Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans
Day 1: Valbona to Çerime
This is the second in a series of posts about our experiences taking on the Peaks of the Balkans trekking circuit. I traveled with my daughter Rebecca and friend Nev Chamberlain from the UK. We decided to make this journey without hiring a guide.
If you want to read the series from the beginning, start HERE.
In the last post, I will provide the resources that we used to make this excursion a success. I will also discuss the pros and cons of hiking the Peaks of the Balkans independently.
It was not without some trepidation that we started out on our Peaks of the Balkans circuit early in the morning.
At the end of each blog post is a video recapping highlights from the day’s journey.
There are two ways to travel to Çerime by foot: One is mostly on a dirt road that is much easier but is reported to be less stunning. We knew that our choice to go over the Prolipsit and Borit passes would test our stamina, but we opted for the more difficult trail—almost 20 kilometers with an elevation gain of 1422 meters.
As it turned out, we made the right decision—the entire hike up was incredibly beautiful despite the steep climb. But it was not without cost, as you will see.
Breakfast was included in our lodging at Rilindja Guesthouse, so we got a good start to the day. We ate in their beautiful garden. For five euros each, the kitchen prepared sack lunches for us to eat on the trail.
Our guesthouse host offered to take us to the trailhead, but since the trail begins with a long (four kilometer), steep ascent, we thought it would be a good idea to warm up our legs with the gentler ascent on the road from our lodging to the trailhead. Of course, this added 2.5 kilometers to the hike, and it was to be a long and challenging hike.
About half-way up we encountered our first large meadow. I have always loved alpine meadows, especially when the wildflowers are at their peak. Now I call these meadows our “reward” for all the hard work it takes to get to them.
But once we hit the alpine areas where the rugged peaks towered over us, we were pretty blown away. At one point I broke down in tears as I realized how incredible it was that I could experience such a wonder at this stage in my life.
After lunch, it was almost all downhill with lots of long steps, which took their toll on our tired knees. I am almost as slow going down as going up, but at least it is easier to get enough oxygen into my lungs for the task.
We had inquired at our guesthouse about the amount of snow on the trail. Sometimes these passes still have snow on them into late June. We were assured that the trails were cleared. And indeed, we only encountered two patches of snow. The first was easy to cross if you took your time.
The second patch of snow was interesting. There were a couple ways to cross it. Some Dutch women opted to cross over it. But we discovered a kind of walkway where the drift had melted away from the rock wall above it. So we went that way. We were not so sure it was easier or faster, but going through it was certainly entertaining!
Once we got down from the steepest part of the pass, we encountered a long, lush valley that we would traverse to reach our night’s stay.
The last several kilometers were tough, but not because they were so difficult technically—the last part of the hike took us down through the bottom of a valley so there was not much climbing up or clambering down steep parts. But we were exhausted, and at the very end, it became challenging to find the trail down through a dense (and darkening) forest into Çeremi. We had also run out of water because we did not know (at that point) that the water in the streams was safe to drink.
I was exhausted and I fought back tears and wondered if it would be a good idea for me to quit. I really was not sure if I could do this kind of hiking.
Rebecca went on ahead because the myriad mosquitos in the woods were driving her crazy. Also. we were running so late that we were afraid the guesthouse might think we were not coming and give away our beds. Nev and I dragged our bodies into the Kujtim Goçaj guesthouse at about 8:00 pm—quite late since most hikers make it by 5:00 or 6:00.
We were concerned that we would be too late for dinner, but Rebecca—already having showered by the time we had arrived–had assured the hosts that we were coming.
I failed to get a photo of an ingenious contraption at this guesthouse. Most homes in these mountains do not have electric refrigeration. Instead, they channel cold spring water into large containers filled with drinks to sell to travelers. But at Kujtim Goçaj, there were three or four normal-looking commercial refrigerators with glass doors—like you would see in any convenience store. But at the top spring water was led into a small sprinkler that sprayed upside down over the entire space, cooling the contents. Water pressure was provided by gravity, so the entire system was run naturally. A couple refrigerators were filled with beer and other cold drinks to sell. And the cook stored her cheese and other such ingredients in the last one.
I was so tired that my body was chilled from the stress. I was beginning to shiver, so I ate as quickly as possible and climbed into bed to get warm. Rebecca brought me some mint tea that was the perfect antidote. It was not long before I was dead to the world.
But I had my doubts about whether I would be able to complete this mission I had set for us. This had certainly been a day of highs and lows—in more ways than one!