1. PUBLISHED ONLINE:
    3 MARCH 2015
    WORDS:
    NATHANIEL HANDY
    PHOTOGRAPHY:
    PAUL CALVER
    • Gut-churning bends, goat tracks and Accursed mountains. We set off to find unseen Albania in a Discovery 4.

      Can you identify Albania on the map? Its location, halfway between Italy and Greece, might come as a shock.

      Pavlin Polia was born in the Theth Valley. Four months a year, it’s completely cut off by winter snows. “I love it here and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”, he says.

      He is a mountain man and it shows. Holds himself poker-straight, avoiding unnecessary movement. When you speak, he turns his head slowly towards you, but his eyes appear to look right through you. The unreadable Albanian stare – as though they are always keeping an eye on the mountain peaks beyond your head for signs of danger.

      Theth Valley

      Winter is a time of hibernation. Stores of four dwindle, dry-cured meat hangs from the kitchen ceiling and families gather together until the fire has burnt to embers, knowing that in all other corners, the deep chill of winter has penetrated every mattress, every pillow. It’s the time of year when wolves prowl around homes, seeking lambs or kid goats.

      Albania is a name that still draws blank stares from even the most seasoned travellers. While its neighbours Italy and Greece are familiar to the point of cliché, Albania is like a gap on the map of Europe.

      The hidden fertile world in the heart of what's also know as the Albanian Alps.

      The descent into Tirana International Airport gives the first glimpse of why this might be. Tirana sits on a dead fat coastal strip, but long before you land, your window is filled by a looming mass – marching ridges fading into the grey-blue distances of the Balkan interior. Albania is 77 per cent mountain in fact, and 100 per cent mountain in the mind.

      We pick up our Discovery 4 HSE in Tirana, and head north, following the coastal plain past smallholdings, bulbous haystacks and farmers bent to their toil with scythe in hand. Even on the outskirts of the capital – where one in every three Albanians now lives – the scene is one of self-sufficient market gardens.

      Left
      Right
      Our Discovery 4 HSE makes light work of our adventure in Albania

      This road is the main artery of the country, yet it only has two lanes. This fact is easily questioned on your first half hour out of Tirana, however, by the fact the very leisurely art of overtaking in Albania. To execute the manouevre, one merely pulls into the other lane and drives. One continues until faced with oncoming traffic. When that traffic is within a few metres of a head-on collision, one nudges comfortably back into the right-hand lane again. It appears suicidal, yet at the same time strangely calming.

      These roads were first laid under Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, and one of the many paranoia of his regime was a fear of imminent foreign invasion. Alongside over 700,000 concrete bunkers dotting the most remote mountain villages and heavily mined frontiers, he also chose to make the roads – especially the major roads – wiggly to prevent an enemy air force from landing on them.

      When we leave the northern city of Shkodra, we are also leaving behind ATMs, reliable electricity and all trace of medical facilities. We are still in Europe, but not as you know it. As we watch the thunderclouds boiling on the horizon, we wonder why the mountains filling the skyline are named the Accursed. We are about to find out.

      Suddenly, a small minibus lurches round the corner, swaying briefly over the abyss...

      The road leaves the asphalt abruptly next to an old Catholic church on the Kiri River gorge. It is almost like a final benediction before the ride ahead. As soon as we hit the rough rocks, the track begins to climb and the gorge narrows. The Discovery is in its element, making light work of sharp rocks. Soon we are high above the turquoise waters, and realising that this is a road only in name. More accurately, a ledge has been blasted out of the side of sheer cliffs that twist in and out of side valleys. The surface is either a cascade of loose rock or intact rock face.

      A few hours in, we are now deep in the Kiri gorge, far from civilization, and apparently alone. Suddenly, improbably, two outer bends away, a small minibus lurches round the corner, swaying briefly over the abyss as it eases over a larger boulder. Where on a road that is only just wide enough for a vehicle do you pass oncoming traffic? We do the only sensible thing in the circumstances, and squeeze hard against the mountain wall, our wheels and noses against the rock. The driver of the minibus smiles. Surely not, we murmur. Yes, he is going for it. With loose stones tumbling from his wheels into the gorge below, he shudders round us and away. We drive on in awed silence.

      OUR DISCOVERY TRAVERSES THE ACCURSED MOUNTAINS, WITH THE HELP OF TERRAIN RESPONSE TECHNOLOGY

      As we come to another gut-churning outer bend, we pass a forlorn shrine. We count the names in silence. Seven. About a minibus load. We turn our eyes quietly back to the road and ponder the good fortune of sitting in a capable Discovery 4.

      The road finally leaves the Kiri gorge in long, winding switchbacks high onto the karst limestone peaks of the Accursed Mountains. Our altitude dial rises over 1,000m, the rain turns to snow. As we approach the summit, the track disappears under virgin snow and we plough on in zigzags. Occasional breathtaking glimpses of the massive presence of the mountains around us reveal themselves through the cloud. It is an unsettling experience.

      The locals have various theories for the Accursed name – that it is the route the Turks invaded by, that a mother cursed them after her son married the wrong highland girl, but looking at them now through our windscreen, the name appears obvious enough. These are surely the craggiest, most menacing peaks the world has ever known, designed speciifcally as the lair of an arch villain, designed to be impenetrable.

      The Accursed mountains: surely the craggiest, most menacing peaks the world has ever known.

      The Theth valley is geographically astonishing. From the pass is revealed a fat-bottomed valley of remarkable fertility. After hours of windswept boulders, scarred mountainside and sheer gorge, it is an oasis, a hidden Shangri-La of Europe. The valley is long and thin, enclosed by walls of white limestone, with beech and pine clinging to its crevices.

      The only route in or out, save for goat tracks and the snowbound Qafa e Thores pass, is by the ledge along the Shala River gorge, where the river flows out of the valley. It is an extraordinary lost world. When it was discovered by Edith Durham, one of those irrepressible Edwardian travellers who set out to find the world, in 1908, she said simply: “No place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from the world.”

      Thanks to the legendary isolationism of the 20th-century Hoxha regime, not many irrepressible explorers have followed her since, and what we find matches her description to a tee. The mountains appear to contain and hold up the whole world and the canopy of sky above. The sun does not appear until long after it has risen elsewhere, and sets long before. It’s life on the very roof of the world.

      Left
      Right
      The Accursed Mountains are as striking as they are petrifying

      Our Discovery makes its way through the mist, and slowly we become aware of homesteads amid green terraces on precipitous slopes. No road leads to these homes. With steeply pitched roofs, these three-storey stone buildings appear like mini-fortresses. Their existence seems improbable.

      Here are the people of the Accursed Mountains, still living by their own rules – and what rules they are. This is a land that breeds men of heroic stature and key among them was Lekë Dukagjini. This 15th-century nobleman codified an ancient set of laws now known as the Kanun of Lek, which to this day govern the lives of Albanians.

      Long after nightfall, with the snow swirling in the yard, we reach the first homestead of the Theth valley. In a doorway illuminated by firelight a lady stands, arms outstretched. On her head is a pure white headscarf and over the starched embroidery of her blouse is wrapped a red-striped apron, its stripes denoting her married status.

      Lule Gjeçaj welcomes us inside, replacing our shoes with footwear she provides. She seats us around an open fire and offers homemade çaj mali – mountain tea infused with oregano. We compliment her on her complexion – a wide, high-cheekboned face of the smoothest 60-year- old skin we’ve ever seen – and she smiles and points to the çaj mali.

    • These mountains contain at least 3,200 native plant species, some 400 of which have medicinal qualities. While mountain dwellers swear by çaj mali as a cure for all minor ailments, they also use wild chamomile for indigestion or nervous disorders, St John’s wort for infections, sleeplessness or depression, and marshmallow infusions for coughs and upset stomachs.

      There is a self-sufficiency to this hidden world that is quite breathtaking.

      Add to these pure mountain spring water, an entirely homegrown diet and what must be the most unpolluted air in the world, and no wonder Lule is looking good. There is a self-suffciency to this hidden world that is quite breathtaking to those used to the realities of plucking their berries from low-hanging supermarket shelves.

      The words “no thank you, I am full” are not translatable into Albanian. Which is fine for the first three helpings of thick corn bread, borek (filo pastry filled with spinach and cheese) and a painstakingly layered pancake named fi. The trouble starts when the man of the house produces his homemade raki.

      It is written in the Kanun that the guest must be the first to stop drinking raki and to stop eating. If only I had the heart and stomach of a fighting elephant, I could get my host into real difficulties, but as it is, his steady gaze and even steadier hand warns me not to test his mettle in a head-to-head raki-off. Such hospitality is not merely a politeness – it’s an obligation.

      For an Albanian not to show a guest such courtesy would be a stain on their honour, and if there is one thing that binds this society together, it is the preservation of honour. The Kanun clearly states that, “the guest occupies the place of honour at the table, and is thereupon under the protection of the house”. To be under the protection of the house in Albania means a whole lot more than a nice cup of tea. It means going under the besa (protection) of the homeowner’s fis (extended family or clan).

    • The accretions of history rest lightly in a land where the only real law is that imposed by nature.

      To live in this high, wild vastness makes the realities of a snowstorm, an avalanche, a flash food or the death of a cow all the more visceral. All precious things, from your baby to your prize cow, carry colourful tassels, metal triangles or a sheath of red cloth. They ward off the syri i keq – the evil eye.

      Pavlin has one last view he wants us to see, from the top of the 1,770m Qafa e Thores. Working over up icy rocks, the track soon vanishes beneath a blanket of new snow. Our Discovery cuts deep tyre tracks until the snow banks on either side dwarf the vehicle. At last we hit a wall of white, the summit out of reach.

      Pavlin stares up at the clouds dragging like torn clothing on the airy peak and then turns his resolute mountain eyes upon us. “We walk,” he says, matter of factly. So we walk.

      The snow grows deeper as the gradient increases. With dusk descending, Pavlin indicates that we must avoid the switchbacks and head directly up the side of the mountain. He sets off, the snow rising to his waist. On hauling ourselves through the drifts onto the summit, the last rays of light illuminate the brooding peaks, home to Europe’s southernmost glaciers. Far off on the other side, a snowplough is attempting the impossible.

      Pavlin looks down at it. He allows himself a half smile. The magic of the Accursed Mountains is that they are not for day trips. Only those who really want to get here will make it. In the distance we can hear the low bass note of an engine in frst gear, working its steady progress up the mountain track towards us, getting in the only way you can, with perseverance and the desire to discover.

      We would like to thank Elizabeth Gowing, Political Tours and Land Rover Hungary. Each played a key role in our exploration of the Accursed Mountains.

  2. PUBLISHED ONLINE:
    3 MARCH 2015
    WORDS:
    NATHANIEL HANDY
    PHOTOGRAPHY:
    PAUL CALVER

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