The hands-down highlight of our trip is a country that we knew next to nothing about before looking at a map and seeing a blurb in a NYT list of 52 places to visit in 2014, so we should probably give you some quick background before diving into the fun stuff. This New Jersey-sized country lies on the Adriatic Sea, sandwiched between tiny Montenegro and Greece. It was conquered by Italy (from which it is less than 45 miles across the water) in 1939 and taken over by communist partisans five years later. So began Enver Hoxha's 40-year dictatorship, which severely curtailed freedom and religious worship, but rapidly grew the economy and practically eliminated illiteracy. Albania was left with no friends at all after shunning both the Soviets and the Chinese for being 'revisionist' to the ideals of Stalinism. Hoxha even oversaw the construction of 750,000 bunkers in case of an invasion-- many of which can still be seen crumbling in the countryside-- for a country of 3 million inhabitants! Once one of the world's most closed off countries, in 1991 the Communism Party dissolved, democracy began to take shape, and borders were opened. Albania has caught up to the Western world extremely rapidly in the last two decades, but remnants of its past can still be seen everywhere.
We arrived in Albania a bit wearier than we expected, after a rickety and slow bus ride (we're pretty sure the bus' top gear wasn't working!). However, as not-enough-time-in-a-city was quickly becoming the theme of the trip, we rallied as best we could to make the most of the 18 hours we had in Shkodra, a culture-rich city in the country's North.
We first tried to find the Marubi photography collection. For some reason the South Balkans took to photography extremely early, many cities in the region boasting a photography business dating back to the mid-19th century. The Marubi family began documenting everyday life in the town in 1859 in a practice that spanned three generations and amassed over a half million photos. Unfortunately by the time we located (what we believe to be) the correct unmarked door down an unmarked alley, it was about 20 minutes before closing time, and apparently the attendant had decided on an early happy hour and locked the door. The good news, on the other hand, is that the collection has taken to the streets, with semi-permanent displays of many of the most famous photos mounted on colorful placards all over the city, concentrated on the city's lively pedestrian street, so we got to see many of them after all.
After strolling up and down the street and taking in the pictures and nightlife, we made our way to a well-regarded restaurant in a hotel. We sat in the peaceful courtyard and ordered a selection of local dishes. Upon starting in on the spread, we were immediately struck by the difference in cuisine only a few short miles makes. While the food in Croatia and Montenegro had had a strong Mediterranean influence, we had now crossed into the Greek realm: grilled meats replaced fish, feta-like cheeses replaced mozzarella, and yogurt-stewed vegetables were served alongside fresh salads. With six dishes and two glasses of wine for under $15, we were looking forward to this new cuisine!
We woke up early the next morning for one of the most-anticipated legs of our journey: a three-hour ferry ride up a dammed river (the Komani Lake). After a bumpy ride through the countryside, passing donkey carts vegetable fields, we arrived to the pier. After some excellent espresso shared with a one-armed fisherman and a polyglot soldier, we were off! Boarding late, all the seats were taken, so we were shown to the flat roof, which turned out to be the perfect place to take in the panoramic river views. Dense forest occasionally gave way to small farms where we spied a handful of people working the land or taking the hours-long journey to their neighbors or to the riverbank to exchange goods. Eventually the trees and fields were replaced by dramatic views of sheer rock faces in every direction: we had entered the blessed mountains (so-called by their inhabitants in the belief that the mountains protected them from invaders--the repelled armies referred to them as the accursed mountains).
Another bumpy van ride (Albanian roads are pretty basic) brought us deeper into the mountains and to our destination for the next two nights: the Rilindja guest house in Valbona National Park. We walked into the idyllic mountain setting and immediately felt right at home. The guest house, run by a warm and helpful Albanian-American couple, immediately reminded us of our favorite hostels from our year abroad. After another fantastic country meal, we planned our hiking route for the next day over a bottle of wine on our balcony with another stunning mountain view, and called it a night.
After getting a slightly later-than-expected start, our hike was nearly a complete loss when an errant trail marking a half-mile into the hike derailed us. We retraced our steps over and over for more than an hour until Claudia correctly determined the mistake we had made and our location on the map. Then we bushwhacked for about 15 minutes in the direction we thought we needed to head, and eventually stumbled upon another marked trail. Once back on the path, it was much easier to find the way, but the physical challenge was just beginning. Remember two paragraphs back when I mentioned sheer and impenetrable rock faces? Well the range we were walking in was no exception. After two hours of relentless climbing, exhausted and nearly out of water, we made it to a shepherd's small shack where several onward paths split. We relaxed in the shade, drank the cold water piped in from an underground spring, and treated ourselves to a lemon soda the shepherd sold us. He and his ten year old son were unbelievably kind and humble, and we're still in awe that the arduous climb we took to get there is a commute they must take every few days in order to graze their cattle in the surrounding mountain pastures (and haul Italian lemon sodas up there for passing hikers!).
Refreshed by the break, we decided we had the time and energy left for one additional hour to a mountain pass from which we could peek into Montenegro. The mountains we could see over the pass were otherworldly and dramatic, and the valley we had risen out of, along with the mountains that surrounded it, just kept getting more and more breathtaking. The views we saw between the shack and the mountain pass were every bit as impressive as those afforded by our three-day hike in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, and probably more beautiful than those afforded by the five-day ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro (I don't mean to sell that experience short though, it was unlike anything we've ever undertaken and I would do it again in a second; it's just that that mountain was freestanding so the surrounding landscape was relatively flat). The Himalayas may still have it beat, though the exposure available in this single-day hike is truly unique.
All in all, it was an incredible hike, and a day we won't soon forget.
On our last day in Albania, we were privileged to participate in a very special experience. The company I work for, GlobalGiving, works with thousands of nonprofits all over the world, so when we were planning a trip to this part of the world, I researched projects we could visit, and was excited to learn that we partner with a project that runs a mobile library in Northern Albania. We spent the morning riding around the countryside until we pulled off on a dirt road that we followed for about a half hour to an extremely remote town (it's not even on Google Maps!). We stopped at a small crossroads in sight of only about three or four houses and got a look inside the van while the librarian set up a table and umbrella. The organization, Partnerë për Fëmijët, painstakingly converted the van into a fully functional library that they take around to 45 small communities, visiting each one only once a month. The walls of the van are lined on the inside with books for kids from 5 to 18, many about public safety, leadership, and reproductive issues, but we also spotted Steven King, Shakespeare, and of course the entire Harry Potter series. They also have posters, coloring materials and activities, toys, and hula hoops.
At first we weren't sure if many kids would come to participate because the area was so sparsely populated (we were also warned that many families leave their homes in the summer to go to a sort of mountaintop camp). But sure enough, after only a few minutes of waiting, first one, then a few more kids started to join us, books in hand and huge smiles on their faces. A few minutes later, about 15 children had joined us and began eagerly trading their books for new ones. We were struck by how polite the children were, waiting quietly for their turn in the van and sharing a few coloring book pages between them. After they had all exchanged their books, the librarian took out the hula hoops and led them through a few games and activities.
Perhaps it wasn't until we began pulling out of the town and our hosts pointed out the shabby one room school building that we truly understood the necessity of the program. The kids in this community really have almost nothing, so we can only imagine the joy that the library brings every month with its bright sides and wealth of resources inside. But with this understanding came a touch of sadness, too, as we pictured all the days between visits when the van doesn't come. We were floored by the humility and generosity of the staff we spent the day with, and I was so proud to contribute in any small way to the success of such a vital and positive program in this underserved community.
We left Albania with full hearts and huge grins, having barely scratched the surface but already plotting how we could come back to see the rest of this incredibly friendly and beautiful country.