A Walk in the Balkans:
Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro

Grebaja, Montenegro. Albania is just over that ridge, about a five mile walk. (copyright Burnham Ink)

By Mary Burnham
(A version of this article was published in "Transitions Abroad" Sept. 2005)

For years, the only thing I knew about Albania was from an old “Cheers” episode. Bartender Coach improvises a melodic mnemonic to help Sam study for his GED, sung to the tune “When the Saints go marching in.”

“Albania…..Albania…You border on the Adriatic.
Your land is mostly mount-ain-ous.
And your main export is chrome.”

Or was it “crime?” Could be either one. Fifty years of isolation under a paranoid Communist regime that outlawed beards and religion were followed by a state of general lawlessness in the 1990s, an economic collapse and a raiding of the country’s armories (guns are as common as old Mercedes here). And then the terms “ethnic cleansing,” “Kosovo,” and “ethnic Albanian” flooded the nightly news.

These are the stereotypes and images Albanian tourism is faced with. But after two weeks hiking the Northern Albanian Alps, I knew plenty more. True, the electricity is erratic, the roads can be terrifying, and it’s not advisable to go out after dark in many places. But where else in Europe can you stay in someone’s home for 5 Euro at the base of mountain trails used only by sheep and shepherds? And where else is there a predominately Muslim country where Americans are not only welcome, but embraced?

A portion of the group ready to head out. They are from America, Albania, Kosovo, England and Germany.

Part of an international group of 30 trekkers in the summer of 2003, our goal was to hike – as much as we were permitted – the boundaries of a proposed cross-border peace park where Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro meet. Along the way, we skirted a mountain range where Western footsteps rarely tred, enjoyed the hospitality of farmers who invited us in for sheep’s cheese and raki, their potent homegrown schnapps, and made lasting friendships with our guides. In a region where the trauma of ethnic cleansing ended only five years ago, we found a land of surprisingly unspoiled mountains inhabited by a people eager to share them with visitors.

The Web sites for the U.S. State Department and the Center for Disease Control had pretty much filled me with a sense of fatalistic dread and I prepared for the worst, packing tablets for water purification and diarrhea, toilet paper, antibiotics, and money belts stuffed with low-denomination dollars and Euros (leave the Visa at home; nowhere in this region are credit cards accepted). As soon as we landed in the Tirana airport, I was on the lookout for bandits and bacteria at every turn.

We’d been attracted here by claims of “Europe’s last wilderness,” but I wasn’t looking forward to the discomfort and danger of traveling through Europe’s poorest country. What we found, while probably not up to the average American tourist’s standards, was pleasantly surprising.

Village elders in Montenegro where we were served a feast. copyright Burnham Ink

Reports of crime and armed robbery proved exaggerated or at least outdated. There is an aggressive entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes at the expense of foreigners, such as the barber who tried to charge Bill five times the amount posted plainly on the wall. But conversely, a woman at an ice cream counter returned the extra Leke we’d given her, and a taxi driver returned Bill’s lost wallet, cash intact. (Leke is the Albanian currency, preferred for smaller transactions. Euro and dollars are accepted for larger purchases, such as hotel lodgings.)

Even in small towns we found cafes on every corner with shiny espresso machines, and Internet cafes filled with adolescent boys playing computer games, where we checked our email from home.

For the most part, we met friendly and honest people who fed, housed, and guided us through mountains so stunning they wouldn’t fit in my camera lens.

But underlying the land’s beauty and the people’s hospitality are deep wounds, still fresh for many. Just a few years ago these lands witnessed some of the worst atrocities in modern history. An ethnic Albanian in our group, whose entire village in Kosovo had been destroyed, refused to stay with us in a mountain cabin in Montenegro because Serbian soldiers guarded the border nearby. It turned out he may have missed a tremendous opportunity for healing. While we were there, a sign was erected in the national park, proclaiming it a gift of beauty for man to enjoy. We heard that in just a few weeks the military checkpoint was to be dismantled and the soldiers sent home.

Children in Kosovo. We were told some of them were orphans of the ethnic cleansing. copyright Burnham Ink

But still we were not permitted to walk the mere five miles over the ridge into Albania as planned. Instead we loaded into a hot minivan for a 300-kilometer dusty and terrifying ride around the mountains and through a chasm to the isolated, predominately Catholic town of Vermosh.

Our group, representing eight different countries, from college age to retirees, hosteled in various homes in the small village, filling nearly every one. The host of our house, a white-haired, jovial man who, despite spending the last 15 years working in Detroit spoke only a few words of English, told our translator that he had been sent to a work camp for five years for practicing his religion. Later that night we noticed two machine guns hanging on the wall on either side of a tapestry of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The next day we were shown the martyr’s memorial at the Catholic church, where eight local men, including a priest, were killed during the Communist regime.

We spent the rest of the day planning our next hike. Ten of the most experienced hikers in the group would walk over the mountains to the equally remote village of Thethe. The rest of the party would meet us there by bus and bring our heavy backpacks. Our guide would be the wiry, 50-ish Gjon Gjecaj, a community leader from Thethe.
The Americans wanted to know how far the trip was: preferably in miles, but we’d settle for kilometers. Our English and German friends reminded us again that in Europe, distances are gauged in hours. We could deal with that, but then we were given two entirely different impressions from our two guides. One said it would be seven hours and fairly easy; the other said it would be more like 12 or 13 hours and so steep we’d have to cling to the sides of rock faces (if we judged his pantomimed gestures correctly, as neither spoke English). They agreed on one thing: There would be no suitable water sources for much of the journey.

Partly because we didn’t want to take that horrible bus ride again, we chose to believe the easier estimate of Guide A, who next morning donned leather dress shoes, polyester slacks, and a belt holster holding a small handgun. He brought no water bottle, instead smoking a cigarette at every rest break. It turned out that the estimate of Guide B was far more realistic. We would stumble that night into our stunned hosts’ house at nearly 10 p.m.

The road into isolated Thethe and Vermosh. We recommend four-wheel-drive Jeeps!

Turns out, we ended up hiking nearly 14 hours over the most challenging and treacherous mountains I’ve ever been in. They were also the most spectacular, almost otherworldly, with huge towers of stone, immense rock slides and snow fields covered with thirsty sheep knoshing on the ice. Everywhere, even between the crevices of rocks, brilliant wildflowers of all colors and shapes poked their faces into the July sunshine.

Shortly after one of those epiphanous moments of “this is why I’m here” (which coincided with my mistakenly concluding that since we’d hiked four hours, we were more than halfway), an accident brought me quickly back to earth. While stumbling down a steep rockslide, I heard a large rock kicked loose from above and hurtle toward me. Duck-and-cover instinct took hold, and mercifully the sharp-edged rock hit smooth side down on my thigh instead of my head. Instantly a bruise the shape of the foot-long slab appeared, and a vein running alongside my knee began to swell into a frightening bluish bulge.

‘Blood clot heading to the brain’ was all I could think as I stumbled the rest of the way down the slide that ended at a most fortuitous ice field. That I could pack ice around the bruise almost immediately enabled me to walk out of the remote pass, not the four more hours as I’d thought, but eight.

That's Mary trudging up a rockslide

All our bottles were empty by late afternoon when we came to our first spring of fresh water spewing from rocks. Nearby stood an old concrete fortress, a remnant from 50 years of isolation under a Communist regime. Our guide, Gjon, explained that he was arrested near here and thrown in jail for climbing up a pass and looking over into Montenegro. Even after his release, he was ostracized within the community, because anyone who fraternized with him might be considered an accomplice in an attempt to escape Albania.

As dusk fell, we came to a giant wooden cross I assumed marked the end of the trail. I almost knelt and kissed it in gratitude, but then I looked down and saw the tortuous descent on a path clinging to the face of a cliff wall. Beneath us, the Thethe valley was already in darkness.

Once we could make out the roofs of houses, we found ourselves walking beneath a canopy of plum trees laden with ripe fruit ranging from yellow to deep burgundy. We began reaching up with both hands, popping them in our mouths as we marched, ravenous and in need of sugar for those last few steps. I thought nothing in the world could taste that sweet and nourishing.
Our relief at reaching the large, brightly lit house quickly dissolved when we were told that our backpacks had not been delivered as promised. Since we were so late, our hosts had assumed we were camping on the mountain. The bags had arrived, but the car was turned away. They were in another house further down the valley, too far to go at night. Elke, the only other woman in the group, and I exchanged glances of horror. We shivered in sweat-drenched t-shirts and muddy shorts. The ever-darkening bruise and caked blood on my shin where I’d sliced it on a sharp rock completed my gruesome appearance.

The young woman of the house, a slim, raven-haired beauty with a beaming smile, opened a giant wooden wardrobe and delighted in finding us nightgowns and clean underwear in our sizes.

It was now nearly 11 p.m. with dinner still to be served. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting upright at the table, so I asked our interpreter to please convey my apologies: I wasn’t well and would go to bed.

By this point, more than halfway through the trip, we no longer protested when given the host’s own bed, which here was king-sized and covered with a down comforter. As one of the few married couples in the group, our hosts everywhere we stayed seemed anxious to accommodate our privacy. Our Albanian guides explained we might be their only paying guests in an entire year. If they could make 5 Euro per person, they were more than willing to sleep with neighbors, or, in this case, set up cots in the kitchen.
No sooner had I put on the frilly nightgown and gotten under the covers of the big, soft bed, than someone knocked on the door.

In came our beautiful hostess with a comforting smile and a tray. My angel had brought a bowl of hot noodle soup with chunks of meat, probably lamb. After slurping it down, I fell asleep instantly.

Next morning Pranvera, who we learned was a math teacher in Shkodra during the school year, made us strong Turkish coffee, eggs, thick bread served with salted butter and plum jam. Her children, a girl of around six and a toddler boy, played around us in the yard, smiling shyly when I caught their eye.

I was now accustomed to these big breakfasts (sometimes served with a shot of raki), so much so that I was still lugging around two dozen granola bars in my backpack. I offered one each to the kids, who acted as if they’d been given a hunk of gold.

Hiking outside of Lepush in Albania.

Clubbing in Shkodra. From left: Meryl (America), Ditran (Kosovo), Mary, Bill, Fatos (Kosovo), Stefan (Germany), Cimi (Albania), Kim (America)