Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Day 3

After a restful night in Okol we started off Day 3 with the climb up to Valbona pass.  This was a steep climb but fortunately it was broken up by a cafe three-quarters of the way up.  We happily traded our pure wilderness experience for the chance to have a coffee.

The other side of the pass was steep, grey, and beautiful:

The thin line across that hillside is our trail

On the way down we made a couple of new friends and played around on some boulders.  This was yet another place that I would have happily spent several more hours in if we had had more time in the schedule.

We climbed a nice V0 together.  The ascent in a suit was probably the most stylish ascent this boulder has ever seen.

Coming down onto the valley floor, we got to a "road" of crushed white stone.  The blinding whiteness of the rock plus the pine trees lining the sides of the road gave it an eerily Arrowhead-like feel:

After a few kilometers the gravel road dumped us out onto a paved road, the first we'd seen since Plav.  We had hoped to hitchike but when we still hadn't had any cars pass going in our direction by the time we got to the town of Valbone, we decided to hire a taxi for the remaining 13 miles of road to get back onto the trail.  These 13 miles took us to the small (7 or 8 houses?) village of Cerem.

Cerem ended up being one of our most interesting stops.  For a start, it was our first experience of the typical way of finding somewhere to stay the night in the small villages.  This way consists of essentially walking up to anyone in the village and asking if they know of anywhere you can stay.  We weren't in Albania long enough to be sure, but I suspect the answer is always "Yes--at my house."  That was the answer in Cerem anyway, so we were taken off to a beautiful house which fortunately had a nice warm stove going (it was cold and just starting to rain at this point).  The house belonged to a couple who had four kids, including one very smiley, sweet oldest son.  As soon as we arrived the son ran off to fetch his cousin, who was a 16-year-old dental student who spoke great English.  The cousin, like the rest of the family that we were staying with, lived in a relatively big city in Kosovo for 9 months of the year but came out to Cerem to farm for the summer.  It was impressive:  out of all the options he must have had for what to do with his summer (he was smart and undoubtedly a good student as well as funny and charming), he chose to come out to a village with no electricity, running water, or phone signal, and to do hard work every day, because he enjoyed spending time with his family and working on the farm.  He told us he would find us on Facebook--but only after September when he got internet access again.

Cerem was also the scene of our most amazing trail food.  The wife in the family that we stayed with cooked us pite, which can apparently be made in many different ways with different ingredients but in this meal was a large, round, potato and onion pie.  It was excellent, especially after a day of being hungry and living off yet more bread and fresh cheese.  The next morning we were thrilled beyond belief when the wife sent us off with more pite for the trail.

One cultural note that Maria and I both thought deserved attention is that in all the areas the trail passes through, adult villagers will always refuse money for food and accommodation.  However, as we were fortunately told in advance by an Albanian man who helped with our border crossing permits, it's okay, and appreciated, to give some money to a family's children in exchange for food or a room.  We're hoping that future editions of the official trail description will include that information so that if hordes of hikers do descend on the trail over the next few years, they don't unwittingly eat local families out of house and home.


  1. A return trip will find the children older. Maria can bring her mother.

    1. You would have liked that village a lot--farming and riding horses all day!

  2. Europe knows how to do mountain trails right. A café halfway up? Yes. PLEASE.