Walking the Peaks of the Balkans Trail

In late May Cicerone author Alex Kendall and his friend Dieter walked the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a circuit through the Dinaric Alps of Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro

After the biting wind and air-bourne snow of Mount Bora, the guesthouse in Vusanje was a welcome sight. Nestled in the woods of the Ropojana Valley of Montenegro, Vusanje is a cluster of houses, surrounded by the green grass of cow fields.

Above these fields the forests rise as the gradient increases, before the trees can’t hold on anymore and the rock takes over.

Scree funnels down gullies; towers of limestone rise up into the sky, at this moment their summits sheathed in cloud.

Crossing Mount Bora with the trail markings clear to see
Crossing Mount Bora with the trail markings clear to see
770 FC

The Peaks of the Balkans Trail

Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo

£15.26

Guidebook to the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a 192km trek through Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. The route, which can comfortably be completed in less than a fortnight, is waymarked and covers terrain between 670m and 2300m in altitude, taking in remote valleys, dramatic mountain passes, stunning scenery and villages untouched by time.

More information

I was walking the Peaks of the Balkans trail with Dieter, who had convinced me that this would make a good late-May holiday. However, time and work commitments being what they are, we had only eight days to complete the 10-day trail, forcing us to combine four days into two at two points of the trail, and the first of these was on day one.

So as we sipped beers and coffee on the benches outside the hut in Vusanje, our thoughts were on the pass to come.

The hut owner, having heard that we wanted only drinks and no beds, asked where we were staying.

‘We’re staying in Theth tonight’, this being the village over the pass.

The man didn’t blink: ‘No, it is impossible, you will not make it tonight.’

Vusanje
Vusanje with the valley behind leading to Albania

The Peje Pass

Armed with this optimistic forecast of our attempt, we had another beer while we waited for a lift. Half an hour and a few kilometres later, we were dropped at the end of a rocky track. We had been told we could be dropped near the border, but the track ended well before and it was clear the driver didn’t come up here often.

Through woods on the climbing trail we headed towards the Peje Pass, the first of our major mountain passes, conscious of the fading day.

Only a small concrete pillar beside a seasonal lake marked the border between Montenegro and Albania. Higher up, as the valley narrowed, the ruins of the Albanian communist bunkers on the pass brought recent history abruptly into this mountain wilderness.

Up above these crumbling relics, which had closed Albania off from the world, the spring snow-fields took us back into the wild, clean world of the mountains, a plateau of shattered rock and drifting mist, before we finally reached the intricate path down the sheer wall of the mountain into the Theth Valley.

Peje pass
Looking back towards the Peje pass from the Theth valley

Forests of Albania

Clouds swirled around the summits, revealing and hiding huge chasms either side. Limestone walls rose above, their layers stacked at an angle and riddled with holes like so much fossilised sponge cake.

As we descended, the mist cleared and the forests of Albania appeared, pines above with their dark needles catching the moisture. Below these were beeches, straddling the sides of the rivers, now mostly trickles surrounded by the bare rocks of the wide riverbed.

Peje pass to Theth
Descending from the Peje pass to Theth

Stepping into the guesthouse, just as dark began to creep over the mountains, was like going back 200 years. Everything was made from wood, with stone foundations and a stone ground floor. Dark wood, with notches and exposed beams, and boards that moved independently and creaked. The electric sockets and lights were clearly an afterthought, attached where the building allowed.

This was our first experience of Balkan hospitality in what was essentially someone’s converted home, adapted for the new walking tourism. Maria was our smiling host, and promptly gave us more food than we could ever possibly eat, alongside a jug of home-brewed spirits. We were worried about drinking too much of it until she gestured to the giant keg of the stuff nestled under the TV. The fire roared away and the TV played incomprehensible Albanian game shows.

The friendliness of the guesthouse owners, and the people we met on the road, really made this trip; a welcome spark of humanity amid the immense grandeur of the mountains.

Being an early-season trip we didn’t see that many people, apart from the section from Theth to Valbona over the Valbona Pass, which is a popular day walk. After seeing no one the previous day we ended up reaching the pass with an English family, an American and a Korean wearing Crocs.

On the way up through the beech forest, at a newly built café that wasn’t even on the map, we stopped for coffee and cake with a group of Australians. The ascent to the pass is steep, the views breath-taking, but unusually for our day walks it connected two places that both had public transport links and more than one choice of accommodation, hence the popularity. It was sobering to think that over 20 years ago travellers were murdered on this very trail.

The far side of the pass itself seemed like a good place to crack open the can of beer Maria had given us, and eat some of the walnuts she’d included in the packed lunch. Our struggles, though, had only just begun; the path, which skirted left from the top of the pass to find easier ground, had an enormous snow bank blocking the route.

We edged along the narrow ledge previous walkers had cut, trying not to look right down the horrible fall-line, which disappeared in a white slippery mess over a cliff. Somehow everyone else, including our Korean friend in Crocs, had got through this, so we made our way through ever-deeper snow until the trail appeared again.

Snow became a constant source of worry during the trip, which is why I heartily recommend waiting for June to attempt the trail.

snow banks
Crossing the unnerving snow banks after the Valbona Pass

High ground and border ridges

Our second multi-stage day came a few days later, following the high ground and border ridges from Ceremi in Albania to Milishevc in Kosovo. That day we crossed into all three countries, admiring the millions of crocus that shoot up through the earth and throw their purple flowers into the cold wind before any other flowers have even stirred. Some were so keen they were even coming up through the snowpack itself.

On this day we crossed some sort of line in the character of the mountains. Gone were the sheer towers and flying buttresses of the Albanian peaks; Kosovo, where we ended up, is more rolling, grassy even. The rock barely breaks the surface, and the summits look a lot more accessible for walkers.

The sun grazed the fringes of the brown hilltops as we followed the valley trail down in the shadow of the great Kosovan peak Marijash. The mountain ridges themselves were mostly clear of snow, but in the shade, hanging on in the cols and enclaves, we were going knee-deep.

Sometimes traversing slopes with potential long slides resulting from a misstep, sometimes trudging uphill as the sun warmed the upper layers. The land released from winter was quiet, with small birds darting between the trees and a fox scampering away from us at one point along a snow slope. On the crest of one of the ridges near the Roshkodol Pass, Dieter spotted a rectangular hole in the ground, proceeded by others; a former gun emplacement, with graffiti on a nearby sign from the UCK, the Kosovan Liberation Army.

The day was drawing in as we finally caught sight of our hillside guesthouse in Milishevc. As we came into view, a man stood up and started waving his arms. This turned out to be Zeki, the guardian, one of the friendliest people we met, owner of an equally friendly large white dog that had little concept of personal space.

We were the first to arrive, later joined by two Germans coming from the other direction. It turned out that Zeki never thought we’d make the distance that day, and had even messaged me suggesting we sleep in an abandoned hut on the route. ‘When the Albanian military tried to do what you have done, they failed,’ he beamed, offering us a warm room and beers.

The Rugova Gorge

The mountains come to an abrupt end on the eastern edge of the trail as it crosses the Rugova Gorge. From the gorge the road ekes its way in-between canyon and cliff, and enters the plains around the Kosovan town of Peja.

The day after our stay with Zeki, tired and footsore, we arrived at the potential accommodation in the gorge to be given an expensive dirty room, with ‘bits’ still floating in the toilet. Appalled, we exited as quickly as possible, and took a taxi down to Peja itself, festooned with liberation struggle statues, and fine bars, for a night in the lowlands.

Rugova gorge
The lush upper part of the Rugova gorge

Leaving the trail in this way required another taxi back up to re-join the route. Luckily for us our hosts at the hostel in Peja were two brothers who offered to take us back up to the route themselves, for a fraction of the price.

As we drove back up that morning, the gorge closing in and me desperately trying not to spill my coffee in the car, Egsan told us about life in Kosovo. It was prompted I suppose by our amazement at the mountains – in Western Europe we are so used to people having the means to explore the Alps, where walking is just the simplest and cheapest of myriad outdoor activities. Not so in Kosovo: ‘The average monthly wage is €300; and a good pair of boots costs €400.’

Egsan went on to explain, as we drove higher into the sunlit dawn, the fresh air of the forests streaming through the car windows: ‘There are no outdoor shops, and any kit has to be bought on the black market.’ He estimated that there were 10 people in the whole of Kosovo who came to climb these mountains in winter.

Political problems don’t help, and make it hard to travel. Greece still doesn’t recognise Kosovo as a country, and therefore doesn’t recognise the passport. But with an average hourly salary of less than €2, who can afford to travel?

After some spirited off-road driving in his city car, we arrived at a high farm, where our day’s walking would begin. Egsan seemed happy to be out of the urban environment, and glanced at the nearby fields before saying goodbye: ‘It smells like pig shit, but I like it!’

There are moments on every journey where you realise that the end is in sight, and time passes differently. The mountains of Kosovo passed by in a green sunlit blur, as we made our way back to the border with Montenegro. Giant white sheepdogs snarled at us, coffee was drunk as often as possible, and the weather began to close in again.

border ridge
On the border ridge heading back to Montenegro

The penultimate day of walking, reaching the highest point on the trail and again following one of the spectacular border ridges, was only infrequently a snow-trudge, and one gifted with fine mountain views.

Our final hut, at Babino Polje, back in Montenegro, was staffed by two very different personalities. A quiet Muslim chef, who cooked us the most incredible meal and then couldn’t eat it due to Ramadan, and his huge muscle-bound sidekick, who grunted a lot and served us the food like it was a threat.

Final day

On our final day Dieter chose to stay low-level, while I checked out the high-level route past what was described as a famous beauty spot at a high lake. I’m sure it is on other days, but with sheets of rain coming in over the mountains, mist that obscured any view, and a snowy boulder-field to hop over made me proceed with haste to Plav and the end of our journey. I suppose we learnt that most of the trail can also be done in bad weather, a good bit of knowledge for future groups.

Back on tarmac and walking into town I passed the police station where, just over a week before, we’d got our permits. You need three permits to do the trail, one from each countries’ police. Using a local agent it was seamless to organise, apart from getting the forms stamped, which we had to do on arrival, on a Sunday.

The border police station had been open, as hoped for, but it did make us feel slightly uneasy to be ushered into a hall decked out with two former bus seats and a gas burner, appearing to us innocents like a rudimentary torture chamber from a Bond film. Luckily the police chief, when he appeared, was very friendly, despite being dragged away from the local football game to stamp our permits.

It is often said of long-distance walking trails that each day offers something new. I’ve heard it said about so many different trails it’s become a cliché. But I don’t think anything quite compares to the Peaks of the Balkans trail when it comes to such stark changes in culture and history over such a small area.

To pass concrete bunkers that were in use in our lifetimes, and to travel through a mountain landscape in modern Europe that would be the perfect film set for the 19th century, it is hard to know sometimes whether we’re trespassing, or whether this is one of those areas where outdoor, active tourism can really help.

Certainly going by the hospitality and generosity of those people we met, I can only hope that the trail and the surrounding Peace Park go some way to preventing the conflicts and oppression of the past 100 years ever recurring.

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