I don’t remember where I read it, but the word Balkan means “mountain” in some ancient language or other. And it’s true – this is definitely an area defined by its mountains. In general this fact is something I love about Albania. I have grown up around mountains, and they feel like home to me more than any other geographic feature. Recently the cooler fall weather has allowed me the opportunity to explore some of the peaks with friends without feeling like I will die from heat exhaustion.
Hiking in Albania is wonderful for many reasons besides the sweeping views from Balkan peaks. For one, the lack of property laws and “ownership” mean that you can literally point at a spot in the distance anywhere and walk there if you want to. Deforestation and a massive network of goat trails that extend every which way make it easier still to just get out and go. One of the other wonderful reasons I love hiking in this country is that the people you meet when you are hiking are often some of the kindest, most interesting and most generous Albanians out there. The concept of day hiking or camping is very foreign to Albanians and there aren’t a lot of foreigners who hike here, so most of the time when your out in all your hiking gear the Albanians you are likely to meet have never seen anyone like you before.
Last weekend I traveled south again to Gjirokaster and met up with four fellow PCVs to hike from Gjirokaster to Permet. This is a hike that three of the crowd had attempted last year in November, only to run into sleet and freezing rain a few hours in and have to abandon ship and hitch a ride to a nearby town to seek food/shelter. Jen and I, the newbies, heard a lot about “last year” along the way. One of the reasons they had such trouble last year (besides attempting the hike in November….uhhhm…) was that the elevation change throughout the hike is pretty severe. We climbed from 200 meters in Gjirokaster up to 2100 meters on the ridge above town and then back down to about 700 meters the first day, then camped just outside the village of Sheper only to wake up the next morning and climb back up to around 1700 meters and then descend to Permet at around 400 m. See the route we took below (south to north/bottom to top along the orange line).
Day one of the hike, it took us about 4.5 hours of quick climbing to reach the summit. After making such good time we thought the descent was going to be a breeze. WRONG. Not only does going down on gravel paths with a pack on your back put more stress on your legs, but it is made infinitely more difficult by such added joys as rain and losing the trail….At one point we turned off the goat trail we were following to search for another more major trail (that did not exist) only to end up on a part of the mountain full of steep and slippery-when-wet rocks that acted like slides…then dead ended in the thickest thicket underbrush that I have ever seen here. Instead of “trails” we were following patches of lightly tamped grass that may or may not have been a path for a goad. once. For about an hour we were literally pushing our way through branches down the side of the mountain…always knowing that the village we were aiming for was below us – somewhere.
When we finally reached the fushe (flat), we had been hiking for 11 hours or more and it was almost dark. This led our tired selves to take a “short cut” to the village instead of the road….which involved walking across a field, fording a stream and climbing up a dirt embankment full of trash only to pop up on the other side covered in rain and dirt and burrs to see two Albanians staring at us outside thier home/fish hatchery. Civilization! Instead of thinking we were strange or grabbing their shotguns, they of course invited us in for turkish coffee and homemade reçel and raki.
After camping outside sleepy Sheper, we explored the town in the morning. Stone roofs, an old orthodox church full of icons, and a home that once served as the regional headquarters of the partisans who fought against the Nazis in WWII along the Greece/Albania border all with a view down a narrow valley that faces Greece in the distance. An interesting place with lovely people who all pointed the way to Permet….another “3 hours” away…yea right. Though they may be generous, Albanians have little concept of the time it takes to hike places.
6 hours later we arrived in Permet. This hike was, if possible, more beautiful than the day before. Up a gradual grade through a high valley with only sheep and a few dogs and eagles visible. Then we came over a small hill and looked down down down on Permet….we had no idea how high up we had climbed. The view over Permet and the surrounding area is the most amazing view I have seen in all of my time here, and it wasn’t even one I was expecting. From up above town on the ridge you can see most of southern Albania stretched out in layer after layer of mountain range, with Greek peaks rising up to your right close by. By now I have traveled to many of the cities in the south-central area of the country, and I could easily recognize the peaks that rise above each place. It was an incredible experience, and sadly one I couldn’t get on camera (though I don’t think that would have done it justice).
The walk straight DOWN to Permet hurt like hell, but when we finally got off the mountain (finally) and arrived, one of the Permet volunteers had cooked us homemade fried chicken and mashed potatoes…and in my exhaustion and sunburned sore state sitting at her table in the communist block apartment she calls home with 5 other volunteers beside me, the Peace Corps had never felt more like family, and Albania had never felt more like home. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.