For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.–Lily Tomlin
I love hiking. When I was in college, I had the great good fortune to work in Glacier National Park, Montana, for two summers. It was here that I learned the joys, the pains, and the incredible sense of wellbeing that resulted from being out trekking along mountain trails.
Glacier Park (photo credit: Brycen Ek): Hiking has always been, to a greater or lesser degree, a part of my life since then. Eugene, Oregon, my home base for the last 21 years, has supplied me with a very rich environment of hiking opportunities over the years in its lush green forests.
Being in the Peace Corps for two of the last three years, I haven’t had access to a car, which limits the availability of hiking trails, both in Oregon and in PC countries. I live in a mountainous area now, and a local hiker promised to show me some good trails around here, but so far that hasn’t happened. The result is I’m not in peak hiking shape right now. But when my landlords invited me to travel with them to Valbona, Albania, aka the “Albanian Alps,” to go hiking last weekend, I jumped at the chance!
The pictures of the area showed them to be breathtaking. These mountains are mainly limestone, with white rocks all over the mountainside and around the river at the bottom of the valley, and, as I was to discover, on the trail itself. The “Albanian Alps” are the southern section of the Prolektije Mountain Range that extends north into Montenegro and a little east to Kosovo. Valbona Valley National Park itself sits on the border with Montenegro, and isn’t far from the Kosovo border. A group has formed in the area to create a tri-state park involving all three countries, calling it Balkan Peace Park.
I had a few concerns about not being in great hiking shape. However, my enthusiasm usually gets me pretty far. My hosts had a reservation at Tradita, so I hopped online to reserve a room also. The only website for Tradita was in Shkodër, which I figured was a nearby community, and I made the reservation.
Our group of ten went in two cars from Skopje – three women and seven men. This trip was done differently than I’m accustomed to. I usually pack what I need for food so I have minimal stops, and beeline for my destination. This trip was slower, and involved a few stops: two were at farm stands to buy fresh fruit, one was for lunch in a sweet little rural place in Kosovo, where we ate Flija, a layered savory pastry, part of the local cuisine of Albania and Kosovo.
Of course, there were the photo stops: Then there was a coffee break when we were about 45 minutes away still. I was watching the clock during all this, as I had told the hotel when I would arrive, based on it being a four-hour drive. It actually took us a little over 6 hours to get there.
We turned in at the Tradita sign, and I was confused. There was no hotel, just cabins and lots of ground with tents everywhere. When I asked, my hosts said there was no hotel there. I told them my hotel was Tradita in Shkodër, and they immediately saw a problem. Shkodër was almost 200km away from where we were. I had nowhere to stay. I asked if we should check in to see if I could get a cabin. The wife half of my team said we should just sit at the picnic tables, have a coffee, and relax a few minutes. Then we could decide what to do. I took a deep breath and slowed down. It always takes me a little time to adapt to changes of plan – a common occurrence here. I finally recognized that I was at the threshold of an adventure, and decided to go with it, and enjoy the ride. As we sat there at a picnic table, I looked around, and saw that we were surrounded on four sides by beautiful mountains. I concentrated on loving the mountains.
Before long, the husband half of my landlord team returned saying it had all been sorted. The three women were to stay in a cabin. The 2 husbands would stay in a tent. Being immersed in my own process of adaptation at the time, I didn’t understand until later that I had bounced my host from his reservation with his wife. We set about putting our things in the cabin. There was no electricity, no internet, and I don’t have a smart phone, but I needed to notify my hotel 200km away that I wasn’t coming. I borrowed someone’s phone and sent a message on Viper.
I’ve noticed that here, there always seems to be music over a sound system at events. This was no exception. In America, I remember staying in a campground in the Tetons, where there were a lot of hikers staying. It was so quiet in the evenings and at night. Then the next morning, hikers began rising at first light to get a start on the trail. Here in Valbona, the music played loudly until 11:30 on Friday evening. Then breakfast next morning was scheduled for 8:30. Slowly, after breakfast, everyone prepared to go to the trailhead.
Saturday was a beautiful day! The sun was shining, and we could hear cow and goat bells in the distance as we started out, about thirty of us. I was full of enthusiasm as we started the climb up the trail, following the markers. It was fairly steep in places, changing elevation quickly. Then there were places like this, where we searched for the markers:The trail consisted mostly of large white rocks that had fallen down the mountain over the ages. Hiking on these rocks called on muscles in my feet, ankles and legs I didn’t even know I had, to constantly adjust to such a degree.Yes, this is the trail:Occasionally, we would get a break, and the trail would be like this:These mountains are absolutely gorgeous!!
Over the first three kilometers, I was taking pictures, then hiking the way I usually do, pushing myself. This sometimes involved passing other hikers on the trail, and leaving my hosts far behind. The thought occurred to me as I passed that I might be overdoing it so early in the hike, like the hare that overtook the tortoise initially, but it felt so good to be hiking! But this was tough. I’m spoiled. I’m accustomed to the hiking trails in America, where there is reasonably smooth surface to walk on, whether it’s dirt, gravel, or wood chips.
Fatigue set in, and it was hard to make my knees go up high enough to avoid tripping on the higher rocks on the trail. By the time we approached the four-kilometer mark or so, I was feeling the imminence of a brick wall. My muscles were shaking at times, and I needed to stop and take deep breaths to keep my breathing regular. As she observed my struggle, my host said, Ngadalë, which is Albanian for slowly. For the next two kilometers, she kept repeating, Ngadalë, ngadalë. I saw the wisdom of this, but still found myself at times unconsciously pushing myself up the mountain. Then she would remind me, Ngadalë, ngadalë, and I would adjust my stride, repeating, Ngadalë.
I realized that this word ngadalë was a theme on this trip, from the first evening coffee, through the starting schedule of the morning, and now on the trail. Ngadalë also is a reminder not to jump ahead so much, but to live in the present, enjoying what’s right in front of me, like this:And even this – fresh wild raspberries – delicious! Ngadalë is a lesson I’ve been trying to put into the rest of my life as well.
The four of us made it six kilometers up the mountain, and then took a prolonged break. They began nibbling on the snack we were provided, but I couldn’t even think about food. I immediately lay down in the grass in the shade. Eventually my body slowed down enough that I had a short nap. When I opened my eyes and looked around, they were all napping. I lay there enjoying the view of the tree branches above me, with the sun filtering through them, twinkling as the branches moved in the breeze. I figured my kilometers hiked were really worth a lot more than the actual number in terms of the hard work of hiking on this kind of trail.
Most of the hike was spent hiking with these lovely people:
We headed back down, and I found myself taking frequent breaks. Going down required more attention than climbing up, but even so, I kept tripping because I couldn’t step high enough to get over some of those rocks. But I kept my eyes on the incredible view as much as I could, and felt so grateful to be there, in spite of my discomfort (misery).My whole body was very grateful to reach the road. What a relief for all my muscles!
In America there are strict rules for hiking in national parks. These rules are understandable and necessary, given the number of people hiking. Here, this is how things work:
1.Don’t let the hike get in the way of visiting. There is much to be enjoyed in the company you keep while hiking. The people connection here is so strong.
2. If you see a shortcut, by all means take it! Sometimes this may also be the function of the obscurity of the markers along the way, but half the time it isn’t.
3. Carry fresh fruit (from the market stand), not boring dried fruit. One of our group packed in some pears from the market stop, and cut them up on a break. I have never tasted a pear that was so sweet, juicy, and restoring! Perfect trail snack!
4. Go off trail if you like, especially if you can get a better photo or if you need a break. We lounged in the grass off trail, and it made for a very comfortable nap. This was such a relaxed approach.
5. Harvest the herbs on the mountain, take as much as you like. The flowers were beautiful and plentiful! Many of them are part of the traditional herbal pharmacopeia of the southern Balkans. The main one I was aware of is called Mountain Tea. There are several kinds of plants that constitute the Mountain Tea category. The one below, I’m told is one of many varieties of oregano. There is another local plant, Sideritis, or ironwort, which has yellow flowers, and is very popular and expensive to buy at the market. Sideritis is the main herb throughout the Balkans that is considered Mountain Tea.
Mountain Tea is rumored to be a panacea. After researching a bit, I discovered that there have been scientific studies showing Sideritis to have many benefits to health, as it is found to be anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant. It seems to be an aid to digestion, the immune system, and it suppresses the advent of the common cold. Some even say it lowers anxiety and decreases pain. The people here believe the same is true of this oregano Mountain Tea as well. No wonder they were all harvesting it in huge quantity. Right now, July, is the peak time to harvest it, when the flowers are in full bloom.
This was such a human, delightful, and kind way to do a hike.
On Saturday evening there was a program back at Tradita that included Albanian traditional music and dancing. At the end of the program, the people all joined in to dance in the traditional way. People were in very high spirits, and the dancing reflected that. Of course, the music was completely inspiring. This was followed by completely uninspired rock music until 1:30am. But I was relaxed, had a good book, and was fine.
My core hiking team:
My landlady and I spent time at the Valbona River early both mornings before many people were up, and in the evening as the sun was setting.
On Sunday we made our way back to Skopje. This was our first traffic issue: Minutes after leaving, we stopped at a beautiful spot where the river was deep and fast-moving. Some of our group wanted to wade in the water. About halfway home, they parked the cars and broke out a big watermelon they’d been cooling under dripping water of the shower in our room. We sat or stood in the shade and ate it, arms and chins dripping. It was perfectly sweet and juicy! That was lunch, and it was just right.
Some time, I want to return to the Albanian Alps. Meanwhile, I’m so grateful to my landlords and their friends for including me on this adventure. I was the recipient of a great amount of kindness and generosity this weekend. And I think ngadalë is a lovely word.
And my abandoned hotel? They never got my Viper message, so Booking.com charged me full rate, as if I’d stayed there. Sigh . . . I am slowly getting used to that loss.