The U-turn of the van sent out a screech of rubber, waking the neighbourhood dogs of Shkodër, Albania. Once inside, we wedged ourselves between a few locals on the back seat also making the early trip to Lake Komani. The road cut across the floodplains an
SPILT MILK WAS nothing much to cry about. Spilt blood, however, was. Albania is famous for its mountain code; Kanun – centuries of tradition and conduct governing relations. Death at the hands of a member of another family would expect exacting revenge and retribution in a ‘ blood feud'. Over 3,000 Albanian families are estimated to be embroiled in such ongoing feuds over the last 20 years, with thousands of attributed deaths. While this practice appears alarming to travellers at first, it certainly isn't a risk. What isn't as well-known is the other practices that their code extends to. The Four Pillars of Kanun are built around Kin Loyalty, Honour, Right Conduct and Hospitality. The latter two, in particular, are most relevant to all visitors to Albania.
Now finding ourselves abandoned at the ferry terminal – a collection of worn buildings on the side of a cliff atop a hydro-dam – we had to make friends. After a few had exchanged glances and polite smiles, we were directed to the car ferry with several other travellers. It wasn't hard to notice that, as we boarded, the locals waited back. Eventually, another boat came across the lake to pick them up. It was in the form of a converted school bus, complete with a hull and inboard engine.
The three-hour journey into the highlands saw steep mountain landscapes, shepherds herding goats, farmers stacking hay and small boats eager to hitch a ride, tying their boats to the ferry. The Accursed Mountains bear their name from being both insurmountable and wild. The ranges do not, however, live up to this name as increasingly travellers have found access. Once we arrived on the rocky shore, we were herded to a waiting car, which was full by the time we got there. After a few minutes, we returned to the ferry operator to ask when the next would arrive. With a puzzled look on his face, he made a short phone call and five minutes later, the same car came back, still full of passengers and their baggage. I guess we would be squeezing in for the hour drive to Valbonë.
The village itself was an established starting point for our journey hiking the Accursed Mountains. The region bordered Montenegro and Kosovo. From the information centre and accommodation, many signed and guided paths took you across passes and up valleys to isolated villages. We were making our way 20 kilometres across the Valbonë Pass to Theth, and it was raining heavily.
Hitching a five-kilometre ride to the start of the trail kept us dry a little longer. Once outside, it became torrential. It must have been a sight, seeing a few tourists in their discountpriced, but technically well-equipped wet-weather clothing, soaked to the bone as water found a way through where the bag straps pressed against the body. Coming across a local guide, it was a different story. He was side saddled on a mule, warm and bone dry.
He was using an umbrella as a more effective shield from the elements. We had all the gear, yet no idea.
Being late October, we were on the shoulders of the hiking season. But still, services remained open as a welcome refuge to travellers. Small shack cafés along the trail provided refreshment, shelter and most importantly, log fires to dry our clothes. Steam quickly evaporated from fabric and with spirits restored, we looked out for gaps in the weather. For the café proprietors, it must have been a fair hike every morning to open up shop. With only a few of us this late in the season, they didn't fare too well. Eventually, the light began to filter down in the next valley, and the bright fiery colours of autumn were on display. The spruce of leaves in shades of yellow, orange and red were beginning to litter the karst path. Hospitality, as we remember, is one of the main pillars of the Kanun; one that we were about to receive. Staying upstairs in a two-storeyed grey house, smoke billowing from the fireplace below choking our room, we opened a window to let both the fresh air and the cold back in. Sitting down for dinner we were entertained by our host who spoke little English at best. Without her son to translate, she entertained us by making small gestures and impressions of the cat. Meowing as she came into the room, she carried a homemade burek pastry and bean soup. This was to be washed down with a shot of home-distilled raki. This evaporated in a plume of fumes that travelled back up your throat, the remainder sinking and piercing your stomach lining; best to sip this one slowly.
Waiting for our transport out of the Theth Valley we watched several 4WD vehicles drive past. Rugged Landrovers, it appeared, were dominant, and for good reason too. The climb out was not only steep but rocky, which caused the utility to lurch wildly around the narrow road. Hitchhikers seemingly in the middle of nowhere would thumb a lift up the mountain, to be dropped off again in another remote location.