Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Days 1 and 2

After a first evening of wandering around lost in the pouring rain and a morning of wandering around lost in the sunshine, Maria and I spotted salvation:  a signpost on top of a hill!  Surely that would tell us where we were and we could be properly on our way around the trail.  I ran over to the sign.

"What's it say?" called Maria.
"Turn back now..." I answered.

Maria laughed at my joke, which unfortunately was not actually a joke and was what the sign really said.  Whether it was referring to land mines or just the end of a day hike, it wasn't the most inspiring message for the start of a run, especially when you've just run across the ground behind the sign.

We were in Montenegro to run the 200km Peaks of the Balkans loop trail, which takes in a national forest area encompassing Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.  What had happened was that we had accidentally started our run on the one section of trail that is completely unmarked.  Our starting point was Plav, Montenegro, and we were supposed to be headed in a counterclockwise circle through the rest of Montenegro and then Albania and Kosovo.

Coming out of Plav, a brief break in the rain

But with only a large-scale map that didn't show most of the trails on the ground and zero trail markings to help, we had been reduced to using the compass the whole time and going in the general direction that the trail was supposed to go.  The first evening, after 3 hours of running/walking in the rain, we spend a very soggy, cold night camping, unsure if we were even anywhere near the trail.  In the morning it was still cold and a little rainy-looking, and I was silently in favor of turning around and going back to Plav.  But fortunately we pushed on and eventually came upon the "turn back" sign, which, despite its negativity, did name the hill it was on, and that hill was on our map, so we were able to plot a cross-country route to intersect the trail.

Our navigational worries were far from over, but eventually we did find our trail that morning.  Everything improved dramatically at this point.  The trail was perfect and runnable.  We had great views on all sides.  And soon we were treated to our first experience of the region's amazing hospitality:  running through a small summer shepherds' camp, we were invited into a family's house for coffee, fresh milk, cheese, and honey.  In the two days before the trip, I had given myself a crash course in Albanian, and it was now time to attempt to actually speak it.  It worked!  At least, on my five-year-old level of ability it worked.  Maria improved our standing greatly by having remembered to bring cigarettes and chocolate to offer in return.  We left well-fed, caffeinated, and seriously impressed by everyone's friendliness.

Just after the shepherds' camp was one of the most beautiful sections of trail:

After this section the trail started being marked, which made our lives much, much easier.  We could put away the compass and map and just enjoy a pleasant, gradually downhill run into Vusanje, a village where we were planning to buy food for the remaining 20k over a big mountain pass to Theth.

But buying food was not to be.  Vusanje's one small food store ("store" is a little optimistic; think small roadside shack) was shut.  We were generously invited by a woman we saw out working in her garden to stay overnight at her house, but we had to press on since we were on a limited time schedule, not to mention that we were going to run out of food soon so it was a good idea to try to make it all the way to Theth that night.

From Vusanje we went up an easy trail through a deep valley lined with towering limestone spires.  The climbing here is undoubtedly good...

This was another excellent section of trail, though we did get a little demoralized by the false summits near the top of the pass.  We were getting seriously hungry (this would remain a theme throughout the trip...), though despite this Maria shared her remaining food with me.  My morale was also improved by getting to climb a nice little boulder problem near the top of the pass!

We saw a few people in this section--a couple of Germans, a guy who spoke Albanian but who I think was from Serbia, a shepherd with a huge flock of sheep and several herding dogs who were not amused at our presence--but overall the trail was quiet as usual.  Even in this section, which was one of the less remote, it was always noticeable how few people there were around.

Eventually we reached Qafa e Pejes pass:

 From here it was a beautiful but quad-bustingly steep descent into Theth, or actually Okol, a small village about 2km outside of Theth, where we stayed a very relaxing night in a guesthouse.  Staying in a guesthouse was so much better than camping!!  I had failed to learn the word for "dinner" in Albanian so I really struggled to ask if we could buy dinner there and for a half hour or so we weren't sure if we were going to get to eat.  But soon an enormous dinner appeared on the patio for us--eggs, cabbage and tomato salad, peppers, fried potatoes, pork, and bread.  It would turn out to be by far the most varied meal of the trip, and also, somewhat surprisingly, the only time we saw meat.  (I had thought Maria, a vegetarian, would struggle to find non-meaty food, but in reality there was barely any meat available.  The people who would have difficulty eating here would be those allergic to milk.)  Mirash, the guesthouse owner, drank some raki with us and did his best to keep us entertained despite my limited vocabulary.  We went to bed thrilled to be (a) inside and (b) not soaking wet.

Day 1:  Approximately 8km
Day 2:  At least 40km, probably around 45.


  1. Wow this scenery is gorgeous! I've always found people in rural areas to be warm and generous, but the hospitality you experienced sounds like it was above and beyond that. Awesome!

  2. Great admiration for these two fearless women! Many thanks to the kind people of the Balkans for their assistance.

  3. Just catching up on blog entries from the last year(!) Sounds like an inspiring adventure, I'm looking forward to reading parts 2-4...

  4. You can find more information on the conditions of the trail, markings and other details on our Peaks of the Balkans Guide - I hope you will find it helpful for planning your adventure. :)