Albania: On the wild side

Alex Wade discovers some dramatic walking terrain in Albania


The old shepherdess jumped up as soon as she saw me. Clad entirely in black, she had been resting with her mountain goats, eating wild berries. My arrival prompted a wide, toothless grin, which was rapidly replaced by incomprehensible wailing, and, soon enough, weeping.

The old shepherdess jumped up as soon as she saw me. Clad entirely in black, she had been resting with her mountain goats, eating wild berries. My arrival prompted a wide, toothless grin, which was rapidly replaced by incomprehensible wailing, and, soon enough, weeping.

As the tears fell from her bright blue eyes, she gestured ever more frantically. What had I done? It was a balmy winter's day in the mountains in Lunxheria, southern Albania. I hadn't seen a soul all morning and all seemed well with the world.

" Nero! Nero!" she screamed, waving at the mountains. " Nero!" she said again, grabbing my shirt. At last, from a summer in Greece many years ago, I remembered that nero was Greek for "water". And Lunxheria – close to the Greek border – has a number of Greek-minority villages. So that was it, she wanted a drink.

I offered her my water bottle and she grabbed it with such alacrity that I wondered if I'd see it again. But instead of drinking from it, she took a battered water bottle of her own and started pouring its contents into mine. Then she thrust a loaf of bread at me, and half of her collection of berries. I thanked her as well as I could, and carried on up the mountain.

Below, I could make out the village of Dhoksat, one of a dwindling number in Lunxheria to still be populated, from where I'd begun my day's hike. A faint haze covered the lush valley floor beyond Dhoksat. The still air, and the sense that everything had always looked like this in Lunxheria, was briefly disturbed as an eagle swept across the skies, about 50 feet away. Within seconds, it was gone, up over the ridge to which I was making painful progress, thanks to too many glasses of raki the night before. But I had first-hand evidence that Albania deserved the name given to it by its people. Albanians call their country Shqiperi, meaning Land of the Eagles.

About half the size of Scotland, Albania is every bit as dramatic, with over two thirds of its land mountainous, perfect for eagles – and wolves. Fortunately, I didn't run into any, leaving me ample time to reflect on the stunning landscape of Lunxheria, some of Europe's finest walking terrain. The mountains rise to around 2,000m in south-east Albania, the southern foothills sweeping down to Greece. The region was prosperous during Ottoman times, as can be seen from the grandeur of some of its houses, and the many churches and monasteries in the villages, which themselves are strung out in a line, linked by ancient footpaths, some 600m beneath the top of the mountain range.

I was a strange sight to many Lunxiotes, whose villages are barely visited in the summer let alone mid-November, but although I only knew as much Albanian as they did English, they were very hospitable. The berries tasted good. I made it to the top of the ridge, and by the time I got back to Dhoksat, I'd drunk every drop of water I'd been carrying, and was dying for more. I swore never to drink raki again, and was grateful to the centuries-old tradition of hospitality to foreigners in Albania.

Regent Holidays specialises in Albania (0117-921 1711)

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