HOW TO CROSS THE ALBANO-GREEK FRONTIER IN 4 LESSONS? - An article by Clémence Normand
Thailand, Bali, the United States... these distant lands that we often dream of. You think that you too would like to go on a mop there, take your 15 days off, your backpack and trudge along Route 66. But you know what, I have much better for you, before to launch you to the assault of a new continent, I would like to talk to you about mine: Europe! I will tell you the incredible epic of my summer or how to cross the border between Albania and Greece, on foot.
Well… where's Albania?
I see you here frowning, scratching your forehead and asking yourself if the question "What is the capital of Albania?" would not have been the one asked by Jean-Pierre Foucault for the famous million euros.
Albania is a Balkan country bordered by the Mediterranean that shares a border with Greece (yes, it says in the title...) but also, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. And yeah, just that! For our journey, the idea being to rally Greece, better from the South of Albania: the journey began in Livadhja. Starting point being set, I share here some of my travel tips for a most successful Balkan experience.
Oh yes, and if you decide to participate in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the answer to Jean-Pierre's question is Tirana.
1/ Team up with the bests
Above all, you will need to gather a dream team! Do not bother with benchmarking, I found it for you. My team is called Two Steps Towards Others (2PVA in jargon) and is composed of two adventurers who would make Robinson and Friday shudder.
Figure 1: BBQ party
To my left, Marie, inveterate ice cream eater, the well-chosen repartee and calves who are afraid of nothing. Marie, I know her from her previous life, on the 30th floor of a La Defense tower acting as Human Resources Manager in the middle of men and ladies in suits. There, she was not afraid of anything either, but we had a good laugh among these people in suits and we decided to make a premise of adventure in Latin America. Adios the 30th, La Defense and its cloud of pollution, buenos días Patagonia! And here we are for almost three months backpacking, a getaway compared to the adventure she is now living!
To my right, Nil, musician and singer in his spare time, true Tuareg of the hike: he fears neither the sun nor the thorns and seems to walk without effort. Unable to do nothing and always on the lookout for new things, he is the only person in the world who, I think, is able to climb 1,000 meters of elevation gain, his walking stick in his left hand, while keeping up-to-date of the new range of hiking shoes with ultra-grippy rubber soles via his phone in his right hand.
These two are two unique human beings, they have ideas that fuse at an hour, they pack and unpack their backpack in a second and yet, they take the time to travel Europe on foot, for almost two years. They love ultralight, have sleeping pads no heavier than a tennis ball but do not hesitate to take laptops, cameras and a drone in their backpacks to share their adventure in ultra high definition. They have been walking for months, are overtrained and their reflexes are sharpened but even if you fall behind, you will always find them a little higher, waiting for you in the shade of a tree, before heading back with you.
They will be able to guide you when the tracks disappear, Nil and Mary are literally magnetized by the trail (but you should not try to tell which of them has found the best way, they are quite competitors), explain to you how to fold the tent (be careful, if it's not squared, Nil will make you do it again), motivate you when you're fed up, because yes, you'll complain about the biting bushes, the ferns taller than you and the trails that disappear but they will be there to cheer you up (pedal boat day or swim in a lake or a river or a trickle of water, finally when there is water basically, to help you decompress) and push you when it's necessary, that's the team you need.
Figure 2: Wait for me!
2/ Which way?
Meeting with Marie and Nil, I had a hurry, set off, set foot on the trail and follow this red trace on the GPS map that Marie had sent me before I arrived. Well, everything did not go exactly as planned, we had to slightly fork, just once or twice... Faced with the unexpected, it's also going with 2PVA.
The day promised itself splendid: the view of the Albanian mountains, the cicadas that make the noise of automatic watering, the people of the village who invite us for coffee, swimming in the lake at the end of the day before establishing the camp and taste the best freeze-dried dish of your life before sunset to cross the border with Greece the next morning. Idyllic. It was without counting the neighboring police mounted on horseback. Even before setting up our camp, not thinking twice, we are gently escorted by a policeman on horseback to his chief and a policeman in uniform who waited for us a little further. Some explanations and a video later (Marie and Nil had the chance to be interviewed by an Albanian TV some time ago, this is very practical to explain to people what you do in their mountains. I advise you todo some interviews with local TVs during your travels, it saves a lot of time), we end up at 6 in a police car that brought us back to where we were a little earlier in the day. No border crossing at this place.
Albanian Police 1 - 2PVA 0
Figure 3: And to say that we could have camped with this view...
Never mind, past the disappointment, the camp set up for the night, Nil and Marie, like Mappy, recalculate a new route for the next day allowing us to move to Greek territory a little further North on the border. The next day, some bushes that sting later and time to build a private pebble beach near the river (yes, Nil, during our afternoon breaks, is engaged in the construction of pebble beach to perfect our comfort) and we arrive at an old border post! We are warmly welcomed by some dogs and a border guard who makes us sit, offers us fresh water but announces that he will not let us cross the border. What? He explains calmly that there is no electricity for a long time on this post and can not scan our passports. We insist, he makes a few phone calls, hangs up and explains that he just had his boss, the very one we had seen the day before who we had more or less said we would take another path... A sermon later and fresh water in our gourds, we are back in a police car to a village perched in the mountains, the soft glow of the Greek border moving away again but the hospitality of Albanians not long in demonstrating in this small village overlooking the valley.
Albanian Police 2 - 2PVA 0
After two bitter failures in attempting to cross the frontier by circuitous routes, it was necessary to make a decision to take a more conventional route, and we finally managed to pass it, this border!
Albanian Police 2 - 2PVA 1! Woah!
The red track of the beginning sent by Marie is quite far. But finally, these hazards, these changes of itinerary, it is what creates the meeting, the memory and ended up making you hike in underpants. Let me explain, in Greece, Marie and Nil founnd us a great trail, finished the rough Albanian roads, long live marked trails! After a few hours on the trail, quick disillusion: the trail is not (really) maintained, we sail on sight in the thickets, we prefer to go back down along the river. The bed of the river magnifying, long is not really an option, you have to cross: let's go, let's not...? Let's go! I ended up leaving my shorts to keep them a bit dry and here we are half in the water (well more like three quarters for me) to reach the other shore and that's how I hiked in underwear, in a river.
3/ Your feet you will cherish
Hiking, you know it, last summer you hiked 3 days in the Pyrenees with your shoes proudly bought at the Vieux Campeur, no doubt that you will be able to come back for this summer. Your legs are even quivering with impatience at the idea of putting your boots on again, Vibram sole and Gore-Tex coating! Well, it was not counting a scorching summer and its 40°C or more on the road... Result, your feet gently cook with steaming in your shoes and in three days, you see inflate the first blisters. In those moments, it is better to listen to the advice of pro, in 1 year and a half of adventure, Marie and Nil know some stuff about blisters:
Air your feet: down the leather, long live the sandals!
This was also the occasion of a morning shopping in Ioannina in Greece to find a sandal to my feet and allow me to continue the adventure. Unmatched comfort... and style! I had to wear a sandal-socks combo to face the thistle fields, my already fragile feet begged for mercy seeing the pungent leaves...
A needle, thread and a passage to the Greek pharmacy later (Mercurochrome is apparently a universal word), and let's... drill and put somered. Be careful, it stains!
Knowing when to stop
It is better to put one's feet at rest for a time than to see the blisters become so unbearable that they can no longer walk. Hiker's wisdom.
4/ Kalimera, do you have « ujë » ?
When I started to follow the adventure of 2PVA, more than landscapes, I was especially amazed, admiring and sometimes even a little envious of the ease with which Marie and Nil seemed to interact with the people they met. How do they do? What do they tell each other?
Imagine that there is no technique, they do not "do" anything, walking towards people is enough and knowing how to gag a word or two in the language will help you too. It's fascinating to see how welcoming and generous people are. How many looks, thanks, coffee, food, sofa end or garden to pitch the tent did we share? More than I could have imagined. Far from the trek in autonomy on 10 days that I had vaguely imagined before leaving, it is a summary of exchanges and meetings that I lived.
Curiosity certainly pushes many people to come to us too, in villages that are dying, two Frenchies walking across Europe for 2 years, it's so unexpected! People ask a lot of questions but also talk a lot about their life and what they do. Some are rougher than others and we do not always understand each other very well but it does not matter, around the table quickly set up, everyone has a smile on their faces.
Figure 4: Unexpected meeting
If walking is often perceived as a solitary activity, Marie and Nil make it interactive, no doubt about it, 2PVA really bears its name!
The balance of these 10 days is 2 magnificent countries 1,500 km from France, 3 border crossing attempts including 2 failures, temperatures over 40°C, 6-hour-breaks to avoid the overwhelming heat of the afternoon, 150 km on foot, 14 blisters, 1 kg of feta cheese, 3 piña colada and a few liters of beer, 2 lost lighters, 1 lost phone then found back (always ask Marie and Nil if they have forgotten anything before leaving the camp...), hundreds of "Wow, it's beautiful", dozens of meetings and two friends out of the ordinary.
Figure 5: 2PVA hand in hand