Updated on September 29, 2016
Updated on September 29, 2016
The other morning as I dug my tennis shoes out of a bag in the rental car, I wondered how my shoes fit in my suitcase three weeks earlier. I don’t buy souvenirs, so it wasn’t an issue of decreased space or increased luggage. It’s just somehow the things that magically fit before had been so shuffled and rearranged that nothing was in place anymore.
This is a perfect analogy for how it feels to go home after 3 weeks of traveling throughout the rather rustic Albania.
I was starting to get used to living in Austin as a home base. Things were starting to fit into place.
And now my metaphorical shoes are strewn across the floor of a metaphorical rental car…
Maybe it’s a testament to how much I enjoyed Albania.
I don’t assume that everyone is going to spend a whole two and a half weeks solely in Albania. I even get this impression from the restaurant and hotel workers there, as they ask if we are coming from or heading to Greece.
But it was a wonderful trip, and I was very happy with my time there. Do I recommend others spend as much time in Albania? Well…only if you’re curious to see everywhere the way we are. If instead you are looking for a destination to add to a broader trip of the balkans, there is one spot in particular that I would absolutely recommend.
Theth is a national park that would be about a 2 hour drive from Shkroder if it weren’t for the last 15 Km of road that are unpaved and harrowing. This adds another hour and a half, even in a 4WD vehicle. And in my opinion, it pretty much requires either a 4WD vehicle or spare tires, good rental insurance, and an absurd level of patience for being either stranded or losing your bumper.
We rented a giant 4WD vehicle for our 2 1/2 day excursion into Theth and I was glad we did, even though some of the other folks at our guest house had successfully made the drive down in ordinary sedans.
(There are also minibuses that transport people back and forth- many of the travel agencies in Shkoder will be able to provide bits of information about this option.)
For a tiny, quaint village, Theth seems to have ample guest houses. We used Airbnb to find ours and only paid $36 a night for our private room at Shpella guest house.
Our guest house provided free breakfast, packed lunches for a few bucks, and family-style meals every evening for an extra ~$9. It seems this is how many of the guest houses function since there aren’t really restaurants or grocery stores to be found. The evening meal was definitely worth the money for both the quality of the traditional dishes and for the social/entertainment value (as there’s not much to do once it’s too dark for trekking.)
When you are in Theth, you cannot ignore the giants that surround you, the striking peaks of the Albanian alps. Their quiet, towering presence makes you perpetually aware of your absolute isolation in that valley.
Not only this, but as you trek through the village you will see more and more signs of this isolation. It’s as if you’ve traveled back in time. Water is funneled through above-ground aquifers. Fences are constructed from branches that are woven together. There are footpaths connecting the little farms and houses instead of streets.
It struck me as we hiked the steep trail up towards the mountain pass to Valbona, that there was not a single car to be heard echoing from the valley. I heard instead the faint chime of sheep bells and an occasional dog’s bark.
The first mile of our hike took us through the little footpaths that connected these rustic houses, and this to me was just as captivating as the mountain view we’d see a few hours later. On our way up the trail, we came across a little pavilion of sticks and branches. Of course, it wasn’t just a pavilion. It was a coffee shop.
We crossed two of these in our journey that day before reaching the top.
And once we did reach the top of the pass, the view was absolutely breathtaking. The kind of scene that reminds you with a jolt that the very rock you’re standing on is its own thing with its own tumultuous story, rising and crashing into a landscape of confused, jagged layers. A map of an ancient things.
What can you do with a view of the edge of earth? Only let it stupify you for a moment.
Take a breath. Take a selfie. Both.
The wind was cool enough that we took the view in small sips, otherwise huddling behind a short tree with our backs turned to the vast expanse of peaks and valleys and wind. We stayed there for awhile eating the packed lunch our guest house had provided.
It was a simple lunch. Just a sack of vegetables. A whole tomato, a whole cucumber, and a chunk of thick baguette and cheese. The kind of food that makes sense when you’re crouched on the rocks of a fierce mountainside, but somehow doesn’t when you’re back in the “real world.” Somehow then it all needs to be chopped and mixed in a bowl with olive oil and vinegar. But when you’ve just hiked to the edge of the earth, you can bite into a tomato like an apple and imagine that it’s exactly the right way to do it.
Journeys like these are my favorite. The kinds of experiences you have to work for or pursue.
We drove over 3 hours through rough mountain roads then hiked over three hours up the steep side of a mountain for that experience. And each mile whether driven or hiked adds to the impression of isolation and awe.
I find this to be true with road trips in general, and even long flights. There’s something special about experiencing the distance in addition to the destination. Feeling how far from home you really are. How big the planet is, and how powerless we are without our precious infrastructures and routines. It makes travel all the more amazing to me.
So in short, go to Theth.