Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans (Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro) – Episode 524 Transcript

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transcript of Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans (Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro) – Episode 524

Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans (Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro) (podcast transcript)

Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 524. Today, the Amateur Traveler goes just a little bit off the beaten path between the touristy cities of Dubrovnik and Athens. We talk about spectacular granite peaks, turquoise lakes, and shepherd hospitality as we hike the Peaks of the Balkans Trail.

Chris: Today’s episode is brought to you by Select Italy. Select Italy designs custom itineraries and books a whole range of products and services, including fascinating tours, romantic weddings or honeymoon trips, along with ticketing services for museums and musical events in Italy. Visit selectitaly.com to learn more.

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. We’ll be hearing more from our sponsor in nearby Italy and Croatia but, first, let’s hear about the Peaks of the Balkans Trail. I’d like to welcome Audrey and Dan from uncorneredmarket.com, who have come to talk to us about a trek in the Balkans. Audrey and Dan, welcome back to the show.

Audrey: Thank you.

Dan: Thanks so much.

Audrey: Thanks for having us back yet again.

Chris: And I say welcome back to the show, I think this is your third time on the show. You have definitely been on the show talking about Prague and Bangladesh, and I don’t know if you’ve been on other times.

Audrey: We also talked, I think, about Haiti.

Chris: Oh right, exactly. Oh, I remember that now, excellent. And, Audrey and Dan are some of my favorite guests and I always look forward to a chance to talk to them, and you guys have been hiking this time, and you’ve been hiking in the Balkans. What are we gonna talk about today?

Dan: Thinking of the Peaks of the Balkans, it’s good to think of it in two ways: one is, it’s technically a 192-kilometer cross-border trekking trail that crosses the Albanian Alps – also called the Accursed Mountains – through parts…segments of Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Now, probably for most of your listeners, it’s best to think of it as a hiking or trekking region through which, if you don’t want to devote, say, two weeks or a little more than two weeks to trekking all that territory as we did, you can pick off segments of mountains and smaller treks in between.

Audrey: And I’m actually gonna add on to this, one of the things that makes this trek a little bit, I’d say, interesting is that it was actually developed by the German Development Agency and so the goal of the trail – and marking the trail and developing the trip as it is – was also to try and provide some economic opportunities for these rural communities in the mountains. So, as part of the trek, you’re actually staying with families along the way and it’s kind of a sustainable tourism project as well.

Chris: So when you say you’re staying with families along the way, so, there’s a trail that is marked but there is also a program that you can get involved with in terms of how you hike the trail that gets you these home stays?

Audrey: Yes, and so you can either go completely independent and find home stays as you go, meaning that they’re marked, or you can go through a trekking agency who will – as much as is possible because connectivity and cell networks, or cell phone networks, are a little challenging – they’ll call ahead to make sure that there’s a bed for you. And so, the families who are a part of this program have gone through a training program in terms of cooking and how to work with foreigners.

Dan: And having the proper accommodations set up, you know, a level of hygiene and cleanliness. Fresh water, actually, throughout the trail is not an issue. So there’s a number of, sort of, elements of vetting that have taken place through the development of this trail over…I’m not sure exactly how many years. Actually, this is one thing to make a note of: Historically, the peaks of the Balkans had traditionally been called the Balkan Peace Park, or the Balkan Peace Project.

Chris: Which seems, quite often, like a contradiction in terms, but…

Dan: Sure, right, that’s it. That’s actually one of the things, I think, that makes this area and trekking throughout it so fascinating because you’re crossing these various borders which, you know, as recent as, say, 25 years ago were off limits, not only to trekkers but even to locals themselves. They were really only areas that military personnel were allowed to go through. At least, that’s by the local guides. So it really does, even now – and I think this is something to consider, not only from a standpoint of adventure – when you’re out there, it really does feel off the trail, even though it is technically the peaks of the Balkans Trail, and there’s a certain level of kind of high adventure, I think, that you feel, even though, if you plan it right, can make sure that you’ve got a warm bed, a beautiful meal at the end of what can be, potentially, a long and stunning day.

Chris: How did you hear about the trail? This is something that is relatively obscure, you pitched it to me and I’d never heard about it before, so I’m gathering that the community tourism board reached out to you, or…?

Audrey: Actually, it’s a funny story. We learned about the trail in Namibia, of all places.

Chris: Well, of course.

Audrey: As one does, and we were speaking at the…

Chris: If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that…

Audrey: Yeah. We were speaking at the Adventure Travel and Trade Association’s annual conference, and were on a bus and happened to sit next to a woman who lived in Montenegro who had worked on this project, and she started showing us these photos on her phone of these stunning mountain vistas, just beautiful. And so we were completely drawn into it and we were like, “Where is this?” She said, “Oh, this is Albania and this is Montenegro and this is Kosovo, and this is part of this new project, the Peaks of the Balkans,” and this was back in 2012, I think. And so, we were actually thinking about it for a couple years, trying to find the right timing because you can only go during the summer months; that’s when the shepherds are out in the hills with their livestock, so you can only really go between June and September. So we were trying to figure out the timing and everything else, and it took a couple years but then, eventually, one of the team members who worked on literally marking the trail and developing the trail, we developed a friendship with him and all the pieces came together. So it was last year, 2015, that we were finally able to do it.

Chris: And you say that you could only do it when the shepherds are up with their, one would assume, sheep in the high country. Is that because the shepherds are helping provide the housing, that that is part of the project, or just that that’s one of the things you want to see?

Dan: It’s a function of a couple of things, actually. I think the first thing is, essentially, climate. So these are high mountains, so there is a tendency, before a certain time – roughly around, I guess, early June, late May – and after a certain time, say, the end of September that those mountain areas can become snowed in and unpassable. That, combined with the fact that these shepherds who have sheep, they have cows, other domesticated animals, they go up into the hills to, essentially, feed them and raise them. But then, they also – as kind of a side business – set up accommodation. It’s a function of those two things that define the window for being able to enjoy the home stay component of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail.

Chris: I think I’ve got, like, 100 questions about all this, but let’s start at the beginning. So where did you start?

Audrey: So, we flew from Berlin to Tirana, which is the capital of Albania, and then from there we took a bus to Shkoder, or Shkoder – the different names of the town depending upon different languages – and we officially started the trail by taking a ferry across Lake Koman, which is actually a man-made lake, and this ferry is two or three hours and it is stunning. It felt like we were back in New Zealand or something with these granite peaks all around us, going through the valley. We took that until…

Dan: A town called Fierza.

Audrey: Fierza, and then from there we had a transfer and walked to Valbone, and Valbone is one of the areas of Albania that’s actually, kind of, one of the developed trekking areas so there’s quite a few guest houses there.

Dan: One thing I’m going to interrupt with, there is no possible way – unless the weather is absolutely terrible – to oversell how beautiful this ferry ride is, two or three hours across Lake Koman. It is one of the most beautiful boat rides I have taken in my life, and I have taken a lot of boats, ferries, and ships.

Audrey: And it costs four Euros.

Dan: Particularly for the cost. So, for those folks out there that are looking at the region and thinking to themselves, “Well, I don’t necessarily want to hike 210 kilometers, but help me understand what some of the most beautiful facets of this trail are,” this is one of them.

Chris: Well, and we haven’t talked about going to Albania, I just checked, in at least five, six years, 250-some episodes ago, and it was just still opening up at the time and people talked about it still being not quite ready for tourism, and yet an amazing place to go, and still an unusual country with pill boxes everywhere because of their former, just really paranoid dictator, and such. What did you find as you went to Albania now?

Audrey: We found that it has developed quite a lot in terms of tourism. For example, this trail, they’ve put a lot of work into it, and also we spent some time after the trek along the coast. But there’s still a level of, kind of, funkiness.

Chris: You’re gonna have to give us an example of funkiness here.

Dan: Let’s just say that when…The essence or the idea of Peaks of the Balkans Trail was to, essentially, allow us at least a certain aspect of each of the countries involved, to show off what they had to show off in terms of tourism infrastructure and, you know, high mountain vistas.

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Dan: And let’s just say that each of the countries took to marking that trail with, perhaps, a varying level of diligence. So there are some areas which are particularly poorly marked; I would say, probably, Montenegro. Audrey can disagree with me. It’s among the most poorly marked segments of the trail, and probably the best marked segments were probably in Albania. And I think, you know, going back to that question that you asked, compared with five or six years ago, I would say…and, you know, we were in the Peaks of the Balkans and then we also drove around Albania for the better part of about eight days after that. I think things have changed significantly in terms of tourism infrastructure. So it’s there in all facets, it’s certainly not what some people might consider perfect but for the, sort of, adventure traveler or someone who wants to get access to an interesting destination before it, kind of, hits the full mainstream, it’s a terrific opportunity.

Audrey: And just to give an example, when I said it’s still sometimes a bit funky, when we were doing our road trip around Albania there were times when we’d be going along the highway and we’d want to get a coffee or something to eat, and there would be what looked like cafes or restaurants everywhere, but then, as soon as we pulled the car in, we realized that there really wasn’t anything being served. So, you know, we’d have to, like, try three or four times to try and find food, or to try and find, you know, something that wasn’t frozen in the freezer that was gonna be fried. But once you get in to the areas where they are used to having tourists – so they are used to having travelers – then, actually, Albanian food is quite lovely. It’s quite, kind of, has a Mediterranean and Greek influence. But when you’re in between those areas, that’s when it feels like, you know, “Where am I again?”

Dan: But the flip side of that is you can be in the high mountains after the end of a long hike or the end of the day, and then have a shepherd approach you and then invite you into their home for coffee, as happened with us. That sort of thing around the world is not entirely uncommon, but for a destination like this, it’s the sort of thing that you would expect, and as we walked along we would be invited…not all the time, but certainly frequently enough; so much so that if we wanted to continue walking we would have to turn down those offers for coffee or join them for conversation. And people were excited for various different reasons. A lot of people hadn’t seen a lot of tourists, and then you take, for example, Montenegro, there’s actually a number of people there who have begun to build homes or build on to homes using remittances – folks in the U.S. – who have moved from Montenegro so they get excited about that connection as well.

I think it’s one of those situations where, as each day unfolds, you realize there’s just so many historical layers to each of the segments of the trail, each of the countries, to begin to unpack. That sort of experience unpacks itself as you meet people, as you’re introduced to people, potentially, by your guide and then have these conversations. And I think that’s one of the things that’s so exciting because you never know what’s going to be coming next, and it’s not from the standpoint of something to be fearful of. It’s something from the standpoint to be excited about.

Chris: Okay, and getting back to your trip, so we did the ferry – gorgeous – we got to the place where you’re about to kick off your hike?

Audrey: Yes, and that’s called Valbone. As I said, that’s probably one of the more developed trekking areas in Albania. If you wanted to spend a couple days there you can do quite a lot of day treks in that area. From there, we went to a place called Çerem and that was a really tough day. It was, like, 1,000 meters up, 800 meters down, 1,000…

Chris: So we’ve started the hiking by this point, so…

Audrey: Yeah.

Chris: Okay.

Audrey: But we were rewarded because, when we finally came over the last mountain and into the last valley, some of the shepherds had just brought all of their animals up and, as Dan mentioned, they weren’t really used to seeing foreigners or travelers, so incredibly welcoming, invited us into their homes for coffee, and then we spent the night further down in the valley with a family who is also only there in the summertime. They have a little farm as well as animals that they bring up. And this was in the area where, visually, you’re basically surrounded by, kind of, granite peaks on all sides. It’s, kind of, very dramatic.

Dan: Yeah, it’s full…you’re surrounded by granite uplift. It almost looks, in a way, a little bit like Yosemite. Instead, the valley is just sort of scattered with sheep and makeshift shepherd huts. Quite honestly, when we emerged from that day – which was a beautiful climb, a little bit difficult weather over this border area, through the forest and we emerged there – it was literally so beautiful I was overwhelmed. I was literally brought to tears, just because the beauty on all levels was just something that I couldn’t even…I can’t even begin to describe just how staggering it felt and, perhaps, because it was beauty combined with the fact that I just felt like we were so far out, and I was seeing something, seeing a certain beauty that so few people, maybe, have the opportunity to see, and I felt it was something really special.

Chris: Well, the interesting thing as you describe that is you’re, of course, almost halfway between Athens – that gets crowds and crowds of tourists – and Dubrovnik, which gets crowds and crowds of tourists off cruise ships. You’re not in the middle of it, you didn’t fly to Africa or Southeast Asia or some place, you’re in Europe.

Dan: Yeah.

Audrey: It’s just a couple hour…I mean, I think it was actually a direct flight, maybe. It was just a couple of hours on a plane from Berlin.

Dan: And quite honestly, the infrastructure along the Peaks of the Balkans, they expect tourists. They don’t get tons, but when we drove in, sort of, further reaches of Albania, we were really, really off the map in unusual places. But I think that’s what’s so exciting, because it feels remote but it’s still very accessible and there are so many things around it. I mean, if you wanted to, to your point, hike some of the segments of the Peaks of the Balkans and then take a side trip to Dubrovnik, or take some side trips to Montenegro as we did, or drive down the Albanian coast, or go to Athens or go to Greece, it’s entirely possible to do that.

Chris: Yeah, I mean, it sounds like you’re probably a day’s drive from Dubrovnik.

Dan: Yeah.

Audrey: Yeah, from Shkoder, yeah, you are. Yeah, because we got pretty close.

Chris: And then, you mentioned that you stayed with a family and there were two different ways of doing it: either you could do this more spontaneously and they were marked, or you could do it ahead of time. Had you reserved this ahead of time?

Audrey: We went, just Dan and myself, so it was a kind of independent trek, but we also had a guide with us and the reason for that is, first of all, Dan and I have horrible senses of direction and we have had situations where we have…

Dan: One of us has a more horrible sense of direction than the other. I’m not gonna mention any names.

Audrey: And we both disagree on…yeah. And we’ve had situations where we’ve been terribly lost in the mountains and it’s been frightening. So, nowadays, when it’s a new trail or something, or a trail that we’re not completely sure that it’s well-marked, we’ll take a guide. So we had a guide with us the whole time, and he was actually from Kosovo, and he was part of the mountaineering rescue group in Kosovo so he had been on these trails for, probably, the last five, six years, so knew them quite well. And so, we arranged for the guide as well as all our accommodation in terms of making…booking reservations or booking ahead with a trekking agency in Tirana, in Albania, called Zbulo. We had met the owners of this company, actually, in Namibia. So that’s part of the connection, also, to Namibia. They were there representing the trail, or the trek, because they had just won one of the World Travel and Tourism Council awards for the best project of the year. So we had developed a relationship with them, we trusted them, we trusted their advice, and so they had made all the reservations in advance. And the way that it works is, we ended up paying the families directly, but you can also arrange it with the trekking agency where you pay them a lump fee and they take care of the reservations, but they also take care of all the payments to the families, so that way you don’t have to worry about carrying cash with you for the family.

Chris: And, I assume, they have a website that we can direct people to?

Audrey: Yes, and I’ll send that to you as well.

Chris: Okay, we’ll put that in the show notes.

Audrey: And just in terms of giving people an idea of what costs are, with the home stays, in general they are between 20 and 25 Euros a night, per person, and that included dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch, as well as, you know, your bed and a shower and, you know, whatever amenities. Some places have more amenities than others, but the idea was whatever was there was at your disposal, and if you’re trekking with a guide you don’t pay for the guide, so you pay for yourself but the guide is kind of included with that.

Dan: You don’t pay for the guide’s accommodation and the guide’s meals, that’s included. I think it’s important to note that the prices per person for that, the room and board, is pretty consistent, set usually by these, sort of, local tourism councils and, I think, Albania was about five Euros cheaper a night than, say…

Audrey: Kosovo.

Dan: Kosovo and Montenegro.

Audrey: Yeah, but for the most part it was between 20 and 25 a night.

Chris: Okay, so I can do this whole thing without a full pack. I don’t need the camp stove, I don’t need the tent, I don’t need the sleeping bag, I don’t need to be packing food in, so I could actually do this is, really, what you’re saying.

Audrey: Yeah, that was, for us, one of the things that attracted us to this trek is, as much as we love being out in the wilderness, we also love having a bed at the end of the day and not carrying the extra weight of a tent and packing a stove and carrying our own food. And so, for us, this was the perfect combination of having the time outdoors and being connected with nature but also the cultural connection to the families and having a warm meal at the end of the day.

Dan: The home stay dimension is really nice, and I think one of the things with this trek is the variety of home stays. There’s a pretty wide range, and that can be good at some times, maybe not so good, but that’s all part of the experience because some families are pretty well off – obviously they have a lot of sheep, they have a lot of cows, they’ve been doing this for a long time, they’re making pretty decent money – and then there are some more basic shepherd huts that we stayed in, and I think those, we were charged, I don’t know, five…

Audrey: Fifteen.

Dan: Maybe a total of 15 Euros per night, for example, and we were really out in the middle of nowhere, basic accommodations, still all fine, clean enough, and you really get a sense of the conditions that these shepherds have to live in, and you get to hang out with them and you get to hear all their stories all night long about what things were like in the old Soviet days, during the days of the Albanian dictator – his name is now escaping me at the moment – Hoxha, that’s right.

Chris: And you’re hearing this mostly through your guides? I’m guessing you’re not running into a lot of English in the shepherding community.

Audrey: For the most part, no, so that’s another benefit of having a guide is that he was our translator. There were some families where some of the younger kids, you know, we learning English. Yeah, for the most part, especially for the older shepherds. Our guide was incredibly helpful for translation.

Chris: Excellent. Let’s talk a little more about your route. We were…left you in a granite valley.

Audrey: We continued through that granite valley to one of the highest points, which is an area called Doberdol, which is actually the, kind of, very basic shepherd’s hut that Dan was just mentioning. And this is an area where there’s no roads, so the shepherds basically bring their sheep as far as they can by truck, and then they walk, I think, for three days or something like that to break up the rest of the way. So it’s pretty remote.

Dan: The following day, set off and crossed the border over to Kosovo, and along the way we summitted a mountain called Deravica, which I believe is the highest peak in Kosovo, and then we continued along from there. And again, these are really just absolutely beautiful, and also quite varied views.

Audrey: Yeah, so at this point we had gone away, once we got towards Mount Deravica, we didn’t really have the granite peaks anymore but it was kind of more rolling hills and…with these, like, these turquoise, bright turquoise Alpine lakes.

Dan: One of which is actually heart-shaped, which is kind of exciting.

Chris: I’m seeing that the mountain that you were talking about a little over a mile, so 6,500 feet, over 2,000 meters.

Audrey: Yes. Yeah, yeah, we have in our notes that it’s 2,656 meters.

Dan: Yeah, that was what I had.

Chris: 8,700 feet?

Audrey: Yeah, and this actually is not part of the official Peaks of the Balkans route, so this is where we ended up detouring a little bit, and the reason for that is we took the advice of Ricardo from Zbulo about, okay, in this area what are the most stunning areas and what are the most unusual treks, and so this is why we ended up veering off the official trail at this point, because this peak wasn’t part of it.

Dan: And the reason it’s not part of it is the Peaks of the Balkans was set up to give equal coverage, or relatively equal coverage, to each of the countries, but the countries don’t necessarily have, in that equal coverage, the best that they have to offer in the, sort of, Accursed Mountains or Albanian Alps area, so when we were…We said, “All right, let’s go and do roughly the entire Peaks of the Balkans circuit, but let’s see if we can cut out the things that are not interesting, where we’re walking on macadam, for example, and let’s add, summit a couple of the peaks, including the highest peaks in each of the countries, if we can, along the way.”

Chris: Okay, so there is portions of it that are…that are paved.

Dan: Correct.

Chris: Got it.

Audrey: Yeah.

Chris: I’m not sure that everyone knows macadam instead of tarmac or asphalt. I just want to make sure that we…

Audrey: Yeah, for the most part, I mean, what I just described in terms of our first…I guess that’s three days, four days, for the most part, that doesn’t really include any pavement, but there are sections later on where you end up on a road for a little bit.

Chris: Okay.

Audrey: So then, after Mount Deravica, we decided to do what was called a cultural day, so since, you know, we figured have a rest day but also see a little bit of Kosovo, and so we hired a driver for the day and we continued to have our guide with us. We spent a day visiting some of the Serbian orthodox monasteries in Kosovo, some of the UNESCO sites, as well as going to a Serbian winery which was quite interesting.

Dan: It’s really tasty, actually. The wine was surprisingly exceptional.

Chris: And I’m assuming red wines in that region?

Dan: Yes.

Audrey: Yes, and then we transferred that evening to an area right next to the Kosovo town of Peje, and there we started back on the trail again. So we kind of had this little break in between to see some cultural sites and see some of the towns and cities, and kind of get a little bit of a historical background. As I mentioned, our guide was from Kosovo so we heard quite a lot about the war, you know, relations now, things like that. And then, we got back on the trail and, from there, we ended up doing another little detour to another peak called Mount Hajla, which does not look like much from the base. We actually almost didn’t even go up because we were like, “Oh, it doesn’t really look like much,” but once you get to the top you are literally on the edge of Kosovo and Montenegro, and you walk along this ridge with one country on one side, another country on the other, and it’s just absolutely stunning.

Dan: It is absolutely stunning, and before we climbed this, I think, from the base it took us, maybe, about 90 minutes to get up there. We moved pretty fast, covered a bit of distance. We actually saw two or three wolves who were interested in having lunch on some cows that were eating in a field, and we actually surprised the wolves. Absolutely gorgeous, could not get our cameras out fast enough; it was also a little bit frightening because…

Chris: Yeah, I was gonna say, there are two reactions one could have to see…coming across wolves, but the cameras would be one of them.

Dan: We did that simultaneously. They were really…They were quite close to us, but what was clear is they were just as afraid of us as we might have been of them, and they managed to cover Mount Hajla in about three and a half minutes.

Audrey: They were just incredible. And then, from there, we spent the night with a lovely family where the grandfather had taught himself French at some point, so we ended up speaking French all night. The next day, we crossed over into Montenegro and, for us, this was the day that we were basically enveloped in fog all day, so we didn’t really see very much. But that night, we landed in a little village called Babino Polje with a young family. The father had taken his mother’s house and renovated it. We spent all night by the fire – actually, they’re from Albania, even though they lived in Montenegro – eating Albanian food, sharing stories and drinking, and it was one of those, just, cozy, beautiful…

Dan: Warm, beautiful places to be holed up. I think it’s also important to note here, too, when we mentioned that meals are usually included in that per person price, you will never go hungry but it’s rare that you won’t be overfed to the point of saying “uncle” because people in the area, they really do like to show off their food, particularly if you demonstrate an interest. They have a sense of hospitality across food and drink, if that’s of interest.

Chris: Well, and you mentioned food now a couple times, so let’s get into a little more detail. So, what are you eating at this point? My first assumption would be sheep, but what else do they have that’s three days’ trek away from up the trail here?

Audrey: A lot of dairy products.

Dan: Just that, literally barrels full of sheep cheese.

Chris: Okay.

Audrey: As well as freshly made yogurt so, kind of, really tart, freshly made yogurt, homemade bread – every place we went to they made their own homemade bread daily – and because of the gardens, usually salads with tomatoes, cucumbers, that type of salad. But also, a lot of roasted vegetables as well. So, in addition, you’d have the meat which is either sheep or beef, usually some potatoes or something like that, but then you’d have a little bit of salad on the side, bread and cheese, and all of it came fresh from the farm so that’s one of the things that made it so good.

Dan: And for people who are interested, too, there’s also plenty of meat, so families will usually bring up some supplies, or on the weekends they’ll go to the nearest town and there will be things like chicken and…I don’t know that we had any sheep meat while we were there.

Audrey: Oh yeah, we did, up in Doberdol.

Dan: I guess we did.

Audrey: I think they had just killed a sheep when we arrived.

Dan: I had forgotten about that because I’m not a big fan of sheep. It’s something that I realized I didn’t really have much of a taste for when I traveled through central Asia. But then they’ll also bring things like beef and make dolmas, again, you won’t go hungry, but what gets top billing are all the local, fresh foods which will be the cheeses, vegetables from the garden – things like honey, for example, is everywhere – fruits, fresh bread, that sort of thing.

Chris: And then, you mentioned a combination of Mediterranean and I don’t remember what other cuisine, you lumped it in there.

Audrey: I kind of lumped Mediterranean and Greek. I mean, Greek is a Mediterranean cuisine but, you know, since it’s right next door, and that’s where the grilled vegetables and the style of the cheese comes in.

Chris: Got it, excellent. Where next?

Audrey: After Babino Polje, we walked to Lake Plav which is actually a small little town. With the exception of our cultural day in Kosovo this was our first day of civilization, again, asphalt roads and things like that.

Chris: You’re in Montenegro?

Audrey: Yeah, this is Montenegro.

Dan: It’s probably still dirt roads for about, maybe, two-thirds of that day. It’s only as you walk further into Montenegro, towards Lake Plav which is a relatively developed city, that you get paved roads and it begins to get a little bit long. But when you’re going through the hills it’s absolutely gorgeous and, through there, earlier in the season as we were in June, sort of, early in July, there were still tons of wildflowers and the hills are just absolutely full of stunning color. For us, it was a gorgeous time to go because it was not too hot at that point. I think weather is always tricky and changeable, but we were lucky to see a little bit of what felt like a change of seasons, almost, and the color that goes along with that.

Chris: Got it.

Audrey: And then, from there, the next day we crossed back into Albania, so we took a taxi to cut off about 20 kilometers.

Chris: And, I’m assuming, not because you just wimped out but that these were 20 kilometers you decided were not as spectacular.

Audrey: They were along the asphalt roads and valley and…yes, and then, from there, we were dropped off in a village called Vermosh which is just over the border in Albania, and this was also another, kind of, off the official trail section of our trek where we ended up hiking to an area called Mount Grebenit, and from there we had our first view of the Karanfil Mountains, so another section of these granite peaks. And then, from there, we ended up going back down into the village and stayed with a family in a town called Lepush, and there it’s kind of interesting.

So one of the reasons why we ended up staying with this particular family is that we had heard that, in this family, there was what is known in Albania as a “sworn virgin”, and it turns out that, going back hundreds of years…because this area of Albania, when the Ottoman Empire tried to expand into this area, this was actually the one area that the Turkish couldn’t get through. They were able to defend themselves, the climate’s harsh, it’s kind of brutal mountains, and so they were very fiercely defending their culture and fiercely defending themselves. And so, going back 500 years, there was this tradition of sworn virgins where, if the men in the family died – the sons died because they were at war – one of the girls would take on this role of the sworn virgin and basically act as a son, meaning she would defend the family and she would go to war, and so the tradition actually still continues today in some families where there is one daughter who takes an oath and decides not to get married, and will take care of the family and will take on the traditional role of the son or of the male in the family.

Dan: We’re also told that, in modern times, it’s a graceful way for a woman to avoid the traditional path to marriage.

Chris: Okay.

Dan: For reasons that a woman might want to avoid that path.

Chris: Interesting.

Dan: It’s functionally a face-saving exercise, in case they don’t happen to enjoy local men. So again, there’s all these sort of interesting twists and turns and history and, particularly as we get into this area, Vermosh, Lepush, the storytelling really begins to amp up and that’s because that area is known historically for intense family feuding…

Audrey: Blood feuds.

Dan: Blood feuds, gonna do something to my family and I need to burn down your house type of thing, and there’s plenty of stories regarding that as well as plenty of stories regarding how those types of disputes were negotiated and reconciled.

Audrey: And so, when Albania was cut off from the rest of the world for 50-some years, this was one of the areas that was able to just go and do its own thing because, as I said, it’s remote, the government never really made in-roads here, and so they’ve been able to preserve a lot of their culture and traditions as well.

Dan: And if you look at the mountains in this area, this just, like, severe granite uplift, you get a sense of why this area is relatively impenetrable. Particularly during colder years, it’s really cut off, some of these parts cut off completely from the rest of the world for, probably, ten months if not more out of the year. Terrain is very, very tricky because, really, at this point, as we begin to come down from Lepush and then climb what’s called Mount Taljanka, it is literally the most jaw-dropping of many jaw-dropping vistas along the entire trail. It really would classify for me, and we’d seen a lot of beautiful mountains around the world, just…it’s mind-blowing.

Chris: And you’re seeing vistas of other mountains, or you’re getting near the sea? What are we seeing here? Paint me a picture.

Dan: You’re seeing vistas of other mountains, and because of the nature of the terrain it’s not just one mountain. You have sheer drops and sheer drops of various shapes and sizes, and cleavages that are almost…defy patterns, that give you, just, as you step 50 yards or 100 yards ahead, you’re looking at something completely different. I mean, we got stuck there and probably took 1,500-2,000 photos. At this point, we drove our guide insane.

Audrey: Well, because when we got up to the top of the summit of Mount Taljanka it was covered in clouds, and we had been told in advance that if it’s cloudy when you get up there, just wait it out, and so we did, to our guide’s dismay. But we did wait it out, and so as the clouds dissipated it was like every few steps was, like, a different layer of the mountains emerged, and also, this was beginning of July at this point, and in some of the higher areas you still had snow. You had these snow-covered mountains as well in addition to these very dramatic granite peaks. These mountains are called the Karanfil Mountains and they’re on the border between Albania and Montenegro, so we were about to cross back into Montenegro and so that’s when we descended from the peak. We went back down into the valley and into Montenegro, and then the next day continued from a town called Gusinje to Theth. It’s spelled T-H-E-T-H, but I think it’s officially pronounced “teth”.

Dan: It’s important to note here, Theth is one of those towns that is a relatively sizable, well-infrastructured tourist center, so it’s the sort of place where you, if you’ve managed to get your way there, you’d show up and you could find accommodation without booking it in advance. Where we began in Valbone, this entire trek, the Valbone to Theth trek in either direction is something that has achieved some level of popularity relative to the rest of the area, because I think, perhaps, it was written about by…

Audrey: It was one of Lonely Planet’s top treks a few years ago. If you just did that trek…and we actually did not do that. But, what our guide told us who’s done it many times is he told us that, if you go Theth to Valbone, it’s a more beautiful journey than if you go Valbone to Theth, just the way that the mountains unfold in front of you. And it’s about a six or seven hour trek, but I don’t know how many kilometers; I’m guessing about 20 kilometers, something like that. Yeah, and it’s more difficult if you go Valbone to Theth than the other way around.

So right now, as Dan mentioned, there is a tourist infrastructure there, meaning there’s a lot of homes and families who are renovating their family homes in order to take in travelers, take in trekkers, and there’s also quite a lot of…

Chris: So we’re talking guest houses, not Club Med.

Audrey: Yes, guest houses, yeah. These are still farm houses. There’s maybe one or two places where…

Dan: That might warrant…

Audrey: A two-star, that did not take grandmother’s house and renovate it. There’s a few places that were built specifically for travelers. But there’s quite a few day hikes from Theth, so that’s another place where, if you don’t have lots of time, you can base yourself. The village is in a valley so, everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by mountains. It’s another quite dramatic location, and it feels very remote but it actually is accessible by bus, which is another reason why it’s kind of become popular, is because people can get there within a couple of hours – I think, three or four hours from Shkoder – so it’s relatively accessible that way. There’s actually public transport there. And, on Theth, this is kind of the heart of the Accursed Mountains, so when we were talking about a lot of the traditions, the blood feuds and how they codified, actually, the blood feuds in terms of, “If you kill my daughter, I have to have two of your sons,” and they actually wrote down in a book what happens in terms of these blood feuds This is the heart of it, and one of the reasons why is because, right now, there’s a road that connects it but for the last several hundred years it was just so removed and, because of the snow, it used to be isolated for about nine months of the year.

Dan: And development there is happening at pace. When we visited Theth we could get a sense of what this region will begin to look like as it becomes mainstream, and I’m happy for the locals that they’re making business, but I was happy that we were there before all of this really began to hit and spread, because that level of development made it feel a little bit less off the beaten trail.

Chris: Okay, and what I’m seeing is the name “Accursed Mountains” is coming more from them being insurmountable and wild, rather than the Albanian version of the Hatfield and the McCoy’s, giving the name to the mountains as a place that you didn’t wanna walk through.

Dan: Absolutely correct.

Chris: I had to look up, though, because it’s one of those…it’s an unusual name. One wants to know why they call it that before you travel there.

Audrey: Yeah, I think it might have been the Ottomans that gave it that name which would make sense.

Chris: That would make sense.

Audrey: And so from Theth, the next day we just had a really short day and went to another village nearby called Nderlysa. It was a beautiful trek but it was more actually the experience with the family that we stayed with there because, again, it’s a little bit smaller village than Theth but you’re still in the mountains and you still have access to a couple of waterfalls nearby, and blue swimming holes. And then, the next day was very surreal. We got in a bus and went back to Shkoder, so after being, kind of, off in the middle of nowhere for 10 days, 12 days, it was back to the real world or back to civilization.

Dan: It was a little bit of a shock, and I think, also, in the telling of this path and what we did, I think there’s still so much more probably that we didn’t get a chance to cover. This is just obviously a bit of an overview, and I think there’s still so much information when we traveled that we didn’t find that, in our writing about it, we really tried to expose as much as possible because I realize there’s a lot of different names; it’s not an area that most people know very well, and there are a lot of different ways to approach it.

Chris: We’ll put links to some of your articles on that in the show notes for people who are interested in more on that. One of the questions we sometimes ask – in fact, I think we’ve asked it with some of the places that you’ve been that have been more off the beaten path before – is when did you feel that it was closest to home, and when was the most remote, the most, “This is not Kansas anymore,” or, in your case, Berlin?

Audrey: I can answer the second one first.

Chris: I figured that might be easier.

Audrey: And that was our second day when we were trekking to the village of Çerem and we came over one of the mountain passes, and were able to look down into the valley and it was dotted with these really simple shepherd huts and these granite peaks, sheep were everywhere, and this little kid was running up the hill at us and, actually, these farm dogs were about to attack us and…

Dan: The cowbells are ringing.

Audrey: And the cowbells are ringing and, yeah, and the kid was trying to keep the farm dogs away from us, and there’s almost, like, sensory overload with the beauty, the visual beauty around us, the physical beauty around us, but then also the smell of the fresh wildflowers and you just come through a forest, the animals, sound of the dogs and the sheep, just everything.

Dan: And then we were invited into their house which is, essentially, a dirt floor shepherd house, and they made coffee using the little rock kitchen fire stove they had going on there. It felt like we were as far away as we could possibly be, and then also I think, in terms of time, it felt like a different place in a different time.

Audrey: And then, to answer the first question, it would be in Babino Polje, the village where we were coming in from the rain and there was a fireplace, and even though we were in a small village just over the border in Montenegro, it really had that home feeling in that the family that we were staying with, it was a younger family. Some of the other families we stayed with were older and this was a younger family with two little kids running around. The father was actually a quasi-famous Albanian rap star or something like that, so it was kind of funny, like, he was showing…

Chris: Ah yes, one of those.

Audrey: Yeah, so he was showing us his music videos the night when Ani started making these crazy cocktails because he has brothers in Germany who always bring him different German liquors, you know, so kind of a surreal situation of, you know, being out in the middle of nowhere but huddling around the fire, but then having these connections to Germany, connections to music, connections to the rest of the world.

Chris: We talked about a couple different places where you were just overwhelmed by the stunning vista. If you had to narrow it down to the prettiest place that you saw, where are you standing, what are you looking at?

Audrey: Mount Taljanka.

Dan: I’d say Mount Taljanka and looking over what Audrey mentioned, the Karanfil Mountains, just really the highest, most severe, granite uplifted peaks, and you’re just surrounded by them.

Chris: Excellent.

Dan: The photographs on our site, hopefully, communicate this in some tiny way, of just really how tiny we human beings are in this world.

Chris: One warning you would give, one thing you wish you had known before you went.

Dan: I know where I’m gonna go with this.

Audrey: Go.

Chris: It’s the sheep, isn’t it?

Dan: So we had a guide who, a couple of times, I think, he may have gotten a little bit fatigued because we were always about going to the highest peak and go, go, go, and we were taking photographs. And we had a couple of moments of, sort of, miscommunication regarding the peaks that we wanted to summit, and I think it was the second to the last day, we missed one of the peaks. It wasn’t one of the most important, but it was a bit of a disappointment. So I would be very careful regarding my communicating what it is I wanted to do overall with my guide, and then on a day-to-day basis check in, in order to make sure that was clear.

Audrey: My input’s actually gonna be something not very practical. It’s…Well, actually, it is very practical. I did this trek without a proper trekking backpack, like, modified the backpack that I had and used my camera bag, the waist pack of my camera bag, to help with the weight, and if I had to do it again I would actually invest in a proper trekking backpack; a very small one, but a proper trekking backpack because I think it does help in terms of your back and your shoulders and everything else.

Chris: And so, you mean, you had a backpack that didn’t, for instance, put more of the weight supported by your hips, and it was more supported by your back? Is that what’s going on?

Audrey: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, a lot more fatiguing.

Audrey: Yeah, so, I mean, it’s a very practical thing. On the non-practical, I would say before going on this trek, ask as many questions as you can, whether you’re working with a trekking agency or whether you’re just doing research online. The reason why I say that is, when we started planning for this trek, we realized it was not very much information available online and every time we asked more questions of Zbulo – the trekking agency in Tirana – different parts of the mountains opened up to us, different options opened up to us. So don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions to make sure you understand the full range of what is possible.

Chris: Okay. Before we get to our last five questions, what else should we know before we do this trip?

Audrey: Let’s see. First thing is the timing. Try and do it between mid-June and the end of September because then you’ll have an opportunity to stay with families. It’s possible to walk the trail before that or after that, but you are not gonna have as many opportunities to stay with families and you may have to take camping gear.

Dan: And it’s gonna be more difficult. Weather is also a frequent point of discussion, and I think, with good reason. A lot of people who travel to the region to trek the area, they want to time it with the best weather. Based on everything that we’ve seen, it’s virtually impossible to do that. We had very good weather. There were days where it was just off, and it’s just the luck of the draw and Mother Nature. We’ve heard some people that have had spectacular days in August and then terrible days in August, and I think that just goes for the entire season. It’s a mountain region so weather’s change a lot. I think…Bear that in mind.

Audrey: Although, weather is changeable but if you do decide to trek in August be prepared for temperatures that are in the 80s and 90s. It does get warm.

Chris: Most memorable local you met?

Dan: Shoot.

Audrey: Well, no, because I’m afraid I’m gonna take yours. You go…

Dan: No, go ahead.

Audrey: I was gonna say the shepherd, the first shepherd who invited us into his home, this very simple home. Actually, I take that back. It was the shepherd’s son. He was, maybe, about 11-12 years old and, while everyone else in the family was a little bit wary of us because they weren’t really used to foreigners, it was he who came up to us and said, “Hello,” and he didn’t really speak English but, through our guide, invited us in and I think the rest of his family were like, “What are you doing?” But he was super curious, he was actually telling, through our guide who was saying earlier, that he was kind of short and he got picked on at school and things like that, but he was trying to overcome that by being friendly and outgoing, and trying to meet people. So I would say the shepherd’s son in Çerem.

Dan: Wow, that probably beats mine, but I would go with the one the following day, if I had to add another one, and that was the old shepherd who was in the most basic hut that we stayed in, who…I don’t know, I forget exactly how old he was but he had the best stories of the old Soviet days, and he just kept telling his stories, drinking his fire water, and smoking his dirty old cigarettes, and he was happy to go all night with those stories and deprive us of much needed sleep that we had, but he was really great. So in terms of this sort of classic, get as much out of storytelling distance out of it as possible, he was my guy.

Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in this region, only on this trek,”?

Audrey: Have I eaten so much cheese and dairy. But yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much cheese and dairy, three meals a day, but it’s all fresh so it doesn’t really feel that way.

Chris: See, I hear cheese and fresh-baked bread and I think, okay, I’d live there, that’s all we’d need. My wife and I, it’s like, “Is there cheese? Is there bread? Okay, we’re good.”

Dan: Even with our guide, I think one of the days we actually walked into a lake because we got lost.

Audrey: It was foggy.

Chris: We don’t find that a poor sense of direction is somewhat career-limiting as a travel journalist.

Dan: Right, it is. As a travel journalist, as a guide, it was tough. It was…visibility was rough. We were never really, as far as I can tell, in any real danger. Again, it just sort of added to the adventure, but when I think about it, it makes me laugh.

Chris: One thing that you’re glad you packed or you wish you had packed?

Audrey: I’m glad I packed my DSLR camera, and I know that may sound obvious but I actually did go back and forth on whether I wanted to carry the extra weight, the body plus two extra lenses, plus all the other gear and batteries and stuff like that, and I’m very glad that I carried it because, you know, even though I’d seen some of the photos before, the trek in real life, in reality, was so much more beautiful and just stunning than I had imagined.

Chris: And, I’m assuming, you need to pack assuming that you’re not gonna be able to recharge your devices every night?

Audrey: You’re able to recharge most nights, and there’s a couple of places where they don’t have electricity but they do have solar panels so you can do a basic charge of the camera battery or, kind of like, half a phone type thing. But it’s best to have extra batteries with you because, if it’s been a cloudy day or something’s happening with the battery, yeah, so there’s about two days, three days, where you may not get electricity based on how the weather’s been.

Chris: Got it.

Dan: For me it was rain pants, waterproof rain trousers. It didn’t rain a lot but a couple of days, in our guide’s words, “This is real rain.” It was exceptional to have those.

Chris: Excellent. Last two questions, finish this thought: You really know you’re in the Peaks of the Balkans when…

Dan: You spend the night with a sworn virgin.

Audrey: Okay, how do I top that one?

Chris: You’ll just have to give up there, Audrey.

Audrey: She actually literally did give up her bedroom for us because more people arrived than they had expected. You know you’re in the Peaks of the Balkans when you have a picnic of homemade bread and cheese and a tomato, sitting on the grass filled with wildflowers – purple, yellow wildflowers – looking up to granite peaks all around you.

Dan: Before you spend the night with a sworn virgin.

Chris: Excellent.

Audrey: I think it was after you spend the night.

Chris: And if you had to summarize the Peaks of the Balkans trekking in three words, what three words would you use? I give you three each.

Audrey: Dramatic, remote, people. Those three words didn’t have to make sense together, did they?

Chris: No, that’s okay.

Audrey: Okay.

Dan: Transcendent, far out.

Chris: Excellent. And our guests, again, have been Audrey and Dan from uncorneredmarket.com. If there was one particular post you wanted to recommend about your trip that people read on your website, what would that post be?

Audrey: That would be the Peaks of the Balkans Beginner’s Guide, and the reason for that is this was really all of the information we would have wanted to know, or we would have wanted to have been able to research before taking our trek. So it really goes into all sorts of details about the traditional trail, the variations you can take including what we described, whether to get a guide, costs, what you are gonna expect at host families, how to contact the host families…

Dan: Electricity and mobile telephone…

Audrey: Packing…

Dan: And we come at it from the standpoint of we don’t have an agenda here, so we’re not an agency, so we’re not going to limit the amount of information. So this is really all of it.

Audrey: And also, because we…it’s quite a long post, and so we were getting requests for people asking, “Can I download this,” so we’ve actually taken the Peaks of the Balkans Beginner’s Guide, that post, combined it with our day-by-day article, and…

Dan: And then added some additional information and tidbits based on some research that we’ve done since then, into one uber Peaks of the Balkans Beginner’s Guide.

Audrey: Which is a PDF that people can download.

Chris: Well, thank you both for coming back on the show, always a pleasure to have you come on, and thank you for sharing with us your love for this trek here in the Balkans.

Audrey: Thanks for having us.

Dan: Yeah, thanks, it was really…it was a lot of fun.

Chris: In news of the community, I heard from former Amateur Traveler guest Sam Oppenheim who says, “Booked to travel to Ireland with the wife and four year old and one year old.” Good luck with that, Sam. “Just writing because I re-listened to your Three Episodes to Research: Dublin, The Ring of Kerry, and your own tour you did, and bought a DK book because of your sponsorship. I never used them before, I was always a Lonely Planet person in the 90s and 2000s.” Thanks so much for letting me know, Sam, and you better bet that that went off in an email to the DK Eyewitness Guides people, just to let them know that they got at least one sale through the sponsorship.

If you have acted on the advice of Amateur Traveler, let me know because that does help me as I’m trying to find sponsors for the show. With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to host@amateurtraveler.com or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter as chris2x and, as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans (Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro) (podcast transcript)

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by Chris Christensen

I am the host of the Amateur Traveler. The Amateur Traveler is an online travel show that focuses primarily on travel destinations and what are the best places to travel to. It includes both a weekly audio podcast, a video podcast, and a blog.

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