The rain batters louder onto the sloping sheets of exposed tin above my head. Light glows faintly through narrow slits in the timber walls of this old cow shed, its exposed earthen floors emitting a musty dampness into the small room. We lie side-by-side like cucumbers under doonas and sleeping bags, cocooned, riding out the stormy night. Just outside the rickety door a cow begins to bellow, calling to her calf. Separated from its mother, the calf is also shut up for the night in nearby barn. The owners want the mother’s milk in the morning to make gloopy piles of cheese. I close my eyes, listening to the storm rage and echo through the valley, a drum beat to the higher pitches of cows, chickens, horses, goats and humans. As my eyes close I find myself expressing my gratitude for this opportunity to be here. Once again, I find amazement for the opportunity to run through this landscape, a place on beginning to hit the tourist map. As far as I am aware, we are the first trail runners to run across this mountainous region. - ‘Thank you for this night and to the trip now drawing to a close.’Then I sleep.
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Leading a running tour to Albania begun as an off-hand comment from an attendee to a spontaneous talk we held in Hobart at Find Your Feet back in 2017. During a day on the retail floor we met Rok, a travelling Albanian and Patagonia sponsored kayaking athlete striving to protect the last wild river of Europe, a snaking length of water running through the Valbona valley in the heart of the northern mountains of Albania. Rok had come to Tasmania to discover more about how Tasmanians had fought to protect the natural flow of the Franklin River. After his informal slideshow evening at Find Your Feet, we added Albania to our longer-term bucket list. But as the last guests left the premises, one lady pulled me aside. ‘Have you ever considered a Find Your Feet Running Tour to Albania? My daughter owns a lodge in Valbona. I can give you her details if you like?’From pipe-dream to forming plans, it looked like we were off to Albania.
Two years on we were joined in Tirana Airport by thirteen intrepid trail running enthusiasts from Australia. Amidst the buffet breakfast around sleek tables atop gleaming floors, we began to explain the plans for this inaugural tour to Albania. ‘This trip is exploratory. That is, we haven’t been here yet either… I am sure there will be many adventures in store.’As the waitresses bustled around us, delivering fine espressos and soy milk lattes, little did we really know what we were in for!
The first tastes of the country came half-an-hour later as we boarded a compact, dated minibus and headed towards the major A1 highway leading north. Half-built buildings dwarfed dilapidated homes now neglected as a sea of petrol stations popped up around them. Fields of corn and maize hugged them closely, enwrapped by the arms of small streams reaching down from the mountains. Litter dangled like cheap jewelry from the small shrubs lining the creeks, a sad sign of neglect in an otherwise beautiful landscape. Chaotic cities came and went, then the mountains lifted us into their midst, first dry but eventually tinges of green joining the pastel painting. The heat in the bus was stifling and we stopped on two occasions to take a break from the twisting, turning, gut-gurgling bus ride, eventually reaching our final destination with bewilderment and an overwhelming sense of displacement. As we disembark, chickens pecked the scratched earth, a pen of sheep peered through the roughly weathered timber of their yard, a dog barked, a cow bellowed and a family wandered into the scene to greet us. English is very limited in this northern region of Albania but with generous hospitality we were seated at their outdoor table and presented with a feast for lunch, all prepared from the fruits of their farm and their labor – homemade bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, setting a tradition for the remainder of our trip. Not ideal food to run on for our upcoming afternoon jog but delicious non-the-less!
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Each day of the tour we awoke early to the calls of the pigeons, or cows, goats, sheep or children playing. Breakfast looked like dinner, albeit with the addition of fig or plum jam, and our picnic lunch was a simply slab of break, a tomato and freshly harvested cucumbers. Vest packs donned, we would turn on our Suunto Spartan watches and navigate towards the trails, always blessed with a large climb through forest to meet the alpine meadows and their swaying heads of wild flowers, a bobbing sea of beauty. Past stone and log shepherds’ huts we would walk or run, waving enthusiastically at the children, women or weathered males. Occasionally we would be asked in for coffee and tea, the latter a blend of mountain flowers seeped in hot water. It was hard to gauge the ages of the individuals who braved summer and winter up there in the mountains, the sun, wind, rain, snow and shepherd lifestyles etched into their faces like a map of their territory. We tried to comprehend living in their shoes, especially when the winter would once again descend upon them, but sadly we couldn’t. It was just too far removed from our privileged lifestyles back home in Australia.
The mountains of Albania (and Montenegro and Kosovo when we crossed their borders too) reach up to over 2500m. A mixture of gnarled, white limestone and lush green pastures create a green and white tapestry that stretches to the horizon. The Accursed Mountains were especially spectacular, their jagged peaks erupting into the sky like the teeth of scissors, cutting Albania and Montenegro apart by dramatic alpine passes. It was through this landscape that we travelled, overnighting in the valleys before ascending again come morning.
We traversed three countries on this Find Your Feet Running Tour and there was a distinct difference between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. Albania felt slightly rougher around the edges, and despite generous hospitality that stemmed from their gardens and their herds, there often felt like a wall between them and our western ways. The buildings were more rustic and whilst clean, there was always a feeling that their walls and floors had seen a lot of life, and maybe hardship. Then, when we crossed into Montenegro there was a clear difference in the language, lifestyle and our guesthouses. The architecture was sharper, the timber fresher and the smiles of the hosts more apparent. We especially loved Lilly and her brother Arben who welcomed us into their brand-new guesthouse with open arms. Their father had built it, their mother our generous chef, and Lilly and Arben a wealth of knowledge about growing up in a land of richness and poverty.
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On the last morning of the tour I awake in our cow barn, kicking back my sleeping bag and waiting for the sound of rain still falling. However, the weather gods are now silent and instead I am met by the continued ruckus of the shepherding lifestyle echoing around the valley. Easing my way out the creaking doorway I wander out into the meadows, marveling at the strength of the horses as they flock together, waiting the journey that also lies ahead for them as they transport our bags across the last lift of mountains and into the valley of Kosovo just beyond these hills. What a privilege to guide a group through such a rich landscape! I am humbled as I pull on damp, smelly running gear and prepare for breakfast.
On this last day of running we reached Kosovo, a country torn apart by war in a short three-month period in 1999. To reach our transport home we skirted around the country’s highest peak, past more shepherd huts and alpine glacial lakes scattered across the naturally barren plateaus. After descending from these lofty heights, we were met with our horses who had lugged our luggage across the mountains to meet us, and then our 4x4 transport back towards civilization where we were confronted with a plethora of graves and memorials littering the roadside’s fringes. This is a country torn apart by three-months of war in 1999, and now in a frantic phase of rebuilding. Houses, memorials, commercial complexes and yet more petrol stations were in varying stages of redevelopment. We all fell silent as we watched this all slip by.
The tour concluded back in Albania with a night spent in our Panoramic Hotel in the town of Kruje, a short bus ride from Tirana Hotel. The beating shower and fine dining such a contrast to our previous night’s accommodation in a cow shed. Sharing our highlights of the tour around the dinner table reinforced to us just how extraordinary this tour was and just how much more exploring we all want to do now. Yes, we are never too old or too busy to play wilder!
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