When last FromSwampToSummit wrote she was wandering through downtown Orlando, contemplating the eerie emptiness of the heretofore bustling streets and plazas. But after her husband questioned the sanity of continuing to go into the office each day, even by foot, the interests of marital harmony (especially under lockdown) took precedence over the walk to work every day goal. So those excursions have been circumscribed to once a week.
But what, you ask, does this have to do with Acotango, a potentially active volcano of over 19,000 feet located in Bolivia? (Photo of Acotango By Gerard Prins – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.) Well, it turns out that it is very difficult to try to stay in shape without some goal ahead. The sheer pleasure of being in shape somehow isn’t enough to put up with the pain. And yes, Katahdin in Maine lies ahead in July, and presuming we can travel by then, I am sure will present a challenge – but somehow, not enough to keep these now 59 year old legs pumping.
Spur of the moment last weekend we picked up the phone and called our adventure companion S in Alaska, of Stok Kangri and Mt. Elbrus fame. See, among others, The Peak – Summit of Stok Kangri, India. He too is looking for that next expedition and between the three of us we have cobbled together the start of a plan.
Based on J’s research, it looks as though a trip through the salt flats of Bolivia and the world’s highest desert, capped by a non technical climb of Acotango could be in order. The landscape is dry and otherworldly – odd rock formations. And Acotango itself may still have life – apparently it erupted 10,000 years ago, which is recent in volcanic terms. So there’s still life in those old bones.
What better way to celebrate my 60th birthday next year and the 10th anniversary of our climbing career! Let the training begin.
For years J and I have puzzled about the Klondike. No, not of Alaskan gold rush fame, but the mysteriously named strip of sand, dune, palmetto, and marsh that lies between the end of the roads at Playalinda Beach (parking area 13, where signs warn of nude sunbathing) and Apollo Beach (parking area 5, which I don’t believe has any similarly salacious signage although since I haven’t been there yet, I’m not sure).
It’s 13 miles between the two beaches. Some internet research had suggested there was actually a trail that veered off the beach, although the post from a year ago cryptically mentioned it “did not seem to be maintained” and was “not well-marked.” A call to the Visitors Center further confirmed that “no one is allowed back there” and whoever had been so adventuring was “doing something they weren’t supposed to.” Being law abiding citizens, we decided we would just stick to the beach, which seemed to be grudgingly accepted as permissible as long as we purchased our back country hiking permits.
The logistics of hiking straight through end to end seemed too daunting, at least for a first attempt. It would have taken two cars, with multiple drop offs and pickups. Thus, the plan was to hike half of the south to north route and turn back; next time we’ll hike the other half, north to south and then reverse; and theoretically, after that, we’ll figure out the logistics to do the whole thing.
Temperatures were in the low 70s, with a little chance of rain despite steely grey clouds, so we knew conditions should be good. Despite the signs promising nude sunbathing there was little to be found in the morning. The hike started off in some soft sand that hardened a bit as we got further away from the road. We soon passed the permit required sign, and the one lone person who had been ahead of us turned around and headed back toward civilization.
Not so us! We kept on going, along a medium wide strip of beach that narrowed to an alarming few feet and backed us up to the edge of the dunes at certain points. We could see points of land ahead, sheathed in sea spray, and had not clue what might be on the other sidet. And not a person around. Eerie is the word that comes to mind.
Glancing over the small dunes, edged with sea oats and palmettos, we could see the lagoon (what in North Carolina we would call the Sound) across a marshy area. But in some places the island itself narrowed, and I was conscious of being on a windswept strip of sand that one rogue wave could easily submerge.
As we continued on, the tide – I think we were at high tide and it turned as we were hiking – brought in a steady stream of human detritus. Full size plastic trash cans. A Gatorade bottle, still full. An air compressor with its power cord stretched out along the beach like a tail. And thousands of pieces of flaked plastic that blended into the white chipped scallop shells. So here we were, on a completely remote and uninhabited beach, yet surrounded by plastic.
It was so bright that I couldn’t really see my Fitbit, except when I synced it to my phone, so we strictly adhered to our time estimates. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck behind the gates after the park closed. As we turned back, at approximately the half way mark, we could see our footprints, except for the spots where the waves had worn them away. There was something reassuring about knowing we’d already walked that way before.
We crushed through seashells, dodging sea suds blown all around us. On the way out, we had only seen pelicans. But the sun had now come out, and so had many small little seabirds, congregating at the edge of the water as though they were attending a convention.
Finally we started to see signs of life other than of the two legged and winged variety. I guess you could say it was a little Adam and Eve like, as the first person we saw, striding purposefully along in the surf, caused J to say, “does he not have clothes on?” Apparently the long promised nude sunbathers were now out in full force.
It was a monotonous hike (and a great workout), and it took some mental energy to keep on going (especially given the blisters I discovered I’d developed by the end). But when it’s monotonous – yet scary – you focus on the here and now. A lesson in mindfulness. And we’ve still got the other half to go.
I will confess. I have a stone in my coat pocket, purloined from some exotic spot, I know not where. It could be from Ladakh, India on the way to Stok Kangri. Or I might have surreptitiously slipped it into my pocket on the trek to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps it dates even further back, to the more domestic but no less adventurous White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Whatever its origin, I get enormous pleasure from touching its rough edges, rolling it between my fingers. The rock of unknown ancestry is the descendant of the lucky pecan I kept in my coat pocket for years. My lucky pecan was picked up on Minerva Avenue (what a name of a street to grow up on) and resided in my old Michael Kors jacket – bought at a Tuesday Morning, no less – until the sad day that said jacket disappeared, I think in California. I believe I was as upset about the loss of the lucky pecan as I was by the loss of the jacket. By then the pecan had grown smooth as silk from my rolling it around in my hand as I walked, like an organic worry stone. And I figured if I were ever stranded on a desert island perhaps I could eat it and survive, or plant it as a sign of hope for the future. Although admittedly, the latter probably wouldn’t improve my chances of survival.
But regardless, those talismans in my coat pockets make something concrete out of the virtual world in which we live. Our lives are comprised now of internet virtuality even more ethereal than the wispy clouds you zoom through when taking off in an airplane. There’s nothing to touch, and the world becomes like a memory.
One of my yoga teachers brought small polished stones to class the other day, for people to hold as they chose in class. I guess the same concept as my purloined rock. It makes those past summits real, just like the lucky pecan anchored where I grew up. And this small rock is now inspiring me to return to the stairs, backpack and all, to get ready to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
People keep asking me, “What’s the next one?” The reality is that we are in a between year. Trying not to make it sound like the doldrums (what a great word), but when I looked at my schedule for next year, I simply can’t find a spot for a two week trip plus weekends on either side. I am usually able to preserve that period of respite but this year’s judicial system apparently had other ideas in mind. Hmm.
We haven’t had a between year for a while. In fact, I think since 2013 which somewhat inadvertently turned into one due to a virulent flu attack on J as we were about to embark on our Hawaii backpacking trip. Since then, we’ve climbed Elbrus, Ecuador’s volcanoes, hiked the Scottish Highlands and the Peaks of the Balkans, and summited Stok Kangri at all of its over 20,000 foot splendor.
So what will 2020 hold? The year itself – with its parallel numbers – must mean something. Thus far, the idea is a throwback – a week at the North Carolina beach with family and friends. Haven’t done that for years. And hopefully the daughters are now old enough to avoid sea kayaking accidents like the one many years ago that caused me to call 911 to everyone’s great embarrassment since they’d hauled themselves out of the ocean by the time the rescue team arrived. I suspect we are still black listed at the sea kayak rental place.
But as fun as that will be, there have to be some actual summits somewhere. It looks like work will take me to Seattle over spring break – and there appear to be some nearby hikes with a good 3500-4000 feet of elevation gain. And N, A’s boyfriend, has suggested we hike the northern part of the Appalachian Trail and summit Mt. Katahdin. It’s the highest mountain in Maine and he promises he knows the way to reach its 5,267 foot peak.
That sounds appealing. Given that the odds of our hiking the entire AT are probably close to nil we might as well cross the finish line first.
So, I may wrap the decade of my 50s with local summits. They are just as important as the others. But 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of all my mountaineering and related adventures. Entertaining suggestions for another non (or at least mostly non) technical, over 20,000 foot mountain for my 60th birthday next year! Got to keep looking toward the future!
Yoga. It’s been an underlying theme to this blog since the early days. In fact, I’ve tried to honor my practice by doing at least a few asanas on mountains and trails through all of our adventures – from the steep treks in Nepal to India to rocky riverbed hikes in Austin, Texas.
Over the last couple of weeks of silence on the blog – I promise I really haven’t been binge watching TV (well, I did finish Succession) – I have been spending at least a little time honing my thoughts on the topic.
I started practicing regularly at the Y back in the early 2000s, when my daughters were old enough that I felt I could take two hours respite from motherly, lawyerly, chief cook and bottlewasher duties on Sunday afternoons. I still remember my first yoga class. I positioned myself in the back row of the 30 or so yogis – that was pre the construction of the Y’s yoga studio and we practiced in the “Fitnasium,” a fancy word for a small gym. You could line yourself up with the various floor markings. My yoga teacher at that class remained my Sunday afternoon yoga teacher for almost 20 years until she recently stepped down. And I’ve been practicing with the guy next to me now for an equivalent length of time. He’s ten or so years older than I and I’m now older than he was when we first met.
There’s a community that forms in a regular yoga practice. Wednesdays and Sundays are my days of choice. While people come and go there been a regular core of us over the years. I refer to them as my yoga buddies. There’s something to be said for the sharing that goes on as you contort yourself into the next pretzel like position. And before or after class we can complain about our latest ache or pain or the state of the world in general. It’s those little interactions that build connection (karma?) that can carry you through your week and up your next summit.
Teachers – and I’ve been blessed with great ones – can add to the practice, but they really are guides, not yoga maestros. It’s the combination of energy and eventual calm of those in class that creates the yogic environment.
How, you may ask, does this relate to summits? Well, aside from the obvious physical benefits – clambering up rock frequently require flexibility – there’s a mindset that goes with you. It’s a degree of determination that you can in fact hold that posture for a few seconds beyond what you thought. It’s a focus on that next step in front of you instead of obsessing about whether there’s a fake summit a few hundred (but oh so long and steep) meters away. It’s keeping an intention in your mind, body, spirit that propels you upward. It works for work, too.
My Wednesday night yoga class is the one that lets me know I really can get through the rest of the week. My Sunday one brings the calm that lets me start a new one. Both summits, of a sort. Namaste.
Axe throwing, duck pin bowling, and flower cutting. J says it's been my personal triathlon of the last three weeks. It hardly rivals Everest, swimming the English Channel, and riding from the Pacific to the Atlantic (shout out to Rob Lea), but, hey, it's mine.
If I've been silent on this blog recently it's because life has caught up with steps and stairs and summits. How about having graduated from high school 40 years ago? Or a visit to our almost 29 year old daughter in an old Victorian in Providence, Rhode Island, together with longtime boyfriend N and a VERY LARGE CAT who has just joined the family. I think cats can go by full names on the blog. It's Milo. Name came from the cat shelter but it seems to fit.
The 40th year reunion, of course, was part of a trip to the hometown, where the parents still live in the house I grew up in. The city, known to movie and baseball buffs as Bull Durham (yes, I originally and mistakenly posted “the home of field of dreams,” displaying my lack of knowledge of both baseball and movies, as J pointed out), has changed immeasurably from the 1970s when I was last a regular resident. I’m sure none of the rest of us have. Frankly, most of my high school classmates – about half our class showed up, rather remarkable, looked pretty darn good. I did keep thinking a lot of that may have been the fact I grew up with a privileged group of kids. Wonder what it might have been like if we’d been working minimum wage jobs.
Highlight of the event – axe throwing! This wasn’t the school sponsored activity. The lawyer in me says there could be liability concerns. It’s a more bombastic and less refined version of darts. Instead of a paltry little darts with a few tail feathers to stabilize its flight to a board filled with intricately designed segments with assigned point by point numbers – you’re given a hatchet, with a good sized handle that you simply arch back and hurl, two handed, to a plywood panel with three crudely drawn concentric circles. I loved it. If you have a high stress job it’s an excellent release.
That weekend was followed by Providence, Rhode Island, the new home of daughter A and Boyfriend N. Rhode Island has all sorts of things to offer that can fit into a triathalon of weird weekend trips.
First up – two pounds of New Bedford scallops, for free. One of the advantages, apparently, to having connections in New Bedford, home of the scallop fishing industry.
The seafood fiesta was followed by a Providence Day, loosely organized by N and friends. Doughnuts were followed by a trip to a not for profit that’s running a cutting garden out of a bombed out looking area of Providence. The flowers go loose to organizations that help people in times of stress on the theory that making arrangements is very therapeutic. They are then assembled into bouquets for those who need something to get through the day. The former factory on the site had something to do with knives, I think.
You can’t go to Providence without some time at Rhode Island School of Design. Let’s just say that their crafts fair was shoulders above your normal one.
From flowers the only next logical stop was duck pin bowling. Apparently big in Rhode Island (and I believe Maryland also), the alleys are all wood, the pins are small fat little objects, the balls are small and don’t have finger holes, and real human beings are at the end of each lane to reset the pins. I loved it. No possibility of your fingers getting ripped off if they got stuck in the bowling ball. Apparently the one we were at was the original bowling alley at a factory – management had installed it to give the workers something to do on their breaks.
We finished off with a trip down to the South Coast, a nice hike and lunch at a favorite restaurant, The Red Dory. Aside from the fact daughter A might have been bitten by a Lyme disease infected tick, a good time had by all. Plus, trees were in full autumnal garb, always a treat to us Florida folk. And that was topped off by a visit to a farmers market with its own flower cutting field.
So hardly a couple of weeks of real summits. But a good reminder that each little daily activity can have its own summit moment, if you just keep it in perspective.
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 travel journal starts off: I am sitting in the warm sunshine on a picnic bench at the Guesthouse Lepushe, in Albania, surrounded by the Accursed Mountains. Several of our group are playing cards, and another is sharing wine made by the nuns at the monastery we visited the previous day – straight from the plastic screw top bottle – with a pasted on label over the original brand. I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Two days ago our first full day of trekking began with a classic Kosovo breakfast on the porch -tomatoes, egg, puffy fried bread, cheese and olives. Somehow all the trekkers at the home stay each got a turn at the one bathroom before setting off. Lunch food was set out so everyone could make their own sandwiches for what was billed as the most difficult of the trekking days.
We took jeeps to the start of the trail, which started with a straight up trajectory. They don’t believe in switchbacks here. We later learned that a lot of the trails were old smugglers’ paths. We hiked through long-grassed meadows where the wildflowers became even more exotic – now shocking blue periwinkles interrupted the yellows, pinks, and purples. Our first stop was a glacial lake – not blue but green glass. A second glacial lake came soon after, this one very low and banded by rock.
We continued onward and upward, finally reaching the Jalanek Pass, with limestone cliffs all about. Walking along the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, ultimately we started to follow the “signs” down, bringing us into Montenegro. It was a very long descent with some rocky spots – we had gained a lot of elevation.
After 7 hours or so, we could finally see the vans that were to deliver us to that night’s accommodationway below us across some meadows. However, it turned out those fields were the property of an ancient farmer who staggered over to us with a walking stick in each hand while we had stopped for a very brief rest. He was seemingly unable to speak in words but eventually pulled out a piece of paper that made clear he expected tribute for crossing. Our guide quickly rallied us all and we ascended back up the meadows and found a way down through some fields being harvested by a much more congenial farmer who apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.
The next controversy involved deep unhappiness among the drivers of the three vans – too many had been ordered and our guide had had no cell service so he couldn’t let anyone know. Eventually, after a flurry of extremely loud communication – with great umbrage and angst on all sides – we ended up with all three vans, although J was the only passenger in one of them.
Following our 7-8 hour trek, we had an hour or so drive to some cottages in a national park where we were staying the night. We drove through several small towns, a number with Florida style McMansions planted right next to traditional small concrete dwellings. Nothing is really “quaint” here – the utilitarian architecture of post WW2 USSR left a strong mark. According to our guide, Montenegro is now a good place to house money, and Montenegrans who reside in the west frequently maintain large residences in the Montenegran countryside.
By then, somehow we had assuaged the van drivers and we all loaded into two vans for the final stretch. There were 4 of us in a three person row in the smaller van. The steep uphill on the way to the national park simply proved too much for its engine, and despite several valient attempts (I kept thinking of the little engine that could), it kept stalling half way up the mountain. Eventually four of us got out and finished the day the way we started – trekking up the last hill.
The cottages that night felt quite luxurious. Each couple had their own, with a private bathroom and a little porch. I felt like I was in the tiny house show. There was also a great restaurant, filled with families, many in Islamic dress but an equal number in western garb.
The next day it was time to venture into Albania. As a child of the ’70s, I still found it unbelievable that you were permitted into that country, which was historically one of the most closed off places in the world. The first part was uphill through a dark and gloomy forest. It was overcast and quite humid. Finally the sun started to break out, and we reached the tree line, through more meadows and to the top of the first peak of the day. From that peak we descended along a saddle and back up along a very exposed ridge that connected the peaks. We could see Albania. But there was another peak yet to be climbed!
Sheer drops were on either side of the ridge trail but that didn’t seem to bother the flocks of goats that were cavorting along the hillsides. The Accursed Mountains loomed over the trail, steep sharp crags etched against the sky. The wind finally died down and we were able to stop and take a lunch break on the top of the second peak.
We took our time on the long meandering descent, finally walking into the little village of Lepushe, Albania for another home stay. There, J, me, A and N shared what must have originally been the kitchen. It was quite convenient to have our own sink in the room.
We arrived about mid-afternoon on an absolutely lovely day. One other small group was staying but it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere. Boys were racing a donkey and a horse in the dirt street; the owners gave us a tour of the restaurant they were building out of stone next to the house. I’m also pretty sure we say our dinner being butchered on a stone slab.
We watched the sun sink over the Accursed Mountain, suddenly turning the steel grey into a soft pink. I guess that’s sort of how I felt about Albania.
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.