Welcome to Wonderland
I was about 10 years old when me and my sister woke to find our mother had imagineered a scavenger hunt through our new house. My parents had recently divorced and I discovered that meant they didn’t want to live together anymore. This new house that had no father was a smallish apartment, up loads of stairs that didn’t have a yard where I could burn things, which I liked so very much. To wake and suddenly find something to like here overjoyed my young heart.
I forgot any troubles I had and scavenged from one excitement into the other. Looking for clues, as me and my sister worked towards — my mother promised — a grand surprise. Although, until then, I had considered this new house with little interest, I now felt I was living in a wonderland.
It was this same sense of wonder — of a place transformed — that returned to me when I visited Albania, some twenty years later.
Ellis and I had just spent far too much time in a dreadful town on the coast of Montenegro, which name I do not recall and do not want to look up. Of course we made the best of our time — we were young, newlywed, and on our honeymoon — but we were excited to move on. From Montenegro we would drop down south, into Albania.
Before we came into this new country, about which I knew little, it was brought to our attention that Albania was not a nice place. People told us, using their serious voice, to be careful. Careful of what, we didn’t know.
Turns out, and you don’t learn this in school, Albania was a brutal dictatorship for quite a while. People called it the ’North Korea of Europe’. Not a nickname that inspires a lot of confidence. In this time not a whole lot of people came into Albania and not a whole lotta good came out of it. It seems the only people who left formed into ruthless gangs that, I guess, ravaged the lands. This, you might imagine, is not the kind of news you want to receive just as you’re about to cross into a new country.
Therefore imagine our continuous surprise, in the weeks to come, that Albania wasn’t a police state full of stone-faced thugs, but a wonderland filled with some of the most delightful people you can ever hope to meet.
Unleash The Dogs
The first thing we did as we crossed the border was check whatever people might do in Albania. Turns out there’s a lot, but one thing stood out: a two-day hike in the north of Albania.
Every day backpackers from all over descend upon the city of Shköder (pronounced, for some strange reason, as ‘Skodra’) from where they leave to Komani lake. There they embark on a ferry that bobs through a narrow waterway as it carves a path through the mountains. A lake ride supposedly so mind-bogglingly beautiful that one enthusiast confided in us that ‘one hasn’t really been in Albania if one hasn’t experienced it.’ Well, rip a page from our passports because, of course, we didn’t go anywhere near this.
The hike is one-way, so after Komani Lake (and one night in a little village) you hike up one side of the mountain, come back down the other side and arrive in a different village, named Theth. From there you drive back to Shköder. However, we came with our own car and although we had been testing it, we were pretty sure it couldn’t go up a mountain. We felt sad about our misfortune for a while, until we took a left onto the small road that ends up in Theth.
Theth and the famous hike are in an area colloquially known as ‘the Albanian Alps.’ Turns out the drive up to this mountainous village is an utterly wonderful drive. It’s just you, a small winding road criss-crossing through the mountains, some cows and maniacs who break for no one. I swear we would’ve felt like we were part of a Top Gear TV-special, if Ellis would know what that was.
As we drove up the mountain darkness was soon to hold us hostage us between the two mountain ridges and so it was decided for us that we were to spend the night in a village some 20 kilometers before Theth, called Bogë. A blessing in disguise for we later found out that the road to Theth can only be tamed by 4×4’s. Our 50 euro car would be no match. And so I found myself scrolling through Airbnb as Ellis tore the car through beautiful scenery, a smile on her face.
We spent our night at the Boga Alpine Resort, a wonderful little hotel where we were the only guests, cared for by a young maid who knew how to point at things in English and the owner; an Albanian man in his mid-thirties who spoke English with the most outrageous British accent.
The view from our room was magnificent, the food (which cost less than what falls out of my pocket if I shake hard enough) was better than expected, and the morning run I had after a good night’s rest was — dreadful. It seemed as though every dog in the village had agreed to take turns chasing me down the street. I think I have never run faster.
Luckily one of us was having fun that morning because Ellis ventured out on a lovely hike and the scenery was candy for her camera. So, with her beautiful rendering of this valley the dogs were soon all but forgotten — though I couldn’t get my heart rate to go down.
Waiting for a Ride
To reach Theth from Bogë we had to leave our car at the hotel and join one of the jeeps that would make the journey. The owner had warned us these taxis would only be going up the road in the morning, until about 10 o’clock. Of course, we left way too late — the maid gesticulating we had missed our chance, but we are nothing, if not stubborn. So we waved our car goodbye, I checked if I had safely stored away the keys for about two gazillion times and we went down the lane to the little cafe where — hopefully — a late taxi would pick us up.
Looking back I see that this was the first time, in the five months we had been traveling, that we encountered the ‘old way’. We had been driving our car through places where our phones kept up a connection to lightning-fast 4G and so our lives were made easy. We booked hotels, checked Google Maps, even knew where there would be traffic. Now we were sitting at the side of the road waiting for transport, which maybe wouldn’t show up until tomorrow.
It was interesting to notice how much I disliked this limitation and not knowing. I was traveling the world and had nowhere to be, yet here I was, all cantankerous that I might not be able to do exactly as I liked. The world wouldn’t cooperate for once and I wasn’t having any of it.
All the while I could have been looking up at the beautiful mountains surrounding us; their rugged surface made golden from fallen leaves. How they followed the river that wound down, two gigantic arched backs on either side of the water. The houses that dotted the hills — imagine the lives lived there, so different from mine.
But I didn’t. I just wanted to be on my way to Theth.