Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans
Day 5: Rekë e Allegës to Drelaj
This is the fifth in a series of posts about our experiences taking on the Peaks of the Balkans trekking circuit. I traveled with my daughter Rebecca and a 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.
At the end of each blog post is a video recapping highlights from the day’s journey.
We were too stuffed from our wonderful lunch yesterday to be able to partake of the wonderful dinner provided by our hosts at Ariu Guesthouse last night. But some of the leftovers were served for breakfast! So we got a good start for the day.
Becca and I were getting hiking weary. The steep daily ups and downs were taking their toll on our knees and feet. There was a paved road to our next destination—an alternative to the official trail’s elevation gain and loss.
On reading our guidebook, it seemed that this stage, although shorter, would be less interesting anyway, so Becca and I opted to take the paved road to Drelaj. Nev took the “high road” and met us there in the mid-afternoon.
Nev later reported that the stage was indeed a bit boring. There was a side trail up to the summit of Hajla (2400 meters) that some people take, but Nev decided to come straight to Drelaj.
Despite the fact that Becca hates hiking on pavement, we enjoyed the nine kilometers down to the Rugova River. Much of it was in the shade. There was a short side trail up to a series of waterfall in a cool gorge. There is a myth that a wood nymph lives in this gorge and protects the valley.
Once we reached the bottom of the gorge, we walked an easy uphill and encountered a great deal of road construction. Many people in cars, trucks, and on the construction crews stopped us. “Where are you from?” Our answer of “America” widened eyes and we were met with welcome smiles. Not many people from the United States are seen here.
Soon we turned uphill for a short way to the friendly Guesthouse Shigiponia. It was not yet noon, but the host cheerfully served us coffee.
We rested and chatted with an Australian trekker for part of the day. Nev arrived in early afternoon. He only had 12 kilometers to walk. But, of course, it was a much more difficult route.
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The Best-Laid Plans…
As it turned out, the hospitality at Shigiponia was over the top—and here is why…
In the night, I work up to a gurgling stomach. Before long I was running down the hall to the toilet to empty my stomach. The rest of the night was passed in that misery that only the 24-hour stomach bug can bring on. Nev did not get sick, but Becca was not up to her normal health the next day. No one else staying at the guesthouse got sick, so we knew it was not from the dinner.
Between my many naps, we pretty much wasted a perfectly good hiking day trying to decide what to do. When it was apparent that I was still not keeping even bits of food down by noon, we decided to split up.
The next two stages of the trek (Drelaj to Balbino Polje and Balbino Polje to Plav) were not reported to be especially beautiful, so Nev planned to skip them. He would take a bus from Drelaj down to the Kosovan city of Peje, stay overnight in a hostel, and then take a bus to Plav in Montenegro the next day. Rebecca and I would decide on next steps once I was back up to par.
By mid-afternoon, I felt better and was able to eat a bit. Our sweet host brought a tray of soup and potatoes to the room. I nibbled the rest of the afternoon. By evening, Becca and I had a rough plan for the next day.
As we left Drelaj, Becca and I only had tentative plans. It was easy to walk down the hill and hop on the local bus that would take us to the city of Peje. But we were not able to learn online what busses would then take us to Tiranna or Skroder in Albania, or Plav in Montenegro. We would have to wait until we got to the bus station to find out. We decided to make further plans after we had more information.
It was a beautiful 45-minute bus ride through the Rugova Valley along the sparklingly clear rushing river. Riding down the valley made me want to get off the bus and walk. I decided I really wanted to come back here to explore the area more.
While I was checking the timetable on the bus station wall, I heard Rebecca exclaim behind me and I knew before I turned that we had serendipitously encountered Nev. We were all surprised and instantly our plans were set. Nev was going to Plav to take up the trek from there. It just made sense to join him. We still had another rest day scheduled in Plav, so I would have plenty of time to decide if I wanted to tackle the last two (and possibly hardest) days.
The bus would not be leaving until 1:30, so we had time to walk around town and get some lunch.
The Old Bazaar was completely leveled during the Kosovo War (1998-99), but it has been rebuilt into this lovely pedestrian mall with many varied shops and stalls.
To help settle stomachs, we stopped to buy a drink similar to kifir that is popular in the Balkans. As it turned out it was a fizzy version. At the café table, I opened it and the contents exploded everywhere—mostly all over me and my chair. I guess I had shaken it just enough while walking. Rebecca had gone to the toilet and when she got back, she exclaimed, “I cannot take you anywhere!” A woman at the neighboring table chuckled.
Our café was near this plaza where four flags fly: Kosovan; Albanian because most people in Kosovo are ethnic Albanians; the European Union because Kosovo hopes to be a part of the EU soon; and, interestingly, the US flag. The United States is held in high regard in the region because of the major role it took in ending Serbian control of the country, the aid and political support the US has given Kosovo, and because it was the first country to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. Whenever we told people we were from the United States, their eyes brightened with welcome.
We wished we had had more time to explore this lovely city. It only takes a 45-minute mini-bus ride down from Drelaj to visit Peje. So if you are considering doing this trek, I recommend taking an extra day or two to visit. There are several inexpensive hostels in town. Nev recommends Bora Hostel. Or you can just take a mini-bus down from Drelaj in the morning and return to your guesthouse in the afternoon.
Shortcut to Montenegro
The bus ride over the pass into Montenegro was beautiful enough to keep us entertained. We disembarked twice at the border—once to leave Kosovo and again to enter Montenegro.
The bus left us off in Plav practically in front of our guesthouse! This is the first time I have seen a mini-bus haul a trailer for the passengers’ luggage! Under our luggage the driver also hauled freight bound for Plav.
We had already scheduled a rest day in Plav and had reservations for the extra day that we could not cancel. We had a little upset in our original plans, but we were now back on schedule. The nice thing about this was that we had booked reservations (some that were not refundable) at four guesthouses in the next week, and it would have been a mess to try to rearrange all of them.
At this point, all of us had digestive systems that were mildly rebelling for one reason or another. We guessed that it was mostly from eating the same unfamiliar food over and over, few fruits and fresh vegetables, way too much white bread, dehydration, and the stresses of this challenging trek.
We were tired and definitely ready to see the end of the journey.
But the guidebook promised some more spectacular scenery over the next two days, so I was embarking with the hope that the scenic reward would compensate for these challenging last two days.
We had optimistically reasoned during the first part of the trek that we might be able to get sufficiently stronger during the first several days to make the last two easier. But as day 6 approached, I had my doubts that the expectation would come true.
And now for the video!
Other Blog Posts You May Find Interesting
Peaks of the Balkans-Day 1:Valbona to Çerime
It was not without some trepidation that we started out on our Peaks of the Balkans circuit … We knew that our choice to go over the Prolipsit and Borit passes would test our strength—almost 20 kilometers with an elevation gain of 1422 meters.
Peaks of the Balkans-Day 2: Çereme to Doberdol
Today, as we had expected, was easier overall. There was an easy uphill until about the halfway point. Then we had lovely rolling hills and ridges to traverse for the rest of the day. There were no real hurdles.
Peaks of the Balkans-Day 7
I had not been looking forward to this last challenge of the trek. And it lived up to its reputation, with myriad switchbacks and trails that were so narrow that faster hikers could not easily pass me.