of our European hiking journey.
Matt’s Day: Vusanje, Montenegro to Theth, Albania, on foot
Alison’s Day: Plav to Shkodër, by VW Campervan (thank you James and Lizzie!)
Distance: 18 kilometers (Matt), 113 kilometers (Alison)
Date: July 2, 2018