It’s perhaps a little misleading to characterize the final part of the Balkans saga as a trek. Perhaps a journey in a time machine is more like it – we were about to move from a world where our dinner was being butchered before us into the land of tourists and suntan lotion.
We started our next to the last day with a very beautiful and less terrifying drive to Kotor Bay. Kotor Bay, located in Montenegro, is filled with domestic tourists, all of whom were enjoying spectacular weather. We were also celebrating the end of the trek with much nicer accommodations – J and I even had a room with a balcony and a view of the bay. Prices went up accordingly. No more Pristina like lunches for 8 for $20 with drinks.
Once settled into the hotel we all walked down to the beach and found a restaurant with the unlikely name of Jet Ski for lunch. After yet another Greek salad, we walked into Old Town and visited several churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Lots of relics (think silver gloves with a small aperture through which there is theoretically a nail clipping of a saint). Turned out to be a good place for souvenirs as well – particularly intricately embroidered linens.
It was then time for a boat ride to Perast. For once, our legs truly weren’t our main mode of transportation. Kotor Bay is basically a fjord. We sailed down one side, past two islands, one of which was manmade, very crowded, and housed a church that looked Orthodox but was Catholic, and another that was natural, privately owned, and was the home of a church that was Orthodox but looked Catholic. So much for architectural sterotypes.
We ended up in the pretty village of Perast. the houses were uniformly built of light colored stone with red rooves (as everywhere in Montenegro), and dotted with colorful window boxes. At the end of the village was a narrow strip of concrete and gravel beach, dominated by a huge bar. It was quite the scene – a mashup of 20 year olds in bikinis and speedos, and families out for the afternoon.
That night, our guide B had picked a very nice restaurant where we ate on the outdoor terrace – mussels with a tomato sauce was the specialty and the salad had real lettuce as opposed to cabbage! Or just tomatoes and cucumbers.
After dinner we walked down y the water. Lots of people, bars, and music, and J from Newcastle bought everyone a round of flavored raki. So strange that the last time it was offered was at 10 a.m. in a remote Albanian meadow.
On the final day of the “trek” – I use quotes on purpose – we journeyed via a large van to the border of Croatia, where we had quite a wait. We watched as one poor soul, a middle aged man in a fedora, had to get off a bus while everything in the vehicle was searched. Not clear whether they let him back on or not.
We bid farewell to our guide and travel companions at the Dubrovnik airport. We were now having to use kuna instead of euros. Made our way to a very unique Airbnb in Lapad Beach, and quickly found our way to a bar located in an actual cave at the Hotel More. The trek was over, but we still had four days in Dubrovnik to go.
Our night in the Albanian kitchen converted to bedroom for four went fairly well and we were excited for the day’s adventure, which had been billed as a trek across an “idyllic meadow.” Our guide, who had some unusual turns of phrase in English, explained we would pass several “summer cottages.” Being from Florida, I naturally assumed that meant the Albanian and Montenegron version of a beach house. But as you’ll see, such was not the case.
We started off about 9, first through the dark and gloomy woods we had trudged through before, encountering a steep uphill slog at the outset. Then came what I can only call the Land of Berries — tiny wild strawberries, sweeter than store bought, blueberries on the cusp of ripeness. Later we tried a “dude,” a berry from a tree, similar to a blackberry.
We emerged from the berry bushes into the meadows which indeed lived up to their billing — an absolutely idyllic land of long grasses. A rolling valley, dotted with the so-called summer cottages. Not vacation homes at all, but small stone dwellings where farmers stayed in the summer to make cheese and yoghurt to bring to town to sell in the winter. Each little house had a “cold” room, and the occupants took up the rest of the space, sometimes with livestock as well.
It felt as though I was gliding through the grasses, a steady warm wind at my back propelling me forward. A farmer couple called over to us to offer free raki — there’s a strong host tradition in this area — and several partook despite the relatively early hour of 10 a.m. Just beyond, and up another hill, we came upon another small dwelling, this time guarded by two mother pigs and their dozen or so very curious piglets. They were absolutely the cleanest pigs I have ever seen.
This is the Christian part of Albania, and large crosses stood on top of several peaks, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually it was back into the woods, followed by the descent. We’d been warned it was long – and it was – about 1300 m. of altitude loss. The trail down was nothing but loose rock, reminiscent of what we hiked coming down parts of Stok Kangri. (See The Descent- Death March on Stok Kangri, India .) It was so hot and sunny that the glare on the rocks reflected back up on our faces. But persevere we did, and finally emerged into an almost alley at the edge of a small village, through some fields, under a grape arbor, and into an “end of trail” café set up by someone on their porch.
After some celebratory beers – this was the last full day of trekking – we piled into our van for the ride back through the gorge. I wasn’t by the window but those who were described it as hair-raising. I hadn’t realized before how high up and remote we had been. After some hours, we crossed the border back into Montenegro. Unlike our on-foot crossings in the mountains – where not even a natural feature separated one country from the other – this one required quite a wait.
Our next stop was Lake Skadar. Having just been in the isolated beauty of deepest Albania, it was a shock to be in a place packed with hundreds of local tourists. We made our way to the tiny town center where we stayed at the Pelican Hotel, named for a very rare sort of pelican that nests at the lake and that we didn’t see. The smallness of the rooms was more than compensated for by the fact each had their own bathroom. That night we ate fabulous local trout at the hotel restaurant, which was decorated with hats of all types.
After dinner some of us ventured out. After narrowly avoiding a fight about to break out between some of the more rowdy tourists we ended up in a “handmade souvenir shop.” The proprietress, who told us she didn’t like all the Chinese-made items being sold in Skadar, had turned her back room into a one woman factory where she made molds, baked her ceramic wares in a kiln, and even melted glass from old bottles to decorate them with.
The following morning instead of our own two feet we used a boat. Lake Skadar is huge, 500 km or so wide, and is almost Florida-like, with a carpet of lily pads and fields of what looks like bamboo. But the looming mountains on either side made it clear Florida it wasn’t. Flocks of birds skimmed low on the water, and we stopped for a quick swim….some of us, A and N in particular, swam more than others!
Back in town it was a scramble to get back in the van, which was illegally parked. This resulted in the loss of daughter S’s backpack, hiking poles, and hiking boots, all of which fortunately caught up with us over the next couple of days, thanks to another tour group following along behind us.
We knew this was to be a busy day. We drove to Cintje, the original capitol of Montenegro. Unfortunately none of us found it overwhelmingly exciting, and we also parked right by yet another beer fest and music festival which was doing a very loud sound check. I felt like we’d been following the festival circuit. There were some nice old Colonial buildings and we ended up at a good place for lunch with the unlikely name of “Scottish Academie” neither of whose food nor décor seemed to have anything to do with that part of the world. I had what must have been my tenth Greek salad.
From there we drove to the national park of Lovcen. The main activity there is to walk up several hundred steps (which by now felt like nothing) to the mausoleum of Peter II Petrovic Njegos – the 19th century unifying ruler of Montenegro. It turns out J must have been a descendant – or so he looked when he donned the costume available at the top!
We finished the day with a fairly easy 3 hour hike descending from the mausoleum through the dappled forest to arrive in Njegusi village. It was mostly leafy trails with a few stony parts thrown in to keep us on our toes. We eventually made it the cute little village, which turned out to be home to Montenegron prosciutto, cheese, and wine, all of in which we partook liberally. We stayed in little cottages that housed three people each. The terrible mattresses (don’t ask) were made up for by the view out the window, waking up to the sound of farm animals, and the cheese!
My last post started with things brought on the trek. Things We Brought to the Balkans – We’re On Our Way But things were acquired also; among them a large antique plate that daughter A’s boyfriend N presented me with from his three day stay in Istanbul. This plate became my companion for the remainder of the trip, wrapped in Turkish newspapers, bounced between packing cubes in my duffel, up mountains and down hills; by the time it arrived back in Orlando safe and sound it felt like an old friend.
And from that you can tell all of the travelers did in fact arrive in Pristina, Kosovo on time. The next day, we were due at the airport by 11 to meet up with our guide, B from Croatia, and the two other members of our group, who turned out to be L from Glasgow and another J from Newcastle. Experienced travelers, they were quite tolerant of the group of Americans they found themselves stuck with.
We piled into one large van to make the trip to Peja, Kosovo, home of a beer of the same name, which featured prominently for the rest of the trip. The flowery meadows soon turned into low mountains as we reached Peja. Many low buildings, lots with the top floors incomplete while people lived in the lower ones. The Accursed Mountains loom over the town in the distance.
We checked into our small hotel and walked down to the town center. Three small child menaces on bikes terrorized groups of pedestrians (something that seems common in small towns throughout the world!). A river runs through the center of the pedestrian streets that comprise the main part of the city. We found a café for lunch, where some of the braver (and hungrier) members of our crew ordered the local specialty of “Skanderbeg,” a breaded and fried meat roll stuffed with cheese and covered in a white dressing. It’s named after an Albanian military leader who led a rebellion against the Ottoman empire. Appropriately enough, if you didn’t eat it, you could definitely use it as a billy club.
We then walked another mile of so through town to the 13th century monastery, a UNESCO site under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarch. You had to show your passport to enter, but when the guard saw a U.S. passport he just waved us all in. I’m not used to such treatment! The monastery consists of 4 churches built to honor various saints and patriarchs, all of which are connected to form a whole. Frescos adorn the walls and ceilings, some quite beautiful, and others, as the voice on the audio tour said, by “artists of modest talent.” Besides a smattering of tourists, there were numerous nuns, visitors in military uniforms genuflecting and kissing relics – a fragment of arm bone encased in a silver sleeve, a bit of finger housed in a gold glove. I was struck by how the Byzantine ornamentation resembled Celtic knot designs.
The hotel had a large patio area and was near a playground and concert area as we soon found out. Our otherwise quiet evening started with the sounds of an Albanian wedding. It then transitioned to what turned out to be part of a six day animation and music festival, which featured pulsing Turkish and Eastern Euopean traditional and house music played at a volume that literally shook the windows of our room. I could see the light show well enough to make out the name, Kocani Orchestra, during one of the rowdiest pieces. Look it up. There’s a YouTube video. I know because I found it about 3 a.m.
After a disrupted night, we had a formal visit to the monastery with our guide. From there, it was into two “off road jeeps” for a drive through the Rugova Valley to start the trek. Steep granite (?) walls rose up on each side of the canyon. After a series of hairpin turns, we stopped at a hut and began. The trail started off at a very steep uphill grade (not made easier when we lost the trail and had about an extra half hour of bushwhacking through the woods). Meadows alternated with evergreen forests, and the variety and quantity of wildflowers was spectacular. I wish I knew the names (a quick Google search didn’t help), but here’s as close as I can come to equivalents – yellow and purple daisies, white and purple clover, tall thistles, blue bells, pink and white Queen Ann’s lace, periwinkles, yellow buttercups. Ridge upon ridge of purple mountains provided a backdrop.
It was hot and sunny and we ate lunch by someone’s empty log home, isolated atop a peak. Hard to see how it was built, much less how it was of any practical use. The last few hours were all downhill to the village of Liquenat. We started the descent in ever increasing rain and thunder; once it let up we had a half mile of sheer mud to slog through. Amazing how much weight mud can add to your hiking boots! But the vistas made up for all of it.
We finally reached our first “home stay” – which turns out to mean someone who has turned their home into a hostel. This one had several bedrooms, housing 6-8 people each and an extreme shortage of bathrooms. After downing some Peja beer, our group and the other few hikers staying had a great dinner – salad and fresh cheese, spinach and cheese phyllo dough pies, a small bit of lamb, potatoes, peppers and a date cake.
A map was posted on the property showing that what we are really trekking is sections of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail. Tomorrow we will walk the border of Montenegro and a high pass.
What does one bring on an eight day trekking trip to the Balkans, followed by a several day sojourn in Dubrovnik, you ask? Well, here’s some of what our merry band of hikers thought appropriate:
a deflated basketball (because one of us has a theory that former Yugoslavian countries will be rife with basketball courts and eager players), a pin to inflate said basketball, massive amounts of immodium (I had to convince that one that 48 tablets really would be sufficient and he didn’t need the 96-pack), reading materials to include Rue Morgue (I leave it to your imagination) balanced out by an astronomy magazine and Foreign Affairs, and a laser helmet (whose purpose I also leave to your imagination).
And here are the destinations from whence we are all coming (some of us took some pre-vacations, as you can tell) – with the hope that we will all converge within a 12 hour window in the town of Pristina, located either in Kosovo or Serbia, depending on what map you are looking at: Orlando, Austin, Boston, Athens Greece, and Istanbul.
This is a live and happening blog post as I write from the patio at The Golden Hotel in Pristina, likely one of the least touristy cities there is. And correspondingly cheap. Lunch for six was under 20 euros. The first wave of arrivals has all made it successfully, even though two mistook the sign for the prayer room at the Istanbul airport for the rest room sign. Oops. We are all going on over 24 hours with nothing but airplane sleep, but still managed to stagger down through the neighborhood we are in to the main drag.
It’s a pedestrian area, low rise buildings in various states of renovation and dilapidation. Kosovans seem happy to see us. Note the 4th of July banner!
But it’s an absolutely beautiful day and I believe it to be Saturday. The main activity in Pristina seems to be hanging out at cafes drinking coffee or beer or wine. So, we are appropriately entering into the spirit of it all as we recover from what can only be described as a grueling day of travel.
FromSwamptoSummit sums up the West Orange Trail. You start in a swamp of poverty, journey through the foothills of mid-income housing developments, and ultimately arrive at McMansions that “start in the $800s.” As we prepare for our upcoming Balkans trek I wonder if there will be a similar journey, albeit in the wilds of the former Yugoslavia.
I like to prepare for a big trek by hiking 20 miles in one fell swoop. If you can walk 20, you should be able to do anything, right? But this time, for various reasons, my husband and erstwhile hiking companion J couldn’t make it. So there was no choice but to go for it on my own.
This is probably the fourth or so time I’ve done the entire trail and it was familiar enough to me that it felt eerily like coming home in some ways. The Buddhist temple was just where I remembered it; the huge log house with the extensive grounds; the farm animals outside West Orange High.
But doing it solo caused more observation, here and there. I did the first 10 miles with barely a look at my phone, except to take photos. Sights?
The number of homeless people I encountered just outside of Apopka. Hiking on your own you are cautious about strangers. An elderly bearded man started to approach, clearly preparing to talk. “Ma’am, can you tell me what day it is?” “Saturday.” “Thank you.”
A little later I saw another man in the distance dart off the trail into the woods. As I reached his exit point, I could see a path worn into the woods, strewn with wrappers and other trash. It looked for all the world like a bread crumb trail left by Hansel and Gretal. Who knew what was at the far end.
And a trip back in time. It was only in the mid 80s, but grey and humid. Outside one of the modest houses that line the area I think of as “church country” as there are so many of them sat two men and a woman on aluminum folding chairs. The men were wearing short sleeved button up shirts. One wore a tie; he was clearly the visitor. The woman was wearing a skirt and pouring drinks from a pitcher. I bet she even had on stockings. I expected the 1940s station wagon to show up any moment.
I took a 30 minute lunch break in the shade of an overpass at the 10 mile mark. I’d been watching a very large tortoise slowly move along the trail but fortunately my pace was faster. At the bench I spread out, bandaged my feet again, changed from heavy weight to light weight boots, ate half a sandwich, and drank a lot of water.
A grey haired fellow on a racing bike sat down next to me and complimented my hiking poles (I think they were the only pair of hiking poles on the trail that day and they made all the difference). I apologized for hogging most of the bench with my various and sundry items. He was wearing a US Postal team racing shirt. It turned out he had just been hiking in Death Valley and was riding 50 miles that day. Later on I encountered him going the other direction.
The last ten miles I gave up on my phone ban. I looked at social media and read WordPress blogs. And I also listened to at least three of the final episodes of Serial – Season 1. I can tell you anything about Anand Syed you want to know.
That internet blitz matched the world I was now walking into – housing developments that had mushroomed in the last year, advertised on huge billboards promising the latest in lifestyle pleasure.
At mile 15 I reached Winter Garden. The rain started to pour down and I sheltered in the bandstand, put my rain cover on my pack, and dug out my raincoat. After a few minutes it cleared and I was on the last stretch.
The final five miles, from Winter Garden to Killarney, is quite beautiful. You pass through oak forests, meadows, and some small towns. Houses range from charming little cottages just outside Winter Garden to newly built mansions overlooking the surrounding lakes. There’s always something to look at. And I try not to focus on the history of racism that exists in some of those small towns. Just look up the 1920 Ocoee Massacre.
The last mile is always the hardest. But I pushed through and J was there waiting. It was quite a solo journey – under 20 minutes a mile the entire way. I think I’m ready for the Balkans.
Last Sunday I spent a wonderful 35 minutes running up St. Charles and winding around the Irish channel neighborhood of New Orleans.
Yes, after almost a year long break I’ve decided I’m back into the running world. Not sure I’m ever going to make it back to seven milers, but it felt wholly liberating to run up one of the most beautiful boulevards in one of my favorite cities in the world.
But I’ve been having a motivation set back. J and I looked up the difficulty level of this summer’s adventure to the Balkans and it was a whopping 5 on a 10 point scale. Everest Base Camp was a 7. Stok Kangri a 9 (and I think that’s an underestimate). Without some sort of “you might die if you don’t train properly” incentive out there it is very difficult for me to put on the backpack and hike those extra flights of stairs in the office building, much less brave a run in the mid 90 degree weather we are already experiencing.
So, what better than to try to combine work trip number 3 to Las Vegas with a hike.
I started off by googling “hardest hikes around Las Vegas.” Uniformly, Turtlehead Peak kept showing up in the search results.
It is a high desert hike with 2000 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles. There’s no shade and “bring lots of water” seems to be the main advice. Start early before it is even hotter seems to be another one.
Frankly, from what I’ve read this hike promises to be more difficult than any we are doing in the Balkans (famous last words; I could be totally wrong). Any difficulty will be compounded by the fact we plan to take a red eye back to Orlando that night to make it to a Saturday wedding.
The upcoming combination of heat and dry desert air, extreme steepness, and lack of sleep should be enough to get me out there. We’re going to hike in the Black Bear Wilderness today. Despite the mid 90 degree heat.
My “about me” page of this blog, which I wrote back in 2014, describes me as a “mid-50s” person. Born in 1961 and about to turn 58, I’m hoping I still qualify. But one of the things I’ve noticed as I take this journey from swamp to summit – which started when I was 50 – is the subtle or not so subtle changes in my training activities over the ages. Some due to sheer boredom. Some, unfortunately, due to years, painful as that is to admit.
When I first embarked on this journey, I was a regular yoga attendee, both Bikram and what I call “regular” yoga, two to three times a week. Then we decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2011 for my 50th birthday and it became clear yoga alone wasn’t going to get me to the top of that mountain. Hence, my now famous office building stair climbing regime. That’s the one thing that’s remained constant, even though my office has moved to a different floor and side of the building, which mysteriously is one extra floor in height.
But the rest of it? Not so consistent. After our experience climbing Mt. Elbrus, I realized I needed way more heavy duty cardio. (See Steps on the Summit for our adventures on Europe’s highest peak.) Thus, I swallowed my disdain for running and embarked on a regime of a long (I worked my way up to 6-7 miles) run once a week, combined with a treadmill 5K at least once a week. But then my Wednesday yoga class was pushed to an earlier time and it became well nigh impossible to fit in a 5k between work and yoga. And then, after Stok Kangri, I realized I was all out so bored with running I couldn’t stand it, not to mention I was starting to obsess over my pace to the point it was becoming really stressful. Thus, my invention of the walk – run. Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays – memorializes this latest training technique!
Bikram fell victim to the closing of the studio (which probably wasn’t helped by Bikram’s own fall from grace). Although I still love it, and there are a few classes here and there, the times are terrible, so I rarely make it. Instead I’ve picked up Barre to accompany my yoga classes. Of course, I do it at the Y, so there’s no real barre and we have to use chairs. I can only imagine what we look like to onlookers as we plié and relevee clinging onto the backs of our chairs.
Weights have been an off and on thing. Right now they are on – I learned after Kilimanjaro that the only way to strengthen your knees is to strengthen your quads and I think there is going to be a high need for strong knees in Albania’s Accursed Mountains.
But my newest invention is a treadmill variation that I discovered while watching mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards’ training regime on Instagram. He put the treadmill on its highest 15% setting, strapped on a heavy pack, and proceeded to walk uphill for hours at about 2.8 miles an hour, not holding on. At that incline, if you tried going any faster without holding on you’d probably fall off. Now, my dirty little treadmill secret had been that I was a “holder”. I reasoned it was all about the legs, right? But when I tried Cory’s technique , sans pack, no hands, I suddenly realized I was actually using a whole different set of muscles – and they were the ones you use on a real live mountain.
So I guess the whole point of this is ebb and flow and just go with the tide, to keep the metaphor going. Training is going to change depending on your age, the boredom factor, and where you’re going. I tend to be a creature of habit; at least I’ve learned a bit of flexibility on my swamp to summit journey.
Since starting mountaineering travel in 2011 at the age of 50 – I’ve realized that keeping up with the non ending stair climbing, walking, strength training, and the rest (note the use of the Oxford comma), requires one thing – and that’s a goal. Without that, why the heck am I spending my lunch hour climbing up and down on an interior unairconditioned staircase in Florida. But once that trip’s picked out – game on!
And for the last few years, it seems that each fall is the time to announce the next adventure. This year, credit to Felix Bernard and Richard Smith who wrote Winter Wonderland, it’s Walking in the Balkan Borderlands. Everyone start humming.
This trip is not high altitude but promises to be steep enough. We’ll go through the Accursed Mountains (true name) and through lakes and byways of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, and end up in Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s remarkable to think you can visit Albania. When I was growing up, Albania was completely sealed off behind the most sturdy of iron curtains. I’m wondering what the will be revealed when the veils are pulled back.
This will be an 8 day trek, 10 or so plus miles a day, staying in three guest houses, three small hotels, and a home stay.
And it’s not just us – daughters S and A, A’s significant other N, and M and S of Everest Base Camp fame are all signed up.
There are eight months to go and it’s time to get my walking legs in gear. Yesterday we did a 7 miler at the Black Bear Wilderness Preserve here in Central Florida with M and S (that’ll be the subject of a separate blog post; let’s just say there was a snake involved). Great time – but there are a lot of steps ahead of us to get ready. But, at least, now it’s eyes set toward Kosovo!