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: Photos & Notes

Me and Steffi, l'Alp du Pied
Me and Steffi, l’Alp du Pied

A fab, fabfab week in the Southern Alps, on Exodus’ Transalpine Snowshoe Week (CAV), delivered by local operator France Outdoors.

The weather was weird, with the Beast from the East bringing significantly more snow than is normal for late February, but we still got out and about and had an amazing time – largely thanks to Yves Novel, our fantastic guide and accompagnateur en montagne.

My first time snowshoeing, but definitely not my last!

For photos, see my Transalpine Snowshoe Week, February/March 2018 album on Flickr or click through to see day-by-day photos in my detailed notes below.

Here’s a summary of what we did (or scroll down for the full story):

Friday 23 February 2018: Barbican rendezvous – London Gatwick

  • Overnight: Premier Inn, Gatwick North Terminal

Saturday 24 February 2018: London – Turin – Thures

  • am: Flight to Turin – Transfer to Thures
  • pm: Snowshoe fit out – Avalanche Rescue Training
  • Overnight: Rifugio La fontana del Thures

Sunday 25 February 2018: Thures: Below Cima del Bosco

  • Slopes below Cima del Bosco
  • Overnight: Rifugio La fontana del Thures

Monday 26 February 2018: Thures to Rifugio Capanna Mautino

  • am: Thures – Torronte Thuras – Pont de Rua – Grange Dalma – Peira Longa – Serra Brusa – Rifugio Capanna Mautino (aka the Mautino Hut)
  • pm: Costa Via Veccia loop
  • Overnight: Rifugio Capanna Mautino

Tuesday 27 February 2018: Rifugio Capanna Mautino Figure of Eight

  • am: Costa Via Veccia – Costa La Luna – Cima Saurel – Lago Saurel loop
  • pm: Col Begino
  • Overnight: Rifugio Capanna Mautino

Wednesday 28 February 2018: Rifugio Capanna Mautino (Italy) to Cervières (France)

  • Mautino Hut – Col Bousson – Le Bourget – Val Cerveyrette – Cervières
  • Overnight: Maison d’hôtes La Cerveyrette, Cervières

Thursday 01 March 2018: Cervières: Rochebrune Valley / Vallée du Blétonnet

  • Cervières – Le Laus – Bois du Laus – Le Blétonnet – Ravin des Oules – Le Blétonnet – Le Laus – Cervières
  • Overnight: Maison d’hôtes La Cerveyrette, Cervières

Friday 02 March 2018: Cervières: Vallée de l’Izoard & l’Alp du Pied

  • am: Le Laus – Bois des Loubatières – Izoard Pass Road (D902, 2000m) – Le Laus – Cervières
  • pm: l’Alp du Pied via Le Sautaire
  • Overnight: Maison d’hôtes La Cerveyrette, Cervières

Saturday 03 March 2018: Cervières – Turin – London

  • am: Cervières
  • pm: Cervières – Turin – London

And here’s the detail!

Friday 23 February 2018: Barbican rendezvous – London Gatwick (no photos)

Rendezvous at Ben Jonson House, with Steffi travelling over from Pembs and Dave coming down from Stourbridge. Hazel joined us for dinner of bangers and mash à la Phil, then it was off to Farringdon to catch the train to LGW.

Overnight at the Premier Inn, Gatwick North Terminal, so as to be bright eyed and bushy tailed for tomorrow’s 6.40am flight to Turin.

Saturday 24 February 2018: London – Turin – Thures (photos)

Steffi, Dave and I were more bleary eyed than bushy tailed when we convened in the Premier Inn’s reception at 4.45am, but thankfully we didn’t face anything more challenging than working out where to go for coffee after checking in. We were surrounded by lots of skiers – a very different crowd from Gatwick’s summer clientele.

A good flight, with sunrise as we took off from Gatwick and amazing views over the Alps as we descended towards Turin. But cloud and rain awaited at ground level, as did Yves, who shepherded his 12 showshoers-to-be onto a waiting minibus, bound for Thures. As the roads climbed up the Val di Susa, rain turned to sleet, which turned to snow. Grey skies overhead.

Our first base was the pretty village of Thures about 90 mins drive west from Turin. We stayed at the Rifigio fontana del Thures, a lovely old wooden farmhouse now run as an auberge. We settled into the two dorm rooms upstairs, then gathered in the dining room for lunch.

We spent our first afternoon getting to grips with snowshoes and poles on the meadows up valley from the village, and having avalanche rescue training with Yves. We carried avalanche transceivers, snow shovels and probes all the time we were out in the snow. Yves checked our transceivers each morning before we set out too.

Beer and nibbles around the table next to the log fire before a hearty dinner.

Sunday 25 February 2018: Thures: Below Cima del Bosco (photos)

Our first full day dawned snowy which meant the ascent of Cima del Bosco was restricted to the lower forested slopes. The trees shielded us from the snow and we had plenty of practice at uphill, downhill and breaking trail through the snow in a beautiful monochrome winter woodland setting.

Good food back at the Refugio, and another log fire.

Monday 26 February 2018: Thures – Rifugio Capanna Mautino (photos)

Next day brought the cold weather – -19°C first thing – and it was time to say farewell to our main bags, which trainee guide Ann transported onwards to Cervières, leaving us to carry essentials for the next couple of days/nights in our daypacks. You really don’t need much.

Then we were off – straight down to the Torronte Thuras, crossing the river via a frozen weir and then ascending straight back up the other, steep, side and continuing along a forest road. At Pont de Rua, we turned onto a trail through the trees, way marked initially and then DIY zigzagging up to the ruins of Grange Dalma (?), where we paused for a snack and photos. Then on into the Narnia forest and across the plateau via Peira Longa and Serra Brusa.

The sun finally forced its way through the snowy skies adding extra sparkle to the snow laden pine forest as we neared Rifugio Capanna Mautino, the mountain hut which was our base for the next 2 nights. Wood panelled, with its window lined dining room soaking up the sun and stoves pumping out heat, it is not a million miles away from a Nepalese tea house.

After polishing off the remains of our picnic lunch, it was decision time: some of the group opted for R&R in the hut (incentivised we learned later by the lure of Italian style hot choc, coffee & cake – and vin brûlé!), while the rest of us headed back out into the snow and spent a fantastic afternoon snowshoeing the Costa Via Veccia hills above the hut.

Under miraculously blue skies, we each had a go at breaking trail (after which we marvelled at how Yves managed to do that so effortlessly, day after day), got super views and had our first go at tobogganing, AKA sliding down the tree-free steep bits. Waterproof trousers definitely delivered the best results….

Back at the hut we celebrated the day’s sun and fun with a carafe or two of red wine. Clambering up into and out of my top bunk that night was to prove challenging!

Tuesday 27 February 2018: Mautino Hut Figure of Eight (photos)

The day dawned clear but cold: -25°C. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that cold. It was dry though, so it didn’t feel cold, especially in the sun.  In exchange we had beautiful blue skies and pristine white snow as far as the eye could see …. (almost) all day …. Just magic.

Tuesday was a real highlight for me – a long morning’s walk up to Cima Saurel (2451 m) and looping back to the hut for lunch, and then out again to go down from the hut and then up to reach the Col Begino (2331 m) just in time to catch the views before the skies turned grey.

We started our morning by retracing our steps up and across the Costa Via Veccia. Pine trees sparkling white, some with delicate ‘catkins’ of snow, gave way to the tree-free terrain of the Costa La Luna.

Steep slopes and hard snow meant we had to space ourselves out on the way up to Cima Saurel, giving plenty of time to soak up the sun and the fabulous, fabulous views , perched on the border between Italy and France – Cima Fournier (2425 m), Col Begino (2328 m) and Monte Corbioun / Mont Courbion (2430 m) across the valley, followed by Monte Giassiez (2588 m), Cima Dorlier (2758 m) and Dormillouse (2908 m) and occasional glimpses of Roc de Boucher (3285 m) beyond, with Pic de Rochebrune (3320 m) dominating the scenery ahead and clear views back down the Alta Val di Susa towards Bousson.

From the Cima Saurel we dropped down to the col, going most of the way on a mammoth DIY toboggan run – BRILLIANT! – and on down to Lago Saurel, hidden deep under snow and ice.

Back at the hut we found an Italian army group on winter exercise, and a pasta lunch.

Refuelled, some of us headed back out again for an afternoon snowshoe – dropping 100m down the slope below the hut to Grange Servierettes and the cappella di Madonna del Lago Nero, skirting the sleeping Lago Nero before climbing 300m back up over the Peira Roia to the Col Begino, where we caught our first glimpses of chamois high on the rocks of Monte Corbioun / Mont Courbion above.

Back to the Rifugio Capanna Mautino for not quite such a boozy night. A memorable, magical day.

Wednesday 28 February 2018: Rifugio Capanna Mautino (Italy) – Cervières (France) (photos)

Wednesday was chilly again, with the thermometer showing -24°C first thing…

Saying au revoir to the Mautino Hut we set off for Cervières, crossing the Col de Bousson and the border into France en route.

The day started off lovely with great views of Cima Saurel and Pic de Rochebrune, but then the snow clouds clustered and the wind picked up and it was FREEZING. The couple of hours we spent walking along the Val Cerveyrette from the summer village of Le Bourget to Cervières the hardest part of the trip by a long way, largely due to the wind.

We were all very glad to reach the Maison d’hôtes La Cerveyrette, in the middle of the old village of Cervières. Another converted farmhouse, it was our base for the rest of the trip.

A warm welcome from our hosts, Stef and Julien, was matched by that of the old cellar where radiators were on full blast – as were the filter coffee machine and kettle. The warmth, and the rest of our picnic lunch, perked everyone up and we had the rest of the afternoon free to explore. Most of us found our way to Cervières’ sole hostelry, the Hôtel d’Izoard, for a vin chaud or two before dinner.

It snowed pretty much 24/7 for all of our time in France.

Thursday 01 March 2018: Cervières: Rochebrune Valley / Vallée du Blétonnet (photos)

The view from our windows on Thursday morning was of snow whirling around the village. We couldn’t even see the sky, but I’d bet it was dark grey and full of more snow.

Setting off into the snow, and the wind, we put our trust in Yves’ assurances that we’d be spending the day in one of the sheltered valleys leading off south of Cervières.

And so it was. Almost as soon as we left the village we were out of the wind that hurled the length of the Val Cerveyrette and it was an easy walk to the village of Le Laus where the valleys of the Rochebrune / BlétonnetLes Oules, and the Izoard / Bois des Loubatières meet.

Turning south east into the forest we headed first for Le Blétonnet, where the roof of the tiny chapel was piled high with snow, and then deeper into the Bois du Laus for lots of off piste fun – wading through snow and crossing streams, not all of which came with any sort of bridge…..

Back via Le Blétonnet to Le Laus, where we called in at the Auberge l’Arpelin for coffee / hot chocolate / vin chaud before snowshoeing back to base.

It did snow all day mind you.

Still, we celebrated St David’s Day in style – presenting Dave with his daffodil costume before dinner. Sorry, no photos….

Friday 02 March 2018: Cervières: Vallée de l’Izoard & l’Alp du Pied (photos)

On Friday morning Yves-le-Taxi provided a shuttle service to drive us to Le Laus, and from there we headed off into the Bois des Loubatières and up the Izoard Pass Road (D902) to about 2000m before persistent snow forced us to turn back without reaching the Col d’Izoard.

Revived by hot drinks and snacks back at the Auberge l’Arpelin, and with the skies surprisingly starting to clear for the first time in days, most of us opted to walk the 1.5km from Le Laus back to Cervières.

The week ended on a high note as the afternoon’s clear skies meant we could climb up into the hills above Cervières, where the summer meadows and high plateaux of Le Sautaire and l’Alp du Pied afforded super late afternoon views of Lasseron and the peaks beyond Le Laus ….

… plus a couple of last goes at tobogganing downhill.

You can never have too much of either.

Saturday 03 March 2018: Cervières – Turin – London (no photos)

Yves had headed off to meet his next group last night, so we had the morning to entertain ourselves until our minibus reappeared a little before 2pm.

Snowfall had resumed, so the plan to snowshoe to Le Laus for an early lunch back at l’Arpelin was put on hold. Some folks headed over to the Hôtel d’Izoard instead; snug in the cellar, I caught up with my diary.

Thankfully not much sign of snow once we were out of the mountains and driving towards Turin, and our flight back to Gatwick was only delayed by an hour, mainly due to the need to de-ice the plane each time it landed.

Train to Clapham Junction, and a walk along the mucky gritted pavements to Hazel’s for cheese, wine, chat and bed.

Sunday 04 March 2018: London (SW11) – London (EC2Y) (no photos)

On Sunday, having seen Dave and Steffi safely start their journeys home, I caught the 344 bus back towards the Barbican and spent the afternoon downloading photos and making a start on my Snowshoeing in Italy / France: We’re Back! blogpost.

Overall, a wonderful trip and I am already planning a return to the Southern Alps for more snowshoeing this time next year, possibly booking direct with France Outdoors.