It's mid-October when I arrive in the Kosovan capital of Pristina. Following an impromptu beer-soaked night, I hitch a ride north, past the city of Peja and high into the mountains. Nestled among pine trees at the very end of a dirt track is a large wooden chalet: my starting point. A man called Mustafa comes to greet me. His frame is slight and his handshake strong; his face wears the lines of living through merciless mountain winds. His guesthouse is closed for the season, but I am able to stay thanks to a mutual friend who has called ahead to make the special request. Inside, his wife pours me a large glass of schnapps and loads up a plate with thick, steaming slices of flija, a local pie layered with dense cream. In the background, a silent television plays Italian soap operas, and when night falls a roaring fire is stoked to warm the bedrooms.
Within hours of leaving the following morning I clamber along a bare ridgeline to a peak called Hajla, from where I can see clearly how the trail dances along rocky fault-lines between a kaleidoscopic spectrum of autumnal shades. Here and there, in every cardinal direction, pockets of the richest bronzes and yellows spill out of valleys and watersheds, connecting across the undulations like a patchwork quilt. A week before I arrived, the first snow of the season had fallen and now on the higher reaches, it dusts the exposed limestone. In the folds of the mountains it lies thicker, bedding in for the cold months ahead. Had I arrived with those first flurries, or indeed two weeks later when blizzards swept across the range, it might have been a very different experience. But as it was, I cannot imagine a more perfectly undisturbed place for anyone who enjoys the thrill of walking in the wilderness.
For a full week the sun lights up my trail from early morning and slowly burns away the mist that hangs low over the trees. I walk past deep turquoise lakes where I filter water and through winding forest paths where my feet sink deep into a bed of rusty leaves. An unmarked border between Kosovo and Montenegro passes underfoot. When night comes I pitch my tent high on rocky outcrops or in the centre of bowl-shaped valleys where the only sign of human existence is an occasional skeletal wooden hut, recently abandoned by shepherds who have retreated to warmer climates for winter. I see no one on the trail but in each of the small villages I find farmers and shopkeepers keen to look at my map and point the way. Twice I prearrange to stay in farmhouses and twice I am fed to bursting, with stuffed sandwiches pressed into my hands upon my departure the next morning. I take detours, like that to Maja Kolata in Montenegro, which I fail to summit. Two weeks before arriving in the Balkans, I'd crashed my bicycle in London and cracked three ribs; as the light fades on my way up, so too does my enthusiasm for a cold night spent in a bivvy bag [a waterproof shelter] with aching bones, so I slide my way back down to the safety of the phantasmagorical forests.
Eventually, I cross from the Ropojana Valley to the Theth Valley, and from Montenegro into Albania, via a high and dramatic pass called Pejë. Sporadically, disused and crumbling military bunkers raise their concrete heads out of the ground, a hangover from the brutal and paranoid era of dictator Enver Hoxha, who built thousands of the domes across the county. At the crux point between the valleys the world falls away to reveal a broad and braided glacially carved laceration in the earth. Clouds cling to the ridgelines on either side, as if marking the natural highway ahead. After descending the best part of a vertical kilometre, I wander into the village of Theth. It's Sunday afternoon and families emerge from majestic stone farmhouses to saunter along rough paths to join neighbours for communal meals. The next day, following many hours of buses and a little hitchhiking, I arrive in the Albanian capital of Tirana in a biblical rainstorm, and spirit myself away to the safety of museums and coffee shops; all the trappings of a modern, multicultural European city from which I would soon head home.
The mountain range of Prokletije translates in both Montenegrin and Albanian to "Accursed Mountains". One of the first pieces of advice that I got when I began to reach out to those who knew the areas was that, if I ever wrote about it, I should avoid lazily leaning on this dramatic name as a literary device; I was told that I would soon find out that, really, the borderlands of the Balkans are a remarkable place undeserving of such characterisation. In fact, on the trail I was amused to twice hear the range instead referred to the "Blessed Mountains" - but where the alternative came from was not forthcoming. Perhaps neither names are important, but if one is looking for meaning then blessings and curses be damned; it's affirming to watch how the trails and the simple act of walking is helping to redefine the perception of a place that has too long been viewed from afar through the prism of conflicts. Now these borderlands look forward to a future of continued peace and cooperation and, hopefully, will remain as pristine as they are now - even when the hordes of hikers begin to arrive.
I lean heavily on a small precipice of rock, roughly two-thirds of the way up the western flank of the highest mountain in Montenegro. Limestone wraps around me on three sides, and the sun that has warmed my path since mid-morning now dips behind it. In sudden shadow, cold rises up from under foot but below, a broad valley still basks in golden haze and a soft palette of sepia-toned trees absorb the dying light. The way has been steep and for many hours snowfall has obscured the trail. I'm walking on faith alone. An eagle circles above and as I watch, I wonder idly whether to continue or retreat to the safety of the lowlands. I realise that neither the eagle nor mountain care which.
I pause and think: "Why am I two thirds of the way up the western flank of the highest mountain in Montenegro?"
The mountain is called Maja Kolata, and I've come here on a slight detour while walking from the Rugova Valley in Kosovo to the village of Theth in Albania. The route I'm following has been christened "Peaks of the Balkans" and runs across three countries as a loop of about 190km through the Prokletije mountain chain. It was scouted and mapped by a German development organisation in 2012, to acknowledge the unspoilt beauty and wilderness in this relatively unheralded part of Europe. The trail seems to have been inspired by the ongoing work of the Balkan Peace Park Project, which seeks - through development and cross-border co-operation since 2003 - to empower local communities by encouraging people to experience the region's food, hospitality and scenery. A combination of these elements in this area of changing borderlands was the reason behind my journey.