A BEAUTIFUL SURPRISE: HIKING IN ALBANIA
Albania will remain for us a very special country among the 16 others of this crossing of Europe on foot. Why? Hard to mention only one reason. The welcome we received there was exceptional, the country is little developed and nature still occupies an important place, we celebrated our 500 days of adventure and mostly, Nil's family joined us and we lived together unforgettable moments.
Our Albanian adventures started in the North of the country as we were coming from Montenegro. We crossed the border through a beautiful pass between the Prokletije National Park in Montenegro and that of Valbona Valley in Albania. Once again, we knew we had just crossed a border thanks to our map but nothing differentiated one country from the other, up there in the mountains.
The valley of Valbona opened after a few kilometers, wide and deep, hollowed by an almost dry river. Morgane was still with us and we all headed for a demanding climb to reach the small village of Theth. At the end of April there was still a lot of snow and we put, one last time, our crampons. They probably won't serve us any more of the whole trip (fingers crossed)!
As a family
On the shores of Lake Shkoder, Nil's family joined us. His father Lindo, his stepmother Kiwi, his sister Lya and his brother Noé. Difficult to describe our emotion as we approached the day of their arrival. Half-excited to share with them the greatest adventure of our lives, half-anguished that everything woud go well and that they make the most of their experience. Between those who had never camped and those who do not really like hiking, we had a challenge to make everyone have a good time. Finally, the pleasure of being together in a new context was enough to make this week magical! Nil had worked like crazy on the route to give them a pretty broad overview of what our life has been like for a year and a half. Strenuous days of walking, beautiful landscapes, whole days in the rain, unforgettable bivouacs, hours to hack our way with the machete on missing trails... and collective good humor and chance did the rest. Being a group of six, we forgot about the possibility of being invited to sleep homestay. It was without counting on the extraordinary hospitality of the Albanians.
With no regrets
To avoid days of hiking at very high altitude under the storm and rain, we deviated from our initial route to reach the small town of Burrel. From there we meandered around the Lake Uzle. The camp that we set up on a tiny peninsula there will remain engraved in our memories. An atmosphere of Robinsons, only in the world!
The Gjinaj family
In the small village of Baz, on the shore of Lake Uzle, lives the Gjinaj family. Seeing us arrive in the rain and all muddled, they offered us a coffee, the conversation started and they promptly invited us to dinner and to stay for the night. During this evening, punctuated by chess games and crazy dominoes, cousins, brothers and sisters, uncles... arrived to join the party. Until we were twenty in this simple room, around the fire talking in 3 different languages thanks to Google Translate.
This first meeting gave us a first glimpse of the meaning of Albanian welcome and Kanun.
It is a customary code dating back to the 15th century, a collection of laws, customs and rules passed down from generation to generation in the mountains of Northern Albania.
It governs all aspects of daily life, from the organization of the economy to hospitality through the family, the place of man and woman in society, marriage, the management of the common good... and above all personal honor, the cornerstone of this sophisticated system. This is also where the blood feud is mentioned, which implies that if a man is murdered, a man in his family must kill another in the abuser's family. And so on...
In terms of hospitality, the Kanun implies that even the poorest must welcome their guests as best they can, and that attention, honesty and warmth are more important than material offered.
As in every country we go through, we did our best to learn the local language in the time allotted to us. I do not hide the fact that the first time we heard Albanian, we were surprised! It does not look like anything known! And for good reason, Albanian is a branch all by itself on the tree of Indo-European languages, it is a unique language of its kind. Vowels that bounce like a spring, R pronounced almost as in English and especially very long words: "përshëndetje" for hello and "falemnderit" means thank you... Overall we did not shine in Albanian, but the few words that we mastered always amazed our interlocutors.
Beyond the speaking, the body language of Albanians is also very confusing. We were told that the nods to say yes and no were reversed in Albania, but it's actually much more complicated than that! "Yes" looks like "Maybe", "No" seems to be a "I don't know" and "Eat/food" looks like "You have a bad breath"!
After a week together, Nil's family left. All of them? No! Noé lasted the pleasure for another ten days. We left all three by the Komani Lake that we crossed by ferry. Although artificial, this lake is beautiful, surrounded by mountains where we could see small villages extremely isolated, connected to the rest of the world only by few trails and by boat.
Before arriving in Kosovo, we had a last and wonderful meeting. He was there on the side of the road with his cows. A man not very young and who leaped like a young boy to catch the calf that was just his head. We exchanged a few words, his sharp and penetrating look hit us all three. We traveled together, he was returning his cows and himself in this village, Kërnajë, that we had set ourselves as goal for this day of walking. At the entrance of the village he asks us by mime: "Where are you going to sleep?", We mimed in return: "Under the tent". He smiles and takes us home. Here we are at Ismael and Sabrie where we have our best meal in Albania and discover the small museum that is this house.
From the depths of his small village, Ismael is passionate about History and a wealth of information for us about his country. He told us about the Communist dictatorship, those years when the roads were maintained, there was even a railway line, but the Albanians were not allowed to leave their country nor to practice a religion and the opponents the regime, and those suspected of being, were eliminated or imprisoned.
In homes, looking carefully, we often find a small religious sign. A Koran placed in a corner or a small cross hanging in another, these clues are always very discreet and each time we approached the subject with Albanians, they shrugged their shoulders. When asked about their religion, the answer is unanimous, yes their family is historically Catholic or Muslim but them, they are Albanians. Whatever their religious affiliation, the practice looks pretty relaxed, too. In the countryside, everyone drinks raki that they produce and during Ramadan, people generally eat and drink. After spending almost 6 months in the former Yugoslavia, we will not lie to you, it made us feel good to see the religious subject treated so lightly!
In the straddle
After crossing Kosovo and Macedonia, we are back in Albania! From the shores of Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, we rushed to the Albanian border to have a chance to meet Ashley and Quentin de @enselle.voyage. They left France and plan to join Indonesia by bike but, on two sections of their trip, they trade their bikes for... horses! In Albania and Central Asia they travel as a group of 5 with their three horses.
We do not meet a lot of travelers during our hiking trip and as the trip on horseback is completely foreign to us and we were very curious to hear the story of their experience of Albania, we put double strides to cross their path and spend an evening with them. We met in the sublime mountains around Maja Guri i Kamjes, the rock there looks like pudding, an agglomeration of small pebbles like cemented together. A nice evening during which we could compare our impressions, finally quite similar, of Albania.
Why would someone chose Albania to travel on horseback? Firstly because the bike trip isn't ideal there! Indeed, since the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985 and the end of his dictatorial regime, the roads, among other things, have hardly been maintained. Ask any Albanian, he will tell you that this is one of the first problems of his country. And if you're surprised to see almost Mercedes cars in Albania, they'll say they have no choice! This is the only brand that is robust enough to handle Albanian roads!
Mid-June, the overwhelming heat forced us to review the organization of our days. Impossible to walk between 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM So we started getting up early, looking for suitable sites for our long breaks and walking again 3 hours at night. As much to tell you that we moved much slower than we had imagined! But the first day of our new routine went so well that it finally convinced us that it was the best thing to do.We were walking along the Canyon Osumi and decided to take a break at the water's edge so we could swim. As life is made of compromise, getting to the water meant going down to the bottom of the canyon and back up after the break, but that seemed worthwhile.
The second we arrived down, we came across Ked, Herta, Klement and Eri. Four friends, between 25 and 30 years, who came like us, to enjoy the coolness of the canyon. We had a nice afternoon together. For us it is rare to be able to talk with young people from the countries we are going through. We are going through hyper-rural areas and the situation is the same everywhere: young people leave all the countryside to live in the city. For us, it was unexpected to be able to ask all our questions in English to people of our age! For example, we learned that there were more Albanians living outside the country than inside and that among those who stayed there were more who wanted to leave than to stay.
The Blue Eye
Last step before the sea, we went to the inevitable Syri i Kalter, the "Blue Eye"! It is probably one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country, a source of crystal clear water where nature is queen. Well, probably not for long anymore. We must admit that our visit was a bit spoiled by the hordes of tourists poured by coach literally into the source since vehicles can directly access the shores of this wonder.
Then we found it: the sea! Between Saranda and Ksamil, we found THE paradise beach, ignored by all and especially beach bars that spread their deck chairs on each access to the sea. Two Robinsons so, on our deserted beach, to celebrate the 500th day of this beautiful adventure!
Our 22nd guest
The perfect setting also to welcome our next guest. Clémence and Marie have been friends since they worked together. When Marie decided to quit her job, Clémence was recently graduated and not yet decided on what to do next. She accompanied Marie for 2 months out of the 4 that lasted her journey in Latin America.
We can not say that Clemence had THE perfect week with us. The infernal heat has sometimes a little spoiled the fun, her big hiking boots were not really suited to the season (her feet covered with blisters can attest) and we had to go back to it three times to pass the border to Greece, which made us waste a lot of time. But she tells you about her experience here.
To come to Greece meant to return to the Schengen area. Once we were inside, we knew that with a French passport we would not have much trouble. The problem was not actually to enter Greece but to leave Albania! We wanted to save ourselves the passage by a real border post and therefore to walk on the road and rub shoulders with cars and trucks.
First attempt: end of our day walking by a lake, we enjoy a swim before setting up the camp when a man arrived on horseback, we exchanged a few words before he takes out an old map laminated and tell us "Police!"
He explained to us that some people from the village called the police after our passage and that we had to follow him to meet his chief who had stopped 2km before, where the car could not pass. Not too much choice than following him Daltons way, in line and him behind on his horse.
We would not cross the border sneakily this time, or the next day when, arrived at a very small border post that was no longer supplied with electricity, we were repressed once again.
No mountain pass this time as a border crossing, but we will remember this crossing for a long time!