I’d been to Albania before, many years ago, and loved the wild unspoiled nature and the friendliness of the people. So the idea of returning and joining a unique tour exploring the Balkan Borderlands was very alluring! Taking in Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania in just a week sounded impossible…but if you cross the mountain borders on foot you can do it. Believe me.
Following the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and continued troubles in the early 21st century, this part of former Yugoslavia had suffered destruction and damage. As part of the reconstruction programme, a “Balkan Peace Park” was envisaged, that would allow free crossing of the mountain borders in one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Europe. The peace park idea evolved, and a new transnational Peaks of the Balkans trail through the area was the result. Following shepherd’s paths and village trails, the route, which takes at least 2 weeks to complete in full, winds its way through high Alpine scenery on the borders of 3 countries.
The KE Balkan Borderlands trek takes in the very best parts of the trail, and in just 8 days gives a view of the hidden treasures of this land: wild mountains, crystal-clear rivers, waterfalls and remote villages where time has stood still.
I was curious about Kosovo, it is of course Europe’s newest country. The taxi driver who met me on arrival in Pristina was friendly and welcoming, and included a tour of the city in my fare to the hotel! Not many tourists are coming to Kosovo yet!! We spoke haltingly in German - he’d spent 15 years in Germany during the “krieg” but had returned home to the now free country he loves. Travelling on to Peje in the west we entered a world of forest and mountain. There are 2 important monasteries here, the UNESCO-listed Decani and the Patriachte of Pec; both are home to Serbian Orthodox orders, and are heavily protected by KFOR (NATO’s Kosovo Force). The monasteries are ancient, peaceful and produce excellent brandy and honey. From here we headed west into the Rugova Mountains, stopping off at a local home (the owners friends with our guide) for a fantastic lunch of soup, birek, and delicious homemade bread. The welcome was warm – and the glasses of raki (local brandy) that we were served on arrival helped keep out the cold before our walk into the mountains continued.
The following day, we crossed the border into Montenegro, via a huge valley that is still disputed territory for the Kosovars, and marked via dotted lines on the map. The only person we met was a man taking his cows to graze in the high pastures. In June the wildflowers are in full bloom, no wonder the cheese here tastes so good! This is wild country, and I loved walking in a part of the world that few other tourists have visited. That night we descended to Babino Polje (Grandma’s field) and joined civilisation again for a short time, in the remote Montenegrin town of Gusinje. I am sure we were the only tourists for miles around.
Albania was never part of Yugoslavia, and remained cut off from the rest of Europe for most of the 20th century, as its dictator, Enver Hoxha, believed everyone wanted to invade and usurp his power. We entered Albania dramatically, via an ascent of the peak called Talianca (2057m), which I’m sure Enver would never have approved of. As we descended, we passed the old border post, the building formerly full of soldiers now tumble-down, although the goals on the football pitch were still standing. Soldiers in this remote high valley obviously needed some way of keeping amused. That night we stayed at Luigi’s guesthouse in Lepushe, where we were welcomed with hot mountain tea and more raki…and a roasted pig for dinner, which was delicious. Later that night the thunder started, the electric went out and we ate our delicious dinner in lamplight.
After a dramatic exit from Albania, via the hairpin bends of Enver Hoxha’s Balcony Road that connects the remote Vermosh and Vukel valleys, we finally reached a border where we had to show our passports. Entering Montenegro was a straightforward affair, and we spent the night on the shores of enormous Lake Skadar which forms part of the border with Albania. After dining on trout, eel and carp, the next morning we got up to blue skies and warm sunshine and took a relaxing cruise on the Lake where the cormorants were drying their wings in the sun, just like us!
Descending into the fjord-like Bay of Kotor on foot was a fitting arrival. The beautiful bay glistened in the sunlight, and the walk was all downhill! What was there not to like? The old town of Kotor is medieval; it’s easy to get lost in the narrow alleyways, or distracted by the Nicsisko Beer on sale at the bars and cafes! This trip was class in a glass and a perfect mix of sightseeing, culture and walking. This part of Europe has been hidden away, and we were all glad to discover it. As if 3 countries in 1 week wasn’t enough, the end of the trip was in Dubrovnik in Croatia where a few folk opted to extend their holiday to enjoy the Dalmation Coast!