In mid-July I started my walking tour of the Albanian Alps, which Albanians rather ominously call ‘the Accursed Mountains’. I’d been looking forward to this for months. The mountains actually extend into Montenegro and Kosovo, and have been joined together in an inspiring project called the Balkans Peace Park.
And what a walk it was. Fabulous scenery, perfect weather and a generous welcome in every village. My 120-mile route wound freely back and forth between the three countries, but despite ethnic and language differences the people I met were uniformly wonderful. Although they migrate to lower altitudes in winter, I found most of them remarkably cut off from the outside world.
Buildings varied from quaint to rustic to just bizarre. On the Albanian border I spotted the derelict bunker on the right below, complete with machine-gun lookout, one of half a million built by Albania’s one-time Communist government to prop up its fancy that the country was forever about to be invaded.
Much of this is limestone country, and finding water was a constant problem. Not so food, which people laid on with heart-warming spontaneity in every village. Cheese, yoghurt and milk were the main ingredients of every meal.
Farming here hasn’t changed for decades. It’s rustic and organic, but hard work for both animals and humans.
I was surprised and impressed by people’s affection for old-fashioned implements and traditional ways.
And at the end of the day we were all ready for a feast. Oops, it’s cheese again.
The hard work and tough mountain life seems to invigorate people and forge friendships across the ethnic and religious divides.
This was the idea behind the Peaks of the Balkans trail, and after nearly three weeks meeting its rough-and-ready shepherds, farmers and villagers I think I’ve glimpsed some tentative steps towards reconciliation.
The big cities are another matter, as I’ll find out this week when I go to northern Kosovo and the angry Serb enclave of North Kosovska Mitrovica.