The First Tourists
As I wrote in part 2 of our Albania story I have a bad case of expectations. I try to figure out how my life, my week, my day will go and fail immensely at that task. Our time in Theth was no different.
When we last met we were on the way to our hotel, which, we found out, was at the other end of town. So we tried not to waste any time — and then we did.
In the center of Theth, we passed a building where we saw some commotion and went to check it out. As we approached we got noticed and were suddenly whisked inside by some overzealous employee of what turned out to be the new visitor center of Theth. As the building was being dedicated by project managers, contractors, employees, and townspeople we were now the first tourists to cross its doorstep. Thereby we would forever be the first guests of this new establishment — quite the honor. Yet we would have been fine if it hadn’t taken quite as long.
The building, with two public spaces, was quickly walked through, and after looking at all the displays a second time we were ready to go. However, the first guests would really need to stay and take in everything. So, we stood around until the mandatory speeches were made. All fine and dandy, yet I had hoped they would give the microphone to someone with a little more pizzaz than the German project manager. I didn’t understand a word of what he said, but I feel learning German wouldn’t have helped.
It really was time to move on.
Twenty minutes later we had gotten lost in between the two parts of town, trying to get to our hotel upriver. Even Google Maps could not help us. After some 45 minutes of trudging uphill without really going anywhere, I did what every real man does: give up. To heck with the hotel I had booked (right, sweety?) They could keep their deposit — there were perfectly good and empty hotels downhill.
As we walked back to the center of town we quickly found a beautiful little hotel overlooking Theth. We checked the room, got lied to about the price, and checked in. As we settled down to give our feet some rest we thought we had found the perfect place. Until they continued construction on the hotel next door. I quickly realized the opposite of high season is not so much low season, but construction season. A quiet countryside has a way of losing it’s charm quickly if it’s not quiet.
However, we couldn’t complain because we had made some new friends and they worked for a travel agency, which are the best friends to have.
You can be a queen, or a princess, or the ruler of the universe for all I care — no one gets treated as travel agents do. We learned this again as we joined our new friends, Jona and not-Jona’s-boyfriend for dinner at the hotel. As we got to know each other a true feast was laid before us — Albanian dishes I can not name, fresh vegetables that tasted how you imagine they should and fresh goat cheese, you could practically smell the goat. We couldn’t believe our luck and we needn’t because the day after, our travel agent friends long gone, we get nothing but leftovers. No queen, king, or emperor gets treated quite as travel agents do.
The morning after, still oblivious to the fact the special treatment came from our connection with Jona and, and…the guy that was with her, we started on our hike with — as the Dutch call it — ‘goede moed’. Skipping up from Theth towards our goal some 1500 meters higher. Yet, our positive vibe soon ended when we inched closer to a group blasting what I think was popular Albanian music. As technology has made it easier for Ellis and me to travel the world, so too have other things become easier. Yet, not all progress is an improvement, I believe.
Luckily, Ellis and I are fast hikers (mostly because we didn’t have to lug backpacks) so we overtook the group quickly. As we passed I desperately wanted to explain to them not only the benefits of hiking while basking in nature’s silence, but also how to properly wear a hiking backpack. They were, all six of them, doing it wrong and I feared for their backs. Though more so that they would hate me and throw me off the mountain, so I kept quiet.
We soldiered on and made great time — until the scenery started to change. Now, I’m a sucker for a nice forest, but up to that point, it was just that — forest. However, crawling up, up, up the foliage flagged and gave way to rugged rockery and marvelous views. Suddenly we stood and stared every few meters. Well, I stood and Ellis took pictures.
In one spot we spent over half an hour to get the perfect picture. It’s the sad truth of a photographer that I got it in the end — on my iPhone. However, I guess it says more about who is the better model. You could snap me silly, but you’re not making a model out of me.
For the remaining part of the hike we practically crawled up the mountain, two people forming a caterpillar — inching forward, stopping, and waiting for the back to catch up and inching forward again.
The Best Lunch
Three-quarters of the way we came to a little open-sided wooden shack and got a hot cup of tea. As we sat and enjoyed the view when, suddenly, the trees downhill from us started singing and we thought it high time to leave. That was until, some 200 meters before reaching us, the six-man group we passed found it within themselves to turn off their speaker as they joined our place of rest.
The last part of the hike, after our well-deserved rest, was both the most beautiful and the easiest. Trees made way for bushes, dirt made way for rocks, and the steep slopes became a little less steep. In a quick trot, we came to the point where the path went up and over the ridge of the mountain, from where it wound down to the next village. As we arrived there—our point of return—we cursed a little under our breath, after which we went on with our day.
From the top of the main path, the mountain shot further up in both directions, with less-traveled tracks to guide us and so we barged up to a higher vantage point. I walked on ahead, not held back by a camera around my neck and a trigger-happy photo finger. Farther up I found a great little platform protruding from the ridge, which gave an almost 360 view of the valleys on both sides. A great place, I decided, to have lunch. I sat down, unpacked my bag and waited, and waited, and waited.
My imagination decided to take me on a little haunted house ride, showing flash-forwards of Ellis’s mangled body at the bottom of a cliff as I wondered what was taking her so long. I repacked our lunch to go look, but just as I came off the little platform I saw her coming up. I scrambled back up and put our romantic lunch out again as if nothing had happened. She needn’t know I worry all the time.
Ellis joined me and goggled at what lay before us, nature, and food. As you can understand, lunch would have to wait. So, I stilled my hunger with my Jedi mind once more and sat down with a rumbling stomach. The same stomach that tossed and turned as I watched Ellis use teeny tiny rocks as footholds to get closer to the edge for that one perfect picture. I forced myself not to worry and failed. All I wanted to do was put a rope around her and tie it to me. I could be her anchor.
After the mountain started singing again I said goodbye to a quick lunch and waited for that familiar sight; the group had found our little platform. They dragged their crooked backs up and of course turned out to be delightful people. We talked some, laughed some, and took a lot of pictures. We traded Instagram handles and even phone numbers, though I can’t for the life of me recall why.
Then, finally, Ellis and I could dig in on the best lunch possible without cheese.
Now, it’s a tragedy of entertainment that you want to be entertained because the best moments of our day, maybe even week, maybe even month was spent in silence on top of that mountain. There we could be nothing but together, looking out over stunning natural scenes and just exist. However, I am not going to put you through a thousand-word essay on the beauty of the Albanian Alps, yet please indulge me for a paragraph.
Here we go.
You feel the wind, a breeze so soft it caresses. You walk a little further up the mountain, your calves aching, but you don’t mind. In your hand, a beloved hand, coming up with you wherever you go. You arrive at the top, the edge of the world. You see bright green, the forest, rolling down the mountainside as a wave. In the distance a little village, smoke from a chimney, merging with some clouds drifting overhead. You sit, anywhere, the top is yours. There’s no one. Just a head on your shoulder, her head. You take a deep breath and let it go — for life to be this perfect, what a wonderland.