Walking the Borderlands of the Balkans with Explorer Leon McCarron

Walking the Borderlands of the Balkans with Explorer Leon McCarron

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

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.

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lean heavily on a small precipice of rock, roughly two-thirds
of the way up the western flank of the highest mountain in
. 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
. 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.