Rudolf Abraham, author of Cicerone’s new guidebook to the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, describes his experiences while he was researching and walking for the guidebook to this mountainous trek around Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania.
The path to the top of Bajrak, above the frost-coated pastures of Feratovica katun, is short but relentlessly steep. It’s early morning in this astonishingly beautiful yet little-visited corner of Montenegro, and the air is quite still. The path I’m following is a newly way-marked section of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail – a long-distance route through the spectacular and remote borderlands between Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Suddenly the ground levels off, and turning to look behind me, I’m greeted by phenomenal views across Lake Plav, the largest glacial lake in the Balkans, its surface along with the rest of the valley floor submerged beneath a blanket of cloud, tinged with colour in the early morning light.
The stage of the Peaks of the Balkans I’m following leads from the small town of Plav, over Bajrak and a neighbouring peak (more a sinuous ridge) Vrh Bora, then down to the village of Vusanje, at the mouth of the Ropojana valley. A reputation for poor trail markings and route-finding difficulties, compared with most of the rest of the Peaks of the Balkans route, has meant that people have often chosen to skip this stage. But with the new trail markings – blazed less than a month before my visit by local guide, mountain rescue volunteer and all-round nice guy Ahmet Reković – that should be a thing of the past. Which is good news, because it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire trail.
From Bajrak and Vrh Bora I have near uninterrupted views of Maja Kolata – at 2534m, the highest peak in Montenegro – and west of this, the wildly convoluted limestone peaks above the Ropojana valley. The trail leads down a spur between two small lakes, then bears right and begins descending steadily towards Vusanje, and arriving in the village beside the small mosque with its distinctive wooden minaret.
Into the wild – from the Ropojana valley to Theth and Valbona
When I first visited the Prokletije mountains back in the early noughties, it was the Ropojana valley more than anything else which made me want to come back. Perhaps it was because – especially back then, several years before this area was finally granted the status of Montenegro’s fifth national park, and before the development of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail – it seemed to stretch into the unknown. The lake at the head of the valley felt wonderfully remote, clouds clung to the surrounding peaks, and somewhere on the other side of the lake was the border with Albania, a place I’d never been at that time but was desperately keen to visit. There was a path, by all accounts, which twisted its way up over a high pass and down to the village of Theth.
When I returned to the Ropojana valley a decade or so later to walk what was by then the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, it seemed little changed – although the lake was gone (fed only by snowmelt, it has a habit of appearing and disappearing with the seasons), so I walked across the lakebed, and up through the forest into Albania.
Theth to Valbona
The next day takes me over the Valbona Pass, on the watershed between the Theth and Valbona valleys. I manage to get a lift up the jeep road from Theth, which the route follows initially, then hop out and begin walking up a steep forest trail.
Since its development three or four years ago the Peaks of the Balkans has become increasingly popular – although it still sees a fraction of the number of hikers on trails in the Alps, Pyrenees and other better-known hiking areas in Europe. This is down not only to the amazing scenery and wonderful hospitality of this region, but also in part because the aid agency behind the development of the route as a cross border project also did a pretty good job of marketing it. Or perhaps it’s just the appeal of somewhere comparatively new and undiscovered. In any case, villagers who until recently lived from farming have opened small and wonderfully welcoming guesthouses, and simple tearooms by the trail. I pass one on the way up to the Valbona Pass – a small wooden terrace serving tulip-shaped glasses of tea, Turkish coffee, and soft drinks cooled in water rushing up from a nearby spring.
The views from the Valbona Pass, when I get there, are phenomenal, including Maja Jezerces, at 2694m the highest peak in the Prokletije mountains, over to the north. The Valbona River has formed the nucleus of a national park since 1996. However, construction is currently underway on a series hydroelectric power plants along a 30km stretch of the river, several of them within the national park itself. Despite an ongoing campaign by local residents, with support from EuroNatur and the WWF, the Albanian government has allowed the project to go ahead, ignoring the fact that it clearly threatens to destroy areas of the national park and potentially the livelihood of local villagers, with the impact it is likely to have on tourism.
The Prosllopit Pass
The ‘official’ route between Valbona and Çeremi, as marked and described on the Peaks of the Balkans map and website, is not one of its most inspiring moments – mostly along an asphalt road, and then a jeep track, with the standard advise being to take a taxi to skip the former. But there’s another route between the two villages, which is infinitely more scenic. This is to hike up to the Prosllopit Pass – a grassy swath at just over 2000m on the border between Albania and Montenegro – then to cross another pass, the Borit, and from there descend to Çeremi.
I find the start of the trail to the Prosllopit Pass easily enough (it’s the standard route up Maja Kolata from this side, so it’s well marked), opposite the entrance to the Kelmend Selimaj Guesthouse in Valbona. The trail heads up a gully, then zigzags up steep slopes to a pasture at around 1500m. After a short rest on a comfortable rock I continue up through woodland then over steep slopes to a saddle, from where a faint, intermittent trail leads up to the Prosllopit Pass, below the towering bulk of Maja Kolata (at 2534m, the highest peak in Montenegro).
As nice a spot as this might be, the weather is closing in, so after stopping very briefly to eat something on the pass (crisp cucumber, hard boiled egg, tangy white sheep’s cheese and a slab of bread), I continue onwards the Borit Pass across a slope then over rock marked by prominent karst features.
When I arrive in Çeremi after what had begun to feel like an endless descent from the Borit Pass, I find my way easily to Kujtim Gocaj Guesthouse, where I am welcomed by the affable Kujtim Gocaj and his family. There’s a trekking group from the Netherlands staying and I share a small room with Kushtrim, their guide from Kosovo. Over dinner – a truly fantastic spread of soup, green beans simmered in milk, rich vegetable stew, cheese and herb pastry, and salad from their extensive garden, all prepared on an old white enamel outdoor stove and accompanied by endless tea – conversation turns to what we do for a living. When I explain that I’m writing a new guide to the trail Karin, a regular visitor to the Balkans, raises an eyebrow. ‘Don’t tell too many people’ she says, only half joking, ‘we like that it’s so quiet and undiscovered here.’
To Dobërdol, and into Kosovo
It’s a long stage from Çeremi to Dobërdol, crossing backwards and forwards between Albania and Montenegro, but the scenery is gorgeous. We walk through mountain pastures coloured by swathes of wildflowers, along silent forest trails dotted with delicate orchids, and through dramatic river gorges – all the while finding endless opportunities for some impromptu foraging on the masses of blueberries and wild strawberries growing alongside the trail. Crossing a bridge over a stream we finally reach Dobërdol, a remote summer settlement below a peak which marks the intersection of the borders between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. I stay at the Bashkimi Guesthouse – once again in the company of the Dutch group, and once again enjoying a great big feast of a dinner, after which we sit round a roaring open fire as sparks swoosh up into the cold night air and dogs bark in the darkness.
The next morning I head up the steep-sided valley slopes to an unnamed pass on the border with Montenegro, with a huge view stretching back over Dobërdol and northeast towards the prominent Krš Bogićevica in Montenegro, which the trail will pass close to in a few days time. Jens and Heike, a German couple who also stayed at the Bashkimi Guesthouse, catch up with me on the pass. We follow the trail to Three Borders Peak, then head along the border ridge – a beautiful stretch of trail with Montenegro on one side and Kosovo on the other. We drop down to a jeep track briefly, above a slope where locals are collecting crates full of blueberries, then strike out along a path again, now on the Kosovo side of the ridge. The weather closes in here and the surrounding landscape is enveloped in white cloud, but the way is still easy enough to follow, and it’s not too long before we’re standing on the Roshkodol Pass, on the shoulder of 2530m Marijash.
This, Kushtrim had told me while pouring over maps in Dobërdol, is where I should ignore the official Peaks of the Balkans map – so following his advise we don’t descend into the valley, but contour the slope above 2000m, and this way reach the border ridge again, which we follow to the Zavoj Pass. The Zavoj marks the centre of the figure-of-eight which makes up the Peaks of the Balkans – the route returns to this point in a few days time, after looping through Kosovo.
Here our paths diverge – Jens and Heike are following the trail down to Milishevc in Kosovo, I’m following a path down to Babino polje in Montenegro. As is often the case when researching a guidebook, I’m walking the route in several sections, repeating some bits, trying some variants and shortcuts, and hoping to see the landscape in different seasons. It will be another two months before I return to walk the remaining section of the route through Kosovo.
The Peaks of the Balkans can be hiked in around ten days, or stretched out over a couple of weeks if you want a day or two off at some point, with about a third of the whole trek lying in each country. Getting to the trail is easier than you might expect – and, this being a circular route, you have several choices of where to start.
But whichever point you choose to start from, the Peaks of the Balkans is a magnificent trek, through some of the most ruggedly beautiful and little-known mountain scenery in Europe.