When Leon McCarron ventured along the 200-kilometer-long trail that connects Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania, he found a path that entwines the region’s dark history, natural beauty and promising future.
It’s fall 2017 when I travel to the Balkans to explore what seemed to me to be a wonderfully audacious project: A 200-kilometer-long hiking trail called ‘Peaks of the Balkans’.
Connecting Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania, this series of pathways through the rugged and remote mountains that characterize these borderlands would be an engaging introduction to this under-visited region.
Pristina, Kosovo. It’s my first time here, and the streets are packed full. I walk down a pedestrianised street, and every other window seems to be a coffee shop with groups of teenagers with impossibly-coiffured hairstyles hanging around outside. The vibrant atmosphere that a newcomer finds now—and I found it all throughout the city center, day and night—is a poignant shift from much of Kosovo’s recent history.
The brutal Kosovo War in 1998 was the culmination of several decades of inter-ethnic tensions, and of cultural and religious persecution from Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. After millions of Kosovan were displaced or forced to flee the country, the United Nations stepped in, and 10 years later, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.
Another decade on and the capital is peaceful, though it’s true that the wider region still carries the scars of war.
Kosovo is still only a partially recognized state; along the border with Serbia, there are large swathes of disputed no-man’s land.
It also shares a border with Montenegro, which has been independent from Serbia since 2006. Historically, this entire region has been a melting pot of ethnicities and Montenegro, despite its small population and area, is still a place of incredible diversity; a place where they say you can swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon, and dine on seafood from the Adriatic or lamb from the mountains, all whilst being immersed in a variety of cultural traditions that are still intertwined across the country.
“The wars here are just a small part of all of the story of this place. They’re also the most depressing part. I prefer the other stuff.”
Luca, local resident
It’s in this direction that I begin walking, starting from the picturesque Rugova Valley on the Kosovan side. I stay in a chalet with a man called Mustafa, who remembered well the conflicts of the past. When I ask about the way to Montenegro, he says it’s easy, and beautiful, and that above all, it was now a “pathway between friends”.
The trail was mapped out in 2012 by a German development organization who had been inspired by the work of the ‘Balkans Peace Park’ project.
Their vision was to encourage visitors to these regions, to enjoy the legendary culture and hospitality, and through that, to build bridges between historically distinct communities.
And while this part of Europe is one of the least well-known to travelers, it has some of the continent’s most spectacular scenery. By developing a culture of tourism here—both domestic and international—the hope is this trail can inspire positive change, break down the old divisions, and empower local communities through the simple act of people coming together to walk in the hills.
The majority of the trail runs through a mountain range called Prokletije. The translation is the ‘Accursed Mountains’—which lends itself to all sort of obvious metaphors—but these days, walking here is much more of a blessing than anything.
It feels wild and empty, and during my time, I see few people save a few farmers here and there in the small villages across the hillsides. Some of these homes offer accommodation for hikers, and staying with a local family makes a pleasant change from nights in my tent—it was October and the nights had become longer and colder, so a hot meal and a sip of schnapps was never a bad idea.
With no Albanian or Montenegrin in my linguistic quiver, communication is sometimes challenging, but on my third night in Montenegro, I find that my host, a Luca, speaks good English. “The wars here are just a small part of all of the story of this place,” he tells me. “They’re also the most depressing part. I prefer the other stuff.”
He talks extensively about the Roman heritage in Montenegro; it found itself on the line that divided the eastern and western parts of the empire, he says. “We always been…in the middle.” He asks whether I think most western Europeans knew much about the importance of Balkans history. He means as a key liminal space; a centrifugal point around which much else revolved. My instinct is that we probably don’t. Most of us probably also don’t realise that this is one of the most unique landscapes in Europe environmentally, with exceptionally high level of endemism in the flora and fauna of the mountains.
It’s during this hike that I attempt to climb the highest mountain in Montenegro—Maja Kolata. It’s a long hike, and difficult because much of it is covered in snow. To see the trail becomes impossible, and I find myself walking on fresh snow across steep scree. Eventually it becomes clear that to go any further is foolish, and I turn back a few hundred meters from the top. As if to convince me that this was wise, the skies darken and the end of the day comes quickly.
When the ‘Peaks of the Balkans’ trail was first created, its intention was to help redefine the understanding of the Balkans as a place with more to offer than a region of conflict.
Despite the failure, I have the chance to look out across these borderlands from the highest point I’ve reached so far. A striking—yet obvious—feature of the landscape is how it doesn’t change or morph with the international borders; nature does not care for bureaucracy. It is also impressively vast and unarguably beautiful. Somewhere out there are brown bear, lynx, boar and deer; golden eagles and white stork and vultures and hawks. The isolation of the mountains has afforded these species protection that has been hard to sustain elsewhere.
As I walk below the dramatic curved walls of the glacially carved Ropojana Valley, my time in Montenegro is coming to an end. As the path climbs to the Pëjë pass, it winds around a number of mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers.
These mark the border with Albania—now, they’re all that’s left of the paranoia of former leader Enver Hoxha, who during his brutal rule, built hundreds of thousands of these bunkers across the country, at huge expense. They were designed ostensibly for times of war; to be used as defensive positions should an invasion occur. The enemy never came, but the population lived in constant fear. Still the bunkers can be seen everywhere across Albania, and the folly and hubris is even more apparent when one sees them out in the hills, alone and isolated, and surrounded not by enemies or spies but by the majesty of the mountains.
I descend down a steep track into the almost-impossibly quaint village of Theth ; a collection of traditionally-built wooden and stone homes, and dominated by the single spire of the church on the hill. All around, the mountains close in. Here, I catch a series of buses to take me up and over a pass to the outside world; namely, the Albanian city of Shkodër, and then onto the capital Tirana.
Tirana today is a modern, busy city with a strong cultural scene, and one which has consciously repurposed the dark infrastructure of this country’s past—the vast network of cells and bunkers below the city, for example, some of which were used as torture chambers, are now a museum, enlightening visitors to Albania’s history.
It’s well known that tourism projects, when well-planned and executed, can make a significant difference to the communities. Here, the countries involved are also taking steps to protect their remarkable biodiversity. It’s early stages, and right now it’s unclear what the impact will be. But interest in this region is growing with more hikers arriving every year.
When the ‘Peaks of the Balkans’ trail was first created, its intention was to help redefine the understanding of the Balkans as a place with more to offer than a region of conflict. And step by step, that’s exactly what’s happening.
It’s possible to walk the trail independently, although there are some logistical challenges, including organizing border-crossing permits. Alternatively, travel companies can arrange your trip; Leon’s trip was with Kosova Outdoors.
Cicerone Press have published a new guidebook called The Peaks of the Balkans Trail.