River Deep, Mountain High: Albania's Wild Beauty and Fiercely Warm Hospitality

A remote region in Albania is luring adventurers with its glittering rivers, wild orchids and classic mountain hospitality.

Imogen Lepere was awarded Young Travel Writer of the Year 2022 for this article, which first appears in Vol. 34: Revival. For more award-winnning journalism, subscribe to SUITCASE.

It was while clinging to the handrail of a boat on its way to Greece that 11-year-old Catherine Bohne saw Albania for the first time. She couldn't believe how green it was. Or how dark - electricity was still years off for most of the country. When she asked her father about this mysterious Shangri-la, Europe's last Communist state that was closed to foreigners until 1991, he replied: "That's Albania and nobody can go there." More than 30 years later, Catherine sold the bookshop she ran in New York, headed for the remote region of Tropojë in the Accursed Mountains and never looked back.

For someone who fancies themselves an adventurer, the name alone is irresistible. But a journey here is not for the faint-hearted, as I discover over four days that push me to the brink of my comfort zone - and sometimes thrillingly over the edge. Local legend has it that God made the earth, sky and sea in six days, but Satan carved these mountains in one. He harnessed all his devilish guile to plot a landscape so fierce that the Romans, Ottomans and Serbs never managed to conquer it. The fact that this wilderness is a mere three-hour flight from London is almost incomprehensible.

The journey from Komani to Tropojë has to be one of the most magnificent ferry routes in the world. For three hours myself and photographer Mark Rammers perch on a sack of onions as suffocating heat bounces between the limestone cliffs that line Lake Komani. Every so often locals disembark and toil up vertiginous tracks with their weekly shop, melting into the forest long before there's any sign of a building.

Catherine's instructions were to "look for the car with a smashed window". When she pulls up and greets me, it's not the car's window I notice, but the scar running down its driver's cheek. A memento, Catherine explains, "from the time a brown bear whacked me in the face". "I had to walk 45 minutes to the nearest village," she recounts, "literally holding my face on. But the whole time I was thinking, 'wow, I survived a bear attack, I'm going to be a local legend." I scan the forest nervously from the car window.

The reality is that Catherine is already a legend. Locals refer to her simply as "the American" and view her a little like a patron saint - if an eccentric and, at times, scandalous one. There aren't many divorced women in these parts. Her website, Journey to Valbona, which she runs alongside Aferdita Mirakaj and Gerta Demiraj, is the most comprehensive source of travel information on Tropojë. It allows travellers to book authentic experiences directly from locals, providing drastically needed income in an area with 80 per cent unemployment. It also leads to travel experiences that go far beyond the Theth-to-Valbonë hike, currently the only activity on most westerners' radars.

Over a lunch of flame-crisped goat in Restorant Mustafa, she explains more about Tropojë's appeal. "Until the Communist revolution, there was no higher authority in these mountains, so communities organised themselves according to an ancient constitution called the Kanun, which states that hospitality is a way to gain honour. As soon as a visitor sets foot on someone's land, the owner is honour-bound to put their guests' wellbeing above even their own children's."

We experience this for ourselves that night at a goat farm called Stani I Arif Kadris on Gjarpërit Mountain. Driving from Bajram Curri through Valbonë National Park is breathtaking and terrifying in equal measure. The road dips low beside Valbonë River, which thunders through the mountains, guzzling minerals until its waters resemble turquoise dye. Locals paddle on limestone beaches and every so often we stop to move sluggish tortoises out of the road. As the climb begins in earnest, the asphalt is replaced by a rocky track that sends the car heaving like a ship on a stormy sea.

Elisa Metaliaj is waiting to greet us, hushing the dog that howls at the end of its chain. We eat homemade cheese in a rustic lean-to perched on the mountain's knife-edge and watch the shepherd herding her family's goats down the mountain for the night.

With Catherine translating, she explains how hard it is to scrape a living from tourism. "We charge 1,200 lekke (£8) a night, including breakfast, but Eastern European visitors say it's too much. They want air conditioning and ensuite bathrooms."

As the sun rises, I hike up the mountain and perch on a bench outside an abandoned shepherd's hut. The only sound is the humming of bees kissing wild orchids and a donkey bleating as it's led to a meadow hundreds of metres below. For frazzled urbanites, what could be a greater luxury?

But when Catherine pulls over a few hours later to show us Valbona School, I begin to grasp why Balkan people have such a different idea of what constitutes a holiday. It's a crumbling, clinical building and many of the classrooms are completely empty. Sports facilities constitute a piece of string that serves as a volleyball net and football goals drawn on the wall in black pen. In the entrance hall, Communist signs proclaim the glory of serving the motherland.

Albania's 46 years of Communism were defined by grinding poverty. The majority of them were spent under leader Enver Hoxha, known as much for his brutality as his paranoia. The countryside is speckled with the remains of more than 170,000 bunkers, designed both to deter invaders and to make sure his citizens stayed put. Indeed, no modern maps of the mountains existed until Catherine drew them up in 2016; Hoxha destroyed them to make sure his subjects didn't take it into their heads to tiptoe into the taiga forest to the relative freedom of Montenegro.

As we drive the 7km from Bajram Curri to the hamlet of Velishte to watch the sun set at the Brengaj family's new café, I avert my eyes from the many memorials to those who've met an untimely end on these rippling bends. "Why would someone build a café all the way up here?"

"That's such a western way of thinking," Catherine says, shaking her red mane. "They built it here because this is their land. A family's land is literally like their soul. Most people's was confiscated by the Communists and they've fought hard to get it back." As I breathe in the scent of 600-year-old chestnut trees while watching shadows swallow the valley below, I begin to think that this might just be the perfect place for a café after all.

The next morning, a cluster of country folk set up piles of homegrown produce on the side of a street called Rruga Beselidhja e Malesise in Bajram Curri: crates of tomatoes, a bucket of shallots the size of my thumb, bunches of "mountain tea" - a purple-tipped herb from the mint family. Unpasteurised cow's milk in Coca-Cola bottles hints at Albanians' tendency to laud western culture. Coke was the first foreign drink to arrive when Communism fell and, as a result, eminent people in the community are still referred to as "Colas".

The town of Bajram Curri somehow appears both not quite finished and completely worn out. Grandfathers play chess on the lawn outside the museum and every third building is a café filled with men sipping Turkish coffee. In the Journey to Valbona shop, which sells beautiful handicrafts and berry jams made by local women, Aferdita Mirakaj explains why there are so few women out on the streets.

"There's this attitude here that women should take care of everything in the house as well as taking on cleaning jobs while the men sit around drinking raki. Now we women are beginning to work together, there's real potential for the whole community to progress through tourism. We're doing this," she gestures around at the shop, "to earn money, but also to show our children that they don't have to move away if they want to start their own business."

Of course, this isn't the case for all mountain men. In our four days we meet several twentysomethings starting tourism initiatives. There's Liridon Mustafaj who offers kayaking expeditions in the glittering blue of Valbona River, and the Nikoci brothers, who recently returned from Tirana to open an ambitious restaurant called Chestnut Hill on their grandfather's land. In fact, the godfather of Tropojë tourism is Alfred Selimaj, who opened the first hotel in Valbona town in 2004. What initially began as a spare room on his family's farm has burgeoned into the 21-room Hotel Rilindja - which means "Rebirth" in the Gheg language of Northern Albania.

Over a meze lunch in the shady garden, he explains that he is also struggling to attract the right kind of visitor. "I've tried to create somewhere beautiful that really represents our region." As we are shown around the cosy bedrooms, gable-roofed and carpeted in locally woven kilim rugs, I am filled with hope that more adventure travellers will take the plunge to explore this dazzling yet little-visited region.

That night, Catherine leads Mark and I through the undergrowth to a cave filled with trailing ivy on the bend of a river on Sadik Hasandocaj's land.With classic mountain hospitality, Sadik and his wife Tale bring us an enormous byrek (a swirl of filo pastry filled with onion and tomato) to tear off in steaming chunks. After they leave, the darkness - barely punctuated by a sputtering oil lamp - begins to feel significantly more threatening. Something rustles in the undergrowth and I shriek as a wolf spider scuttles over my face. Dignity in tatters, we retreat to a lean-to in the field above. The sky groans ominously and ashes of lightning bathe the mountains in orange. I've rarely felt so small.

The next morning, we rise with the sun and walk to Tale's house for breakfast. Every few steps, my foot lands in a patch of blue flowers that reveal themselves to be clouds of delicate butterflies. She plies us with vegetables from the garden and warm milk from her own cows.

The five-hour bus to Tirana International Airport leaves from Gjakova, a 45-minute drive over the border in Kosovo. A bored border guard asks to see our Covid-19 vaccination certi cates but shrugs and waves us through anyway when we say we don't have them with us. It's yet another reminder that this region never has - and probably never will - play by anyone else's rules.

After the brooding silence of the mountains, the airport feels like an anthill. Take o is an hour late because no one checked tickets and several passengers are on the wrong plane. The young Albanian woman behind me complains to her English boyfriend: "This country, it's just chaos, mountains and tradition." I smile to myself, because for a certain type of traveller - the type that hears the call of a mysterious land as a child and feels compelled to answer it 30 years later - those three things are irresistible.

The Lowdown

Journey to Valbona's Finding Tropojë: Live Like a Local tour costs from £500 per person, including a guide, accommodation and some meals for four nights. To find out more, visit journeytovalbona.com

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