Experience PEAKS OF THE BALKANS TREK
A friend and I were return visitors to the southern Balkans and Adnan had guided us both on a visit last year in Peaks of the Balkans Trek. He and Gonxhe were very professional in the planning of this tour as we asked for some small alterations to the itinerary to suit us.
On my arrival in Prishtinë from Dubrovnik Adnan gave me a warm welcome at the bus station and took me to check in to my hotel. The next morning, while I got a haircut, he went out to the airport to meet our hiking buddy, Jill, off a flight from London. In the evening the three of us met up with Adnan’s business and life partner, Gonxhe, and we shared an enjoyable dinner together in town.
The next day, the first official one of the tour, consisted of a walking tour of Prishtinë, one of the world’s newest capital cities. The old town bazaar, past the parliament building, main city mosque, ethnographic museum, on to the university campus, Slobodan Milosevic’s abandoned and incomplete orthodox cathedral. The splendidly domed city library, art gallery and culminated with the Nënë Tereza Cathedral where we ascended the belltower for terrific views of the city.
Day two in Kosovo and we left Prishtinë after visiting the Bill Clinton statue on the way out, stopped at Ujëvara Drini Bardhë (waterfall), and Shpella Radocit (cave). We continued to Pejë and visited Pejë Patriarch monastery and then had a short via Ferrata and zipline experience before driving through Rrugovë Canyon to our overnight stop at the small village of Shtupeq.
The third day took us on a transfer to Kuçishtë to start hiking to Liqenat, past 2 lakes, through the conifer forest, over meadows carpeted with wildflowers. We stopped for lunch at Lugu i Shkodës, a pass below the imposing peak of Guri i Kuq (part of peaks of the Balkans trek). I performed a series of charades imitating people we had encountered last year and Adnan and Jill got them all correct I think. Hiking is meant to be fun as well as a bit of hard work. Then came a pleasant ridge walk following the rather uncertain border between Kosovo & Montenegro before descending very steeply to the Montenegrin village of Babino Polje.
Babino Polje, Plav, Montenegro
On the fourth day of our trek, we started with a gentle ascent from Babino Polje to the beautiful lake Hridsko Jezero. (The source of eternal youth according to locals, but only if you swim immersively in it). Then, on gently upward through pine forests and meadows of exuberant wildflowers.
After climbing steeply to and crossing a pass with stupendous views, we descended very sharply on a muddy path, then a road deeply scoured by a recent storm, towards Plav before Adnan's friend Esad met us and drove us to Vusanje/Vuthaj where the Moonlight Guesthouse dining terrace gave a sensational view up the valley. This friendly establishment provided an excellent dinner.
Our peaks of the Balkans trek continued the next day as Esad transferred us to Grbaja on a hot day and we made a gentle start through beech forest before a steep ascent to the peak of Valušnica and then another stiff climb to the summit of Talijanka (2057m a.s.l.), right on the border between Montenegro & Albania.
Grebaj - Lepushe
These peaks revealed one of the most stunning views I've seen, as quite close across a deep valley lies the magnificent Karanfili Massif, a jaw-dropping karst-like series of jagged peaks. As we crossed the border into Albania, a mainly gentle downhill trail led through grasslands and some forest to the village of Lepushë where we were to spend 2 nights.
Day six of the tour and on a fine cooler day we hiked from Lepushë village up through beech forest, then open meadows, heading towards Bordolec Pass. We stopped awhile for coffee and water refills at the stan of Lucia Nilaj from Vukel. We had a lovely long talk with her about her family, etc.
Once we attained the Berizhdol Ridge we could look back to Talijanka peak where we had hiked yesterday and see the Accursed Mountains above Thethi in the other direction. After walking along the ridge we descended towards Lepushë through beech forests on a trail liberally festooned with sweet, succulent wild strawberries.
During the descent, we stopped at another stan where four siblings aged 3 to 19 invited us in for coffee. They were holding the fort while their parents were out for the day tending livestock. In the evening after dinner, I sat with Adnan as he chatted with guiding colleagues (the two Saimirs) and three Belgian visitors, two of them ex-Albanians. They discussed the future of tourism in rural north Albania and its current rapid growth rate (at least I think that’s what they were saying!).
Meanwhile Peaks of the Balkans trekking
On the seventh day, we had a shorter trek after Adnan's friends Saimir and Aylin transferred us from Lepushë to Plav (back into Montenegro from Albania) where we wandered the lakeside, had a coffee break, and did some shopping. We left Aylin in Plav and Saimir joined us in another transfer to a spot near Hridsko Jezero. Saimir was dropped off at a trailhead along the way to hike back to Plav.
We met up with our horseman and hiked from there in cooler more overcast conditions to and around the base of Tre Kujfit (more of that shortly) and on down to the lovely alpine summer village (katun) of Dobërdol (back in Albania) part of Peaks of the Balkans trek. We settled into Bashkim's Guesthouse and after dinner Jill and I joined Adnan in the kitchen by the fire, talking to Bashkim and his hard-working, fun-loving wife Rudina.
It's the final hiking day of the tour and we left Dobërdol on a chilly morning and immediately climbed steeply to Tre Kujfit peak, the meeting point of the Montenegrin, Kosovan and Albanian borders (2366m a.s.l.). We took obligatory selfies with one of us in each country (in theory). We descended the Kosovo side with views down to the villages of Bogiće and Babino Polje and stopped for lunch at a stan in the small settlement of Dobroshit.
We hiked on through conifer forest to reach Sali e Rupës and rendezvous with our transfer. On this day Adnan changed the itinerary as he wisely judged that my fitness level coupled with a nagging Achilles pain may have made the ascent of Maja e Gjeravicës too difficult to manage. We then drove via Deçan and Gjakovë to the lovely city of Prizren, a relatively unknown gem of European tourism. After checking in to our nice hotel the three of us went out for an introductory walk taking in the busy square, Sinan Pasha mosque, and its bazaar, the evening passagiata, the buzzy bar, and the restaurant scene, and had dinner at a restaurant overhanging the Lumbardhi river.
Our Balkan Borderlnad trip officially ended here in Prizren. Local guide Veron Tara gave us a walking tour of the city, including the rebuilt stone bridge, the League of Prizren (a focal point of the Albanian nationalist movement against the Ottoman Empire), and the restored hamam that has been converted into a museum. In the early evening, Jill and I climbed up to the heavily restored kalaja (castle) that looms over the city. The views are quite breathtaking. The next day the three amigos took a transfer together to Tiranë whence we regretfully went our separate ways after a hugely enjoyable peaks of the Balkans trek filled with laughter, wonder, shared achievement, and friendship.
Auckland, New Zealand