Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Accursed Mountains

The 'Accursed Mountains'.

With a name like that, how could one not be enticed?

And to reach into the heart of these mountains in northern Albania, the Lake Koman ferry would seem to be the way to go. Boasting spectacular mountain scenery enroute from Koman to the town of Fierze, it was highly rated online as well as in the guidebooks. One even ranked it on par with the fjords of Patagonia. From Fierze, it is another 2 furgons (minivans) away, via Bajram Curri, to Valbone, a village primed for wonderful hiking and trekking.

In order to catch the 9am ferry, me and 3 other travelers departed our hostel in Shkodra for Koman at 6am. We arrived in good time, just 15 minutes past 8. It was drizzling and bone-chilling cold as we waited for the ferry.

"I think you should go get a cup of coffee", suggested a young man as he approached me.

"I received news that the ferry just departed Fierze half an hour ago", our friendly and helpful local informed us.

The ride is supposed to be a 3-hour journey! It seemed we would be at least 3 hours late!! Apparently, there was an Italian film crew on board and the filming had delayed the ferry.

So we adjoined to the only cafe onsite for the long wait. Luckily we had bought some "rations" (bread, biscuits), and a couple in our group even had camping gear with them, and promptly set up their cannister stove to boil some water for tea and coffee.

The hours dragged by. It was almost 1pm when the latest update from our Albanian friend (whose name I couldn't really prounounce let alone spell) was that it would be an hour more before the ferry arrived. He was with his fiancee and visiting relatives near Fierze and he too, was waiting impatiently. It was past 2pm when a small boat chugged into view.

Most of the locals started to fill the boat. It seemed someone decided to use his boat to provide the ferry service instead. While there was overhead cover, it was exposed on the sides, and much smaller, so we were advised by our Albanian friend that it would be better to wait for the actual ferry. After all, we have already waited for 5 hours, and it was really cold.

At 4pm, the sighting of our ferry sent us scurrying to our backpacks even though there was plenty of time for us to be ready. Indeed, as we waited eagerly to get into the ferry as it docked, our sense of relief and happiness proved shortlived. There were lots of heated exchanges between our friend, the ferry driver, and a man who turned out to be the local representative for the Italian film crew. I concluded that nothing good could come out of that.

Koman ferry finally arriving
The tragic story goes like this. The ferry driver had wanted to complete the round-trip service before entertaining the filming request. However, the local film representative (who calls himself Fabio, and he's Albanian) assured that their filming "would not take any extra time". 7 hours later, Fabio now refused to let the ferry go until he complete the filming, after the crew had their meals. He assured us that the filming would end by 6.30pm......

All reasoning (and some Hokkien expletives) landed on deaf ears (Ok, it was only a mild "N**B**"). Never mind that we would reach Valbone late at night, but the sightseeing (and photography) opportunities would all be lost! Fabio even had the audacity to claim that we would have no problems reaching Valbone as he knew all the contacts in the region. What grated on my nerves was his arrogant attitude and the final straw came when filming ended.

After paying the ferry driver and the calefares (film extras), Fabio fled the scene with his bunch of Italians on a minivan. We were left fuming in the ferry as we had wanted him to bear the responsibility of transporting us to Valbone from Fierze. It was a dark and gloomy ferry ride.

Late, drizzling ferry ride

Still some last minute light for photography
Thankfully, our Albanian friend, a victim himself, managed to arrange with someone on the ferry to help us get to Bajram Curri. It was too late to attempt the mountain road to Valbone in the dark, so we stayed the night at Bajram Curri. It was amazing that he went all out to ensure we were settled in before leaving us - from finding a cheap hotel, to bringing us to a pizza joint at 10pm for our late dinner! Albanian hospitality and friendliness at its best!


The Albanian Alps, as its also known, is truly spectacular! Valbone sits in a valley surrounded by towering mountains on all four sides - truly a trekking mecca. However, perhaps there is more than the mountains that is accursed. I have lost one and a half days reaching the mountains, and my remaining one and a half days were dogged by rain. And of course, the morning that I was leaving, the sun then cast it's warm rays over the Accursed Mountains....

Guesthouse under the mountains
Hiking the Albanian Alps

Plenty of snow left
Crystal clear lake

Morning alpenglow the day I left
Panoramic views

Panoramic views

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