On a crisp September morning in the northern Albanian town of Shkodër, I piled into a minibus packed with Albanian highlanders. I was on my way to a remote passenger ferry that crosses Lake Koman – a journey that some consider to be one of the world’s most scenic boat rides.
At 7:15 am there were already 12 of us in a bus designed for 10, but the driver kept stopping to take on more passengers, each toting more than the last. Our oversized suitcases lay in the aisle and quickly became seats for the new passengers.
These small buses, called furgons, are a leftover from the communist era when owning personal cars was forbidden. (Albania only legalised private ownership of automobiles in 1991.) Much like Mexico’s colectivos and Thailand’s songthaews, furgons can take travellers anywhere in Albania for about the cost of a sandwich.
This particular 55km journey was only the first leg in a series of rickety furgon excursions and lengthy ferry crossings that would take me deep into the Albanian Alps – also called the Accursed Mountains – a seldom-visited world of rustic mountain farms and lonely villages. After the drive, the plan was to hop aboard a three-hour Lake Koman ferry to the tiny lakefront settlement of Fierzë, and then take another two-hour, 42km furgon ride to Valbonë, a remote alpine commune pressed against the borders of Kosovo and Montenegro. This region of the Albanian Alps, called the malësi (highlands), offers a rare, wild slice of Europe, with wolves, bears and snow-capped peaks, not to mention the Malësori (highlanders), a threatened mountain community whose legendary hospitality stems from the same code of conduct that has mandated blood feuds among the villagers for centuries. But finding this pristine, endangered community, we discovered, was going to be harder than we thought.
“It’s a long way to go to get nowhere,” quipped my travel companion Nicola Chilton as we sat crammed in the back row of the furgon, snapping pictures of the increasingly mountainous landscape through fogged up windows.
When we arrived at Lake Koman, a river valley that was flooded by Albania’s then communist government in 1978 to create hydroelectric power, two ferries waited: one was Lake Koman Boat Tours, a scenic tourist vessel that makes no stops, the other, a bus-like passenger ferry that stops at villages along the crossing, specifically for highland residents. I mistakenly bought a ticket for the former and was joined by a gang of Russian and Czech cyclists replete with Cyrillic-clad spandex shorts. And that was just the first disappointment.
The lake, far from its pristine reputation, was incredibly polluted. Our ferry was barraged with flotillas of plastic waste, including water bottles, floating sandals, rope and other debris. “Want a beer?” Chilton asked above the Czech passengers’ techno music. “It’s 10 am,” I said, looking around at the floating garbage. “Why not?”
Eager to leave the disappointing experience behind, Chilton and I clamoured into the furgon as soon as we reached Fierzë. Our furgon, helmed by our Malësori driver, Arturo, doubled as a delivery truck. In addition to taking us up a series of unpaved roads to remote Valbonë, he’d be bringing sacks of vegetables to mountain taverns along the way.
Unlike the curt and sombre bus drivers we’d experienced in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia, Arturo was all smiles as he excitedly slowed the bus to show us the highlights. It was clear he didn’t see a lot of tourists in these parts and he struggled in broken English to explain the names of places we bypassed. But his enthusiasm was infectious and the beauty of the landscape was unparalleled as we trundled uphill, bypassing aquamarine waterfalls, ancient towpaths and bridges carved into the rock. The small village farms with bundles of haystacks tied mid-waist evoked a feeling of Old World Transylvania. We passed women in headscarves sweeping their stoops with brooms made from branches and men hauling wood and working in the fields. Arturo beeped and waved to all of them. Each time, they smiled and waved back.
Many of the Malësori adhere to the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a set of traditional Albanian laws that evolved from ancient Illyrian tribal customs; they were codified in the 15th Century and were revived again in the 1990s after the fall of communism. The code has four pillars: honour, hospitality, right conduct and kin loyalty, and they apply to both Christian and Muslim Albanians. This is where the Malësori’s incredible hospitality stems from. It’s why late one night, after I got lost trying to find my way back to my lodging, a Valbonë villager graciously gave me a ride to my guesthouse at 1:30am, chuckling when he discovered I’d gotten lost in a village with one road. Another morning, when we’d knocked on the door of a neighbouring house to ask if we’d missed the furgon, the young man that answered immediately made a call and waited with us until it arrived. There is a warmth that pervades the townsfolk here.
But in addition to reflecting democratic and humanistic values, and placing an enormous emphasis on hospitality, parts of the Kanun have been the source of controversy among Albanians, notably the gjakmarrja, an obligatory blood feud – akin to an Italian vendetta – that requires one to commit murder in order to salvage honour lost by a previous murder or moral humiliation. Even if a traveller is murdered (which would be highly unlikely as Albania is especially safe), the traveller’s host has to avenge his or her death. It’s estimated that in 2014, roughly 3,000 Albanian families were involved in gjakmarrja.
The Kanun is interpreted in different ways, which has lead to disagreements and differing interpretations about the gjakmarrja’s true meaning (similar to US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment: the right to keep and bear arms.) The gjakmarrja generally has very elaborate and civilized rules, like no revenge killing of children, women and the elderly. And there are many ways in the Kanun to resolve a blood feud – through payments of recompense, for example. But there are also several stories about how these blood feuds have torn families apart and isolated individuals.
It was hard to imagine any sort of blood feud when I arrived at Quku i Valbonës, one of several clusters of farmhouses in Valbonë. The village was immaculate, green and woodsy. The smell of wild plants and burning wood filled the cool crisp air. I couldn’t walk a metre without hearing a birdcall or seeing a butterfly. The nearby Valbonë Valley National Park, an 8,000-hectacre Alpine wilderness, contains thousands of wildflowers species, at least 145 types of birds and healthy populations of wolves, bears and wild cats. How could this place of eerie beauty and natural splendour also be one of vengeance?
Beyond the revival of the Kanun, the fall of communism – and especially, the 1991 collapse of neighbouring Yugoslavia – has affected communities like the Malësori in other unforeseen ways. Locals claim the government in Tirana has done little to help the highlander community, which feels increasingly marginalized as the country modernises. They say EU aid money mysteriously disappears before making its way to the mountains and NGO programs focus on more urban problems in the south. The pollution in Lake Koman, which government officials in the capital of Tirana do little about, is a perfect example of how the isolated and impoverished mountain populations have been neglected and left to fend for themselves.
But the tides might be changing with the new government of Prime Minister Edi Rama. In July 2014, the Malësori were invited to participate in the planning of a new "Albanian National Park of the Alps" that will combine Valbonë with the neighbouring village of Theth and the Valley of Gashi, tripling their combined area to 30,000 hectacres by 2016. This merger would likely give the communities within the park more clout when dealing with the government. It would also make it harder for corporate interests to develop the land with insensitive extractive methods such as fracking.
“There’s not much innovation in Albanian mainstream thought outside Tirana right now, for very good reasons – this is a post-trauma society, and even ‘good’ people are mostly interested in grabbing what they can for themselves instead of digging out the nests of corruption,” said Catherine Bohne, co-owner of two Valbonë guesthouses, Rezidenca and Rilindja. She poured me a glass of her homemade red wine while we sat on the porch under the starlit skies. “If [my partner] Alfred [Selimaj] and I weren't fighting to keep locals involved, it's clear that the local people would be treated as just another fauna of the valley. And no one is inviting bears and wolves to management plan committee meetings.”