Walking from Valbona to Thethi in north-eastern Albania

 

Qafa e Valbones

The final challenge to the Qafa e Valbones

Two attempts at the walk between Valbona and Thethi in north-eastern Albania and still don’t make it. The reasons why not and perhaps the reasons why the next time.

It’s now official – I’m a failure. In fact, a failure twice over. One of the set plans I had before coming out here was to do a circular route in the mountains of north Albania. This would have involved various forms of getting from A to B, including a boat trip, a couple of furgon (minibus) trips and, crucially, a stretch where I would have to do all the hard work and climb up, and back down, a mountain.

That’s was the part where there was no alternative way other than foot and by failing to achieve that goal was unable to complete the circuit.

This was all intended to take place in the valleys of Valbona and Thethi in the north-east of the country, areas very close to the border with Montenegro. I had been to this area before and knew, more or less, what to expect but the challenge became too great.

The hills and mountains in this area are incredibly beautiful and especially so at this time of year as the shades of green change to shades of red, gold and brown. This area is dominated by beech trees but there are also varieties of pines and conifers as well as many plants new to me. There are supposed to more than 3000 types of plant that grow in Albania, some of them being unique to the country. This is understandable as you travel around and see the changes in the terrain, ranging as it does from Mediterranean beaches to high, stark, snow bound peaks.

It was through the latter I would have to walk in order to get from the small village of Valbona to the even smaller village of Thethi. This would entail a walk of about 14 kilometres, a climb of 815m and a descent of 1000m (starting from a point at just under a 1000m high) so altitude starts to play a part.

My problems started the day I arrived. Incorrect information about furgon departure times meant that I decided to hitch. That has mixed fortunes in Albania which I want to write about later but suffice to say that I ended up getting a lift which I had to pay for, not a lot but thought it better to get to Valbona (thinking I’d missed the minibus) rather than be stranded in Barjam Currie – which is not the most exciting place in the country.

If I had taken the furgon (which left at 16.00 when I was told 14.00) I would have arrived at the literal end of the road and the beginning of the path over the mountains. As it was I was dropped off at a place that was as far as it was possible to be from the trail head. If only I knew then what I know now. There was no problem with the place I stayed in, apart from the fact that after arriving there, a guest house which operates like the British B+B, I was unable to communicate with the old Albanian woman who prepared my meals. So I left the next morning with the intention of going to Thethi not really sure from where I was starting.

This meant a long road walk, which was easy in that the climb was reasonably gentle, and it was cool as even thought the sun was up, and it would get hot later, the high mountains meant that the sun only really shone in the valley from late morning to early afternoon. But it was long, about 8 kilometres. So I ended up walking for the best part of two hours before even starting the off-road trek.

(If anyone reading this considers doing this walk make sure to arrange a lift of some kind to the end of the mettled road if you stay in any of the guest houses that are spread out over a long distance along the valley.)

The next problem was finding the beginning of the route. Now in all the years I’ve been walking one of the matters I’ve never been able to understand is why waymarks are so badly placed at the beginning of a route. I don’t know if this intentional – there’s a growing business in guided walks in the area and I’ve been in some areas where local guides don’t like waymarking as it allows for independent travel – but where it was needed it was lacking. And if you get it wrong at the beginning life becomes difficult.

I asked a local who could speak English and he pointed up the dry river bed and said ‘There’. Where? I thought but didn’t say. The outcome of this was that I spent more time than necessary trying to pick up the marked route as I wasn’t going to start climbing 800m if I wasn’t on the correct path. The result was more time wasted and more energy used up. (I’ll be writing a separate post describing the beginning and what I did of this walk, with the intention of giving a clear indication of what a walker could expect in making this trip.)

And that started to take its toll within an hour or so. I debated aborting until the next day but kept on putting off the decision until I had reached a coll at just over 1400m high. At that point I decided that I just didn’t have the energy necessary to make the final 400m and then get down the other side, on terrain I did not know. So retreated down the track where I did know what to expect and got back to the bar/hotel at the trail head.

Why the first failure? Getting old and not accepting it? A little bit. Not as fit as I thought I was? A contributory factor. But ended up deciding that the reason was the extra, but ultimately pointless, waste of time and energy before I had even started to make the big climb and the fact that the day before a not inconsiderable amount of alcohol had been placed on the table in front of me.

Next day would be different. I knew where the it started and was at the beginning of the real walk. Tomorrow I would get to Thethi.

But I didn’t. I got higher, to just under 1600m, but still about 250m short of the Qafa e Valbones, the highest point on the path. When I saw what that entailed I just lost heart and it wasn’t long before I was again in retreat.

I wasn’t going to try a third time this year as I sensed that the weather was starting to change at the top and although I had two almost perfect days for walking I thought I might be pushing it to expect the same on the third day.

I also thought I knew why I had failed twice. Some of the earlier reasons still had some resonance but now added another, my bag was too heavy. Looking up at the cliff face I had to climb (the photo at the top of the post shows the coll towards the right of the picture) I was sure that I could have got up it, but not with the weight I was carrying.

The trouble was technology. I had pared things down to a minimum with what I thought I would need in the event of the weather turning quickly against me but my camera and computer were just too much. A computer? Yes, a small laptop. So why was I climbing up a mountain with a computer. I could give reasons but they would only sound like lame excuses. Surely only an idiot goes up a mountain carrying a computer. So probably the real reason I didn’t make the round trip to Thethi was idiocy.

Did I bottle out too soon? Probably – I could have just tried to take it very, very steady. Could I have made it with a little bit more will power? Possibly. Do I regret not making it? No, not at all. Don’t need to prove anything to myself or anyone else and saw no reason to do something that was ceasing to be a pleasure and becoming a chore.

Knowing what I know now I’ll do it next year.

Four days of Els Tres Monts

 

Monestir de Sant Llorenc del Munt i lÓbac

Els tres monts long distance walk starts in the village of Montseny and over a (suggested) period of six days arrives at the mountain top Monastery of Montserrat, 110 kilometres away. On the way you pass through a varied countryside and after some steep climbs you arrive at other sanctuaries seemingly stuck on to hill tops, offering views of the natural parks and as far as the Pyrenees.

I finally managed to complete 4 of the six stages in the walk from Montseny and Montserrat. (Stage 5 would have been a long day, with quite a considerable change in height, but stage 6 is just a steady hike up to the Monastery from the valley below.) But I don’t consider the exercise a failure.

On the contrary it was a worthwhile experience and was a walk in some very impressive countryside.

I’ve mentioned before that when you look at these hills you wouldn’t think there are any paths at all but the opposite is the truth, there are so many paths that it can, at times, make route finding difficult.

There’s also a mixture of terrain.

For an hour or two you can be happily walking along a wide, drivable track and the next you are faced with a steep, rugged, seemingly never-ending, climb which takes all your reserves and shocks the heart into working at full blast. No doubt one day it will have enough and pack in. After feeling relaxed and moving quite quickly along the flat the climb, even though you know it’s coming, is still a shock.

Walking along the tracks you clock up the kilometres (after all we are supposed to be in Europe) but on every day of the four any height is gained in a very short distance and although not on all fours or in any way climbing, there is a certain of scrambling involved to pull yourself up the steep slopes.

And during these climbs the ground under foot changes. This whole area was once under the sea and is made up with the conglomerate that looks like it has been man-made. Rocks and pebbles seem as if they have been set in concrete but time and the weather breaks this down and these individual stones once again have a life of their own, separate from the great land mass.

This, potentially, makes for a dangerous scenario. It’s very easy to fall into a false sense of security on the tracks and then lose concentration and go over on an ankle. (I think all the, small, number of accidents I had to deal with when leading groups in the hills and mountains were on such terrain.)

Here the problem is exacerbated on the final stages of the downward stretch coming into the village at the end of the day. These are often wide and very steep and the small stones are like walking on marbles and this puts a strain on the body as you’ re quite tired and the muscles are starting to scream out that enough is enough.

But after the effort of the steep climb it was always worth it. Once the blue sky is seen through the trees ahead you know you’re getting close to the top (although it always takes a bit longer to reach than first expected!). Maybe in a lather of sweat, maybe the legs a bit wobbly from taking the strain of such an incline (and with a bit of two steps forward, one step back), and maybe wondering if the heart will regain its normal rhythm but as always in the mountains that all comes with a sense of achievement.

After the steep climb on the first day the next stage was on a relatively flat plateau. Earlier in the day it had looked ominous up here from down below in Montseny but when I arrived it was perfect, weather wise that is. The sun was shining and the sky was blue and there was a strong breeze blowing which took away some of the harshness of the afternoon heat but at the same time made for pleasant walking conditions. On this plateau (known as La Calma) I’m sure this wind is blowing much of the time but wouldn’t like to be there when it might be coming from the direction of the snow-capped Pyrenees in the early spring.

After the steepest and highest climb (on day 4) there was an optional diversion off the route of 8km (four there and four back). Well it wasn’t really an option as after making all the effort to get there it would have been foolish NOT to have made it, unless the weather was so atrocious it would have been foolish to stay up so high for any longer than necessary.

Anyway, that diversion (which added 2 hours to the walk) was mainly along tracks which were shaded by the holm oaks which predominate in the area. Yes there was some dropping down and then a bit of steep final stage to get to the goal, the Monastery of Sant Llorenç del Munt on La Mola, but in general it was a very gentle and easy path – which meant it was the busiest section I encountered over the four stages. Not meeting people in any great numbers for most of my time walking was one of the joys of doing this route and this section was a bit of a culture shock.

There is a problem with this route, and the way it is described, in the fact that there are some dodgy sections which are not really advertised. Apart from the steepness of some of the sections I’ve already mentioned there were a number of occasions on the walk up La Mola that some would find too challenging.

The paths are, generally, in a good condition but some of them came out into the open and the rocks then fall away very steeply on one side – and it’s a long, long way down. Not recommended for those with a lack of confidence in heights and definitely not a place to be if there are strong and/or gusting winds.

The reason for not finishing the whole route? A mixture of time and decrepitude.

Although here for a month time seems to have just disappeared. Also this is the time of the Festa Major in the village I’m staying and in many others around and so wanted to be around to see what was happening. As it so happened I missed out on some things for reasons I’ll explain in another post but at least that was my original plan and the reason I decided that I would cut things short on the Friday.

The decrepitude comes from the knee – and age. I was passed by someone as I was following the route of the second day. That didn’t use to happen very often, but then I could still give him at least 25 years. Climbing over a thousand metres was hard enough, coming down a thousand metres played havoc with the knee. Injured years ago when not really thinking about the future and now age is only making matters worse. Like most people as they get older I’m in denial and don’t carry a stick, that’s becoming a foolish attitude.

The route down on my last day took over two hours and there was a constant pounding on the knees, although protected with a support bandage. As I’ve mentioned above the little stones on descents can be a killer and that extra breaking needed puts even more strain on already tired and aching muscles. Also at the back of my mind is the fact that after being on my feet for 8 hours, having climbed over a thousand metres and walked a distance of 26 kilometres it would feel a right fool to be crying for help within shouting distance of the final destination for that day.

If I had planned to walk on the Saturday I would not have been able to do it, getting off the stool in the bar in Mura was bad enough and will now have to see how long things take to get back to some sort of normality. I’ll do the final sections another time.

The negative from all this is that it’s going to make me alter my plans for the near future as this was meant to be a bit of a taster for an even longer walk back in Britain.

But I might take George W’s solution to everything – deny there’s a problem and just trust that technology will be able to come up with a solution.

Or I could get a stick, all depends if I remain in denial.

The slideshow is a selection of pictures from the 4 days of walking.

Els Tres Monts – Stage 1 – Montseny-Tagamanent

Montseny-Tagamanent

Els Tres Monts (The Three Mountains) is a waymarked route from the village Montseny (in the Natural Park of the same name) to the hilltop Monastery of Montserrat. In the process it passes through the Sant Llorenç del Munt i L’Obac Natural Park affording an opportunity to experience the diverse landscape in this part of Catalonia, from soaring peaks to sheer cliff faces, from Romanesque churches to Modernist extravagance, from large farmhouses to peasant cottages.

Yesterday I started what is planned to be a five-day journey along a path that’s just under 110km in length. This is Els Tres Monts path, yet another one of the so-called Pilgrim’s Routes, as its final destination is the Monastery of Montserrat, famous for its location (the rock formations in the area are quite impressive), being the place of many Catalan nationalist events and for its Madonna, a small, black wooden statue that sits behind the altar which has an almost constant queue of people going past whenever the basilica is open.

I’ve been putting off this trip due to the weather. To walk during the recent heat wave, that made it even hotter here than when I first arrived, seemed to be pushing things too far. The climb each day varies from 672 – 1706m, the smallest being the one I did yesterday – and that was a bit of a shock to the system as most of it came in one sharp burst at midday according to the sun. Got to the top because I didn’t fancy going down again on what was a very tricky, and at times rough, path.

If the total is just under 110km I did 24 of those in about 7 hours. The problem, however, with this route is not just the distance and height climbed (and come down again) it’s the logistics.

To get to the start yesterday morning I had to catch a bus just after 07.00, and then 2 more to arrive at the start just before 10.00, that’s really the latest you would want to start on these routes and I suffered for it with the climb. These problems will only become worse as the route goes through sparsely populated and quite wild and desolate countryside after day 2.

It also presents the problem of where to stay and after my next nights stay (where I am staying with friends of friends). I have no idea what will come up, just have to ask if anyone knows where I can rest my head, as I’m not particularly keen on sleeping under a hedge. If all else fails this might mean trying to hitch out in the afternoon and doing the same to get back the following morning. A bit messy and puts into doubt an early start but it might be the only way around the lack of accommodation.

This problem of logistics was something I’ve known about for a while, ever since I started researching the route, but another problem (or possible problem) has arisen – the uncertainty of the weather.

Yesterday was the first time in three weeks when it was cloudy in the morning and looked threatening at times. These routes are not what you call busy.  The only people I saw walking stage one were those on the look-out for forest fires, and that was in the latter part of the day on the way down. Any building I passed was either derelict or seemingly deserted, so there’s nowhere to shelter in case of a sudden change for the worse in the weather and I expect that to be the case, more or less, for the rest of the route.

I didn’t start stage 2 as planned this morning as I couldn’t really read the weather on the hills at the start of the days walk. In Britain I would have said it was about to turn into a thunder-storm but that’s not necessarily the case here. A storm has been predicted for a few days but so far nothing has happened.

I prevaricated, it got later and then it cleared up but by then it was getting hotter and not the best time to climb, and then clouded over again so don’t know what might be happening on the tops.

Tomorrow, if faced with a similar situation, I will still leave early and if I get in wrong and the weather turns nasty I know the first section well enough to be able to get down by a number of routes. I was expecting hot but the uncertainty has come as a bit of a nasty surprise.

So a rest day after one day.

But there are some interesting places along the way, from pictures I’ve seen in researching the path, so hope to do it all by the end of the coming weekend.

One characteristic of this area is the number of churches, many Romanesque and dating from the 11th/12th centuries, which are perched on the top of some of the highest or most distinctive peaks. The one yesterday was Santa Maria on the Turo of Tagamanent. This is no longer used as a church on any regular basis but isn’t a total ruin.

Another architectural style common in this area are the very large farm complexes, the Massias. It gives you an idea of the wealth that must at one time been in the area but many of these farm complexes are either in ruins or have been taken over by the natural parks organisation.

Now I’m going to be away for a few days I have a problem of what to take with me. As I’ve no idea where I will be spending the night until that night arrives I really have to plan for an excursion away until Saturday. If there is reasonable transport I might be coming back to ‘base’ on some occasions and leaving at the crack of dawn the next day.

There is a slight complication with this week in that this is now the time of the Festa Major (the main annual festival) and although I was here during that time last year, and many of the events are repeated, it would be good to be back in town for some of them. This being southern Europe everything happens at night so it might be possible to do both.

It was a bit of a strange day for pictures yesterday and there is always a problem with the haze at this time of year but I have included some pictures from stage one.

If I get the chance I will update as I go along.