I am just back from hiking in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. “Why there??” people asked me, instinctively conjuring up images of gangsters, blood feuds, genocide and war. Two articles about the Accursed Mountains and the Peaks of the Balkans trail had captured my imagination and ten days of trekking through some of the most remote landscapes left in Europe proved my instinct to be right.
Following a local guide, our daily hikes took us through the raw beauty of green valleys lined by jagged silver summits soaring into the intense cobalt of the August skies. The gentle chimes of grazing cows’ bells mingling with light breezes passing through pine needles were broken only by our own puffing as we step-by-stepped our way up the steep inclines. And like the sun breaking through clouds, the warm smiles of shepherds invited us into their makeshift ‘Cafés’ for thick black coffees or fresh yogurt. ‘Accursed’ these mountains were not, indeed we felt blessed. But it was not ever so.
Abandoned bunkers bore witness to the decades of paranoid communist rule under Enver Hoxha, the Albanian head of state from 1944-1985 and his cruel Sigurimi secret police. 175,000 of them once peeped out of rocky outcrops and coastlines like periscopes.
Similarly, a few austere stone ‘kullas’ or towers of refuge stand as reminders of the bloody feuds demanded by the Kanun, the largely oral law that ran parallel to the judiciary one. Made up of four pillars – Honour, Hospitality, Right Conduct, Kin Loyalty – many of the laws were designed to prevent misconduct of any sort. In certain circumstances, however, all four pillars colluded to create a devastating eye-for-an-eye code of vengeance that turned the Christian ‘Thou shalt not kill’ into its opposite. Strict rules defined exactly how killing was to be handled and executed, committing some families to decades of reciprocal murder if permanent truces could not be achieved.
The Tower of Refuge at Theth, and inside where discussions would take place
As we walked through villages and stayed in basic log huts run by families as guest homes, the only pillar apparent to us was that of hospitality. A heartfelt warmth streamed through the steady gazes of our hosts’ smiling eyes and even in places with no electricity, a hose pipe for a tap and a barrel of cold spring water for a fridge, the boundless generosity, cleanliness and care people took in providing for their guests was deeply touching. And delicious.
Possibly the biggest gem of all to shine in these mountains was our guide, Arineta Mula. Strong, beautiful, gentle and funny she is the face of triumph, not only over adversity but also of the peaks for which we strove each day. As a 9-year-old in the 1998-99 Kosovo war, her family had fled their home in Peja only to be rounded up by Serb forces and locked in a petrol-soaked sports hall. NATO intervened just in time to save their lives but they were still far from safe. With their house destroyed and their remaining worldly possessions in bags, young Arineta climbed her first mountain as the family fled to Albania. This long climb would sow the seed of her passion for mountaineering that has led her and two others to become the first Kosovans to reach the top of Mount Everest. And with two of the other ‘Seven Summits’ already under her belt and almost enough funding for the other four, she looks to become an even bigger national hero than she clearly already is. After all the knowledge she shared with us and all her kind attention to our needs, I can only offer her the same encouragement she gave us and pass on to her the blessing bestowed on me by an old cheese maker living in a ramshackle shelter: “May the sun shine on your journey and in your heart, Arineta.”
Albania’s face is now rapidly changing as endless new glass and mirrored corporate buildings, hotels and temple-like petrol stations are erected further south. But the hiking trips, so beautifully organised by Balkan Natural Adventures, will continue to offer curious visitors glimpses of untouched beauty that are both rare and precious.
Further information at Balkan Natural Adventures https: //bnadventure.com/peaks-of-the-balkans-trail/
And finally, a fascinating read about the blood feuds is Ismail Kadare’s Broken April.