Albania is an undiscovered gem, a vessel of potential, a shimmering diamond in the rough. This particular place that I’m about to describe is a gem that I’ve been meaning to discover for some time now.
I finally, this summer got to see what Theth was about, said to be guarding many untold secrets of Albania’s natural beauty. The type of visitors that Theth has attracted since Edith Durham wrote about the place in the early 20th century, have in most part been foreign tourists from around the world. Not many actual Albanians visit these isolated parts of the North. So upon hearing what type of people visit Theth and how they all love to hike and walk around being at ‘one with nature’, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.
So we were packed and ready to go to Theth, finally. I didn’t have walking shoes, only my precious Jelly Shoes (for those that don’t know what those are you will see them in my photography). Not a great idea you may say, however this could have been the best mistake I have ever made! Those shoes saved me, they were soft on the rocks, they allowed me to play in every puddle, stream or waterfall, and the grip on them was astonishing (I highly recommend Jelly shoes on hikes). It was early September and the weather was perfect for hiking.
We began our journey in Shkodra. Transport was fairly easy to arrange, we managed to find a spot where vans and four by fours waited for passengers in Shkodra to take to Theth, however this website helps with all the nitty gritty details for Theth ; http://thethi-guide.com/how-to-go-in-theth-albania/
The road was fine, not very exciting until we got 14km to Theth, that’s when the adrenalin began to surge through my veins. The notorious death roads of Albania were laid out in front of us. This however didn’t faze our multi-tasking driver that was of course on a very important phone call whilst smoking, as one does and listening to traditional ‘Qifteli’ music on a tape player. An authentic experience to say the least, very exciting. I didn’t see much of the scenery around due to my full concentration on the rocky mountainous roads we were driving on, approaching Theth from above at a fast pace.
We arrived at a villa that we had arranged to stay in, ‘Villa Gjecaj’, an adorable rock house where a group of women were laying out white sheets to dry in the garden and an old man with a radio in his hand paced around the house listening to more Qifteli music. As though I had stepped through a time capsule and returned to the communist days of Albania. I still hadn’t seen anything, nothing extraordinary anyway.
Once we were settled we decided to make the most of it and set off walking immediately to look for the hidden gems. It was still early in the day so we had time to explore.
We first found the beautiful waterfall, which was like a scene from an exotic film, you know the ones where a native girl goes to bathe and a white traveller sees her… and you know the rest. However magnificent and awe striking this waterfall was, I couldn’t help but feel small and fragile, surrounded by all the raw nature, the towering mountains and the harsh rocks beneath my feet humbled me.
Once I caught my breath and cooled down in the waterfall mist I realised that I was at a high peak in a mountain, in a village in North Albania, looking at a tall waterfall, sitting on a boulder and couldn’t help but feel proud and full of heart. Partly because we had walked three hours and partly because of the scenery my heart felt literally as big as my head. Magnificent!
The walk back was easier as I felt light and powerful. On the way back we saw an old man harvesting beans in a field close to his house, stopped to say hello out of respect and asked how his day was going. A few moments later found ourselves sitting in his garden eating his yogurt and drinking his home brewed Raki (which we bought a litre of) talking about wolves and bears in the forest and the hardship of his life. A 76 year old ex-miner living in this tough environment, struggling to cope with harsh winters and dry summers, yet so enthusiastic to meet tourists and eager to communicate. The only thing that was stopping him from inviting everyone in, was his inability to speak English.
After the warm welcome on our first day and the emotional euphoria I was experiencing, I was comfortable and wanted to stay in Theth, saw myself there completely.
Unfortunately we only had three days and used each day to its fullest, hiking 7 hours a day and seeing all the main attractions around the village; the blue eye (one of many in Albania), the museum, the rivers which I made sure to walk through every time possible, and on the last day the Tower of Refuge or ‘Kulla e Ngujimit’ of which is mentioned in many books one of which is Durham’s High Albania.
This last visit was particularly special, as images show, however the history told by the tour guide (which is also the youngest generation of the family that has owned the Tower since its beginning around the late 16th century) was particularly important for me and my lack of knowledge around Albanian history.
The history of Albania and consequently Kosova, the traditions and beliefs majorly stem from the Law of Dukagjin Leka or ‘Kanun’ which to this day has influence on the Albanian people, and to feel this part of history in a Tower, to imagine hiding in a Tower where so many souls hid in fear for their lives is another incredibly humbling experience. To see more on the history of the Tower and why it is an important historical site visit: http://thethi-guide.com/sq/kulla-e-ngujimit/
Theth had a great effect on me physically and emotionally, opened up my heart to the beautiful people that inhabited those mountains, harsh faces, worn down hands but mostly hospitable and giving. It also opened up my lungs with the cool mountain air and fast paced hiking, clearing my mind.
There was still a constant sense of shielding, the land itself seemed to hold back not revealing all, almost as though it was mocking us, showing us what it thought suitable but never revealing it’s true dark self. This was the same with the people, poverty stricken for centuries, battling nature daily in tough conditions, although welcoming, I felt that they also held back, distanced themselves, not allowing the visitor take advantage as they have done for hundreds of years perhaps.