Walking in Northern Albania: We’re back!

Well, we survived Northern Albania’s Accursed Mountains, although lingering – and unexpected for us – snow patches made life a little ‘exciting’ at times.

Snow ledge crossing on the approach to the Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018)
Snow ledge crossing on the approach to the Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018) … what you can’t see is the steep drop below the snow just went on, and on, and on.

We walked through wonderful wildflower meadows – buttercups and daisies, vetch and valerian, orchids and lilies, gentians and geraniums, campion and columbine and many, many more. Beautiful both to see, and to smell as we strolled through patches of sage and mint, chamomile and marjoram. Wild strawberries lined the path in places, and butterflies and moths fluttered by.

Undulating forests full of ancient beech and oak, lime and chestnut, rowan and pine, provided cover for us from the sun, and protection for giant snails and one spooked salamander.

Wildflower meadow, and the Accursed Mountains (Prokletije / Albanian Alps) above. En route to Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018)
Wildflower meadow, and the Accursed Mountains (Prokletije / Albanian Alps) above. En route to Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018)

Our days also featured crystal clear mountain streams, freezing cold turquoise pools, river crossings, waterfalls and gorges; and a three hour cruise up Lake Koman, a resvervoir in one of the Drin River’s many gorges, to reach the Albanian Highlands.

Cold water, shade and cool breezes were always welcome as it was hot and sticky most days, with a regular afternoon downpour around 2-3pm. Bledi, our excellent local guide, and Max, our Wild Frontiers group leader ensured early starts to avoid the rain, and the heat. They also took great care of us on those trickier sections of the trail, and numerous river crossings – most were plank bridges, but not all.

Walks ranged from a 7km stroll around the cultural sights, waterfalls and waterways of Thethi to the 1300 m ascent up to the Qafa e Thorës / Thore Pass.

Me, cooling off at Ujëvara e Grunasit / Grunas waterfall / Thethi waterfall, Albania (June 2018)
Me, cooling off at Ujëvara e Grunasit / Grunas waterfall / Thethi waterfall, Albania (June 2018)

Alpine chalet-style guesthouses in Valbonë and Thethi provided comfy beds and en suite bathrooms. Our last night’s accommodation at the aptly named Hotel Panorama in Krujë came with this super view of the old town, bazaar and castle.

Krujë old town, bazaar and castle, from the Hotel Panorama, Albania (June 2018)
Krujë old town, bazaar and castle, from the Hotel Panorama, Albania (June 2018)

Tomato, cucumber and feta cheese were staple foods for breakfast and lunch, together with boiled eggs, local bread and jams, and occasionally honey and tasty fried pancakes. To drink, gallons of water, thimblefuls of Turkish coffee and glasses of mountain tea during the day, beer and wine available with dinners which ranged from myriad mezzes to four course meals.

Best treat of the trip – afternoon tea at Bledi’s parent’s place, complete with jugs of mountain tea and scrumptious orange and walnut cake made by his aunt. Although cold beers and crisps on the balcony of our Hotel Panorama room in Krujë came a very close second.

All in all, a great way to spend a week (cheap too!), and I’ve added Albania to my list of places to return to (soon).

Walking in Northern Albania: Counting Down

Skanderbeg

A month or so to go before we set off on Wild Frontiers’ recce trip, Walking in Northern Albania – Into The Accursed Mountains, and this has popped up in my Twitter feed:

Two Skanderbeg snippets I learned from Karen Murdarasi’s article were that he was born, in 1405, in Krujë – where we spend out our last night, and that he

“…left his homeland at the age of nine for Adrianople (Edirne, in modern Turkey), where he was converted to Islam from Christianity and given a new name: Alexander, or in Turkish, Iskander. He was trained in the art of war and granted the title bey (lord or chieftain) and so the warrior ‘Skanderbeg’ came into being.”

Thelma

A few weeks ago Thelma-from-my-WF-Pakistan-Trip booked the last remaining place on the tour and is joining Hazel and me on our whistlestop pre-tour night and morning in Tirana – home to Skanderbeg Square – so I’ve changed our Villa Tafaj reservation to a triple room.

Weather

It’s a little early for looking at weather forecasts, but here they are on Yr:

I’ve raved before about Yr.no, the weather forecasting website from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.  Yr’s coverage of Albania is no less amazing.

Reading

Looking for books to read about Albania has led me down a couple of interweb rabbit holes. Join me in exploring the lives and works of:

ElsieRobert06.201003.jpg
Robert Elsie

Robert Elsie (1950- 2017): writer, translator, interpreter and specialist in Albanian studies.

His marvellous website – http://www.elsie.de/ – houses a wealth of material relating to Albanian art, history, language, literature and photography, which led me to….

 

Edith Durham.jpg
Edith Durham

Edith Durham  (1863 – 1944): an English artist and anthropologist, who travelled and worked in Albania between 1900 and 1914; Nicknamed the Queen of the Highland Peoples by the Albanians of the Northern Alps.

The Photo Collection of Edith Durham (on Robert Elsie’s website)

Albania’s Mountain Queen: Edith Durham and the Balkans by Marcus Tanner, book review (Anna Aslanyan, The Independent, 12 June 2014)

I read Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains: Journeys In Albania in 2010, and struggled through Ismail Kadare’s The Accident (translated by John Hodgson), and so based on Planning your own reading journey? on Around the World in 80 Books, I’m going to track down the following in the library – Albania: The Search for the Eagle’s Song by June Emerson and Ismail Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge and Agamemnon’s Daughter.

And to round everything off, I’ve just ordered Edith Durham’s High Albania and Lloyd Jones’s travelogue Biografi from AbeBooks.

Packing

I’m flying hand baggage only, so I’ll have to be ruthless. Time to start piling up the potential packing on the spare bed….

Albania - the packing commences

Everest Trek Get Together No 12

A magic weekend in Pembrokeshire with a trip to Skomer for the long awaited Project Puffin!

Friday

The usual: Hazel, Charles and I met at Paddington at 3pm. Paddington to Newport by train. Newport to Steffi’s with Dave – and Gwyneth. LARGE G&Ts courtesy of Maurice and curries à la Steffi at Mayhem, then on to Newgale for a night in the caravan.

Saturday

An early start (7am) to allow time for coffee and croissants before Dave drove us over to Martin’s Haven, arriving there at 9.30am and getting tickets for the 10am ferry to Skomer, the first of the day.

A gloomy, grey morning. Our main hope was to avoid rain.

A smooth crossing, with puffins skimming low over the water to join the rafts that floated just off the Skomer coastline. We had a great briefing from one of the wardens at the top of the steps up from the jetty at North Haven, and then we were free to explore until our 3pm return to the mainland. The volunteer wardens have a job getting people up the steps – not because they are tricky, but because there are puffins and razorbills almost within reach all the way up, and certainly within camera range….

We decided to follow the coastal footpath clockwise around Skomer – and within our first half hour on the island the morning started to brighten. We spent the rest of the day there in glorious sunshine, getting hundreds of photos of puffins, mainly at High Cliff and The Wick (including the Lonely White Puffin), and seals up at Garland Stone.

Puffins, The Wick, Skomer
Puffins, The Wick, Skomer
Puffin, The Wick, Skomer
Puffin, The Wick, Skomer
Puffin pair at The Wick, Skomer
Puffin pair at The Wick, Skomer
Puffins, North Haven, Skomer
Puffins, North Haven, Skomer

(For more puffin photos, take a look at my Flickr album: Pembrokeshire, April 2018)

We picnicked at Old Farm, and returned for our 3pm boat back to the mainland via the ruins of the Iron Age house that nestle below the rocks of the South Plateau, the High Cliff puffins and the megalith at Harold Stone.

Steffi, Hazel, Charles, Dave and Gwyneth on the rock outcrop above Harold Stone Skomer
Steffi, Hazel, Charles, Dave and Gwyneth on the rock outcrop above Harold Stone, Skomer

Excellent tea / coffee / cake at the Clock House Cafe in Marloes, and an afternoon pint at the Druidstone Inn, soaking up the sun and the view out over St Brides Bay. Fabulous.

An evening of wine, crisps, veggie spag bol, bread and cheese back at the caravan.

A superb day.

Sunday

Rain. Lots of rain. So no walk on the beach or in the woods back at Steffi’s.

Instead, a brief sojourn in Haverfordwest to tour the Aisles of Lidl and the Aisles of Aldi, then back to Mayhem for one of Maurice’s Marvellous Sunday lunches: pulled beef, a giant yorkshire pudding (veggie toad in the hole for me), gravy, creamed leeks, roast potatoes and sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, broccoli, green beans, peas and broad beans. With cherry bakewell tart and ice cream to follow.

Another slap up Sunday lunch from the marvellous Maurice
Another slap up Sunday lunch from the marvellous Maurice

Not surprisingly we three in the back seat snoozed for most of the drive back to Newport….

Home around 8.45pm after a slow journey back to London with GWR.

Snowshoeing in Italy / France: We’re back!

Back to London after a fab week snowshoeing in the Southern Alps where we had a *lot* of snow and Arctic conditions ….. and although this meant we didn’t get all the advertised views and snow conditions curtailed our routes somewhat, you don’t miss what you don’t know.

First day out in the snow - under Cima del Bosco
First day out in the snow – under Cima del Bosco

We still got out and about and had an amazing time – ploughing our way through larch forests knee deep in snow, being dazzled by the pristine white landscape of the peaks and plateaus and the sparkling alpine scenery, tobogganing down hillsides and crossing sunken streams.

Costa Via Veccia, above Rifugio Capanna Mautino
Costa Via Veccia, above Rifugio Capanna Mautino

The day we spent on a figure of eight around the Rifugio Capanna Mautino was just magical – Costa Via Vecchia, Costa la Luna and Cima Saurel in the morning, and up to the Col Begino in the afternoon.

Morning view from the Costa Via Vecchia
Morning view from the Costa Via Vecchia
Tobogganing down the slopes below the Cima Saurel
Tobogganing down the slopes below the Cima Saurel
Me and Steffi at the Col Begino
Me and Steffi at the Col Begino

We got lots of avalanche / snow assessment training too from Yves, our fantastic guide and accompagnateur en montagne. Amazingly knowledgeable and great company too – he really made the trip.

Thankfully not much sign of snow once we were out of the mountains and driving back towards Turin at the end of the week, and back in my bit of Blighty the snow has all gone – missing out on The Beast from the East feels a bit like being out of the country when Princess Di died.

So, all in all, a really great trip – I am planning to find another snowshoe holiday for next Feb. Hopefully that won’t mean we all get Arctic weather again….

And despite the cold (-25°C one morning at the Mautino Hut, -24°C the next) I didn’t need to use Hazel’s down jacket. It turns out dry cold is very different from the damp version we’re more familiar with! I have to say that I was very pleased to have my Mountain Equipment mittens (wool fleece lined and waterproof – VIP given how many times I fell over in the snow and needed to do a downward dog to get upright again) and my Rab gaiters (Latok Alpine) with me though. I wore both bits of kit daily. My standard outfit was Uniqlo Heattech base layer, Uniqlo fleece zip up jacket, Goretex jacket (wind and waterproof), Gelert walking trousers, Kathmandu “Mammut” waterpoof trousers, plus gaiters, with a fleece hat, mittens and buff completing as needed.

Here are some photos to whet the appetite: more to follow once I do the Photos & Notes [<– now done!].