Nov 17th, 2019

Mountain Highs

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Hiking in the Balkans

for The Observer

The views from Kosovo’s highest peak are incredible. Or so I’m told, anyway. It’s a tricky thing to confirm in blanket murk and howling winds. I’ve just leaned into a gale to reach the 2,656-metre summit of Mount Gjeravica, where a shabby concrete cairn displays a defaced plaque commemorating Kosovo’s first and only Olympic medallist. I mention the cairn and the plaque because they’re the only things I can see. All around, clouds rush and squalls blow. “Yesss!!” shouts the man next to me, holding onto his hat. “I love it!”

I’m partway through a new guided walking holiday in the Balkans. In truth, “walking” is understating things. Over five days of hiking, our group of 12 – mainly Munro-hardened Brits, with a smattering of unstintingly cheerful Americans – is making the expedition a busy one. We’re climbing the tallest mountains in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, leaving time too for a much-needed hearty meal or ten. It is a week for the robust of boot and the sturdy of thigh.

If it sounds quite full-on on paper, that’s because it’s quite full-on in practice. But there’s more to the itinerary than peak-bagging. The majority of the walking follows one continuous 33-mile trail through Albania’s northern borderlands, criss-crossing between countries with nary a hint of a passport check. And with bad visibility happily confined to Kosovo’s battered vertex, the week succeeds in showing why the region attracts outdoor-lovers. This is a thunderously beautiful pocket of Europe.

The hiking begins a few hours’ drive to the south, with an ascent of Albania’s highest point, the 2,751-metre Mount Korab. Functioning as an appetiser to the week’s main walk, the climb is a long, hot slog. The slopes are full of grasshoppers and buttercups. We pass only tough-faced, welly-booted shepherds. There are snow patches in the higher cols. At the summit, just to muddle the multi-country element further, the panorama reveals the cushion-soft valleys of western Macedonia.

The Korab walk takes most of the day. Radomire, the trailhead village where we start and end, is a cluster of minarets, cheap beer and unsealed roads. All its bathroom taps are left on round the clock, which baffles me until it’s explained that the plumbing wouldn’t cope with the pressure of being turned off. And like the water, we keep moving. By nightfall we’ve mini-bussed into Kosovo, ready(ish) to begin the hike proper.

“Welcome to the Accursed Mountains,” says our Albanian guide Ardit the next morning. He is young, knowledgeable and handsome: Matt Dillon with a history degree and a rucksack. “This is where the fun really starts.”

The range sounds like something from a Tintin book, and looks the part too: a roughshod Arcadia of limestone, with colossal blades of silver rock jagging above its meadows and tarns. It feels wilder than many of its Western European counterparts. Trekking here, I learn, is about drinking from mountain streams, waving farewell to phone reception and losing yourself in the slumbering beast-shapes of the hills. Four days stretch ahead.

Ardit leads, steering us along steep paths. We clamber onto a blustery ridge and struggle blind up the aforementioned Mount Gjeravica, then continue north. In early evening we crest a saddle in the hills and find ourselves back in Albania. A plateau opens up, washed in orange sun. Within 45 minutes we’re in a farmstead, being poured shots of homemade raki by a cowherd who won’t take no for an answer.

A mountain above the farm marks the point where the borders of Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro conjoin. The geopolitics of the region is made up of notoriously complex algebra, but as the days go by, the national borders – marked by little more than stone pillars and a few livestock droppings – become almost inconsequential. Our trail curls past daunting outcrops and silent, Yosemite-large valleys. There are whole hours when I lose track of which country we’re in.

The international delineations are sometimes more meaningful. One morning, having spent hours in cool beech woods, we emerge onto a dirt path that was once patrolled daily by communist-era border guards. Albanians attempting to cross, we’re told, were shot on sight. That afternoon we reach the top of Montenegro’s Zla Kolata, a 2,534-metre eyrie that affords a seismic 360˚ spread of gnarled turrets and eagle-flown passes.

We stay in basic mountain accommodation, many to each room, dog-tired. The walking is exhilarating but tough: Ibuprofen does the rounds. We eat enormous flatbreads, meaty soups and mounds of tomatoes. On our final night of hiking we camp on a high pasture, grilling sausages over flames and drinking red wine as fireflies blink in the gloaming. “This may be the hardest walk I’ve done,” reflects one veteran hiker, “but it’s some place.” Ardit smiles.

When we arrive into Valbona Valley at journey’s end, the sun is fierce overhead. Albanian flags flutter from village rooftops, flashes of red and black against the unforgiving grey of the hills. There is more to come from our trip – time in capital city Tirana and a sailing along Lake Koman, the latter an accidentally lovely product of a Chinese-built dam – but this is where we take our boots off.

It’s funny the memories that stay with you from a journey like this. Mighty horizons and forested slopes. Doorstops of sheep’s cheese for breakfast. And a tatty plaque, on top of a big mountain, adrift in a sea of Balkan peaks. I, for one, wouldn’t call the region accursed.

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