This is the tale of six enthusiastic foreign ladies... one cheerful Albanian guide... a cautious driver and an Albanian Furgon (minibus).
We departed Tirana at the crack of dawn (6 AM) on Tuesday morning, just as the sun was rising over Mount Dajti. Bleary eyed, but eager to be on our adventure, we chose our seats and settled down for the ride through the city. Who knew that at 6 AM there were people up and on their way to important business? We drove with ease out of the city and made our way to the cutoff just before Shkodra, direction Puka and beyond.
At close to 9 AM we made our first stop for coffee and a bit of cake at a lovely restaurant on the edge of a lake. Mist was still rising from the chilly water but the air was quickly warming up. It was a beautiful morning, holding promises of an unforgetable day.
By 10:30 we were in the line-up for the big event of the day- our 2 hour ferry ride through the spectacular Albanian Alps. Touted by the Bradt Travel Guide as a "world-class journey through outstanding fjord-like scenery", and "one of the world's classic boat-trips, up there with the Hurtigrut up the Norwegian coast or the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chile". How's that for a recommendation?? It's a trip I'd been wanting to make since I arrived in Albania more than 3 years ago. Finally we were on the boat and we scrambled up to the top deck and choose our seats near the front. The ride through the fjords was spectacular! Steep rocky cliffs, tree covered slopes, isolated ancient homes perched on the mountains, and water so blue-green that it hardly looked real. Two hours flew by and I really didn't want it to be over. But over it was.
We drove off the ferry and flew through the town of Bajram Curri, once noted for its lawlessness and criminality. It seemed perfectly safe to us, but we didn't stop. We still had a lot of road to cover before dark. Now came the best part of the drive- several hours of bumpy, winding, often unpaved road beside one of the most incredibly beautiful rivers I've ever seen- the Valbona. Thousands of years ago it must have been a deep, raging river, but now it is relatively low, though still powerful. Ancient boulders, now exposed, have been worn silky smooth and white. The sparkling clear water winds its way around the massive fallen rocks, creating eddies and waterfalls, causing all of us to yell "stop" so frequently that the driver eventually doesn't have to be told when to let us all out for a photo opportunity.
Everything went smoothly until we came face to face with an enormous boulder recently fallen from the side of the excavated slopes. Our jaw dropped and I think for a moment we all felt a huge sense of disappointment. Would we have to turn back now after such a fabulous journey? No way. We gathered our faith and mustered all the strength our bodies held, but that rock just wouldn't be moved. Don't let anyone tell you that if you have enough faith you can move a mountain. It didn't work! So then we drove around it. Yep. The minibus tipped precariously to one side, but made it! Once again we were on our way.
Another stop at the very picturesque village of Dragobi, where we met two enchanting brothers munching on fresh chestnuts. They tried very hard to charm us out of one of our digital cameras, but in the end they happily settled on my large bar of chocolate.
By 4 PM we arrived in a village just before Valbona, not far from the border with Montenegro and Kosovo. When I think of heaven, I'll always think of this special part of Albania. What can I say? Pure paradise- air as fresh as any I've ever breathed- abundant pastures full of all the good things the earth provides- and people warm, friendly, resilient. Pure Bliss.
We dropped our bags beside our bunkbeds, grabbed our cameras, and went out exploring. Here is where you find lives almost untouched by the world. A chopped off tree stump served as a cutting board. A handsewn bag held warm, fresh milk as it slowly turned into yogurt. Family gravestones were fenced off in the midst of the cornfield. Laundry carefully hung on primitive fences. This is life as it once was in the west many years ago.
We dined like queens in the local restaurant. Soup- salad- fresh lamb- and many glasses of Raki (to keep us warm of course!) and then off to bed, where we all dreamt about the glorious day we'd just experienced.
Heaven certainly can't be any better.
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