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The Power of Prokletije

I signed up for an adventure and got a lot more than I bargained for. In a good way.

It started with a basic task (put one foot in front of the other), and led me to a lasting experience I was hardly prepared for: ten days in a vacuum-like state, practically closed off from the outside world, an unplugged existence. A time of friendship, physical and mental challenge, a constant state of heightened senses. And night skies lighting up with shooting stars.

What is this magical place? I’m talking about the Accursed Mountains (also known as the Albanian Alps or Prokletije), a sparsely populated region that straddles the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. Some refer to it as Europe’s last wilderness frontier. It is home to the Peaks of the Balkans, a long-distance hiking trail that takes one’s breath away in so many ways. This almost 200km hinterlands trek – for the most part a butt-kicking up-and-down-hill slog, let me tell you – weaves in and out of these three countries. The trail cuts through an ever-changing landscape; following natural borders along craggy mountain ridges, spongy meadows, leafy forests showing off their foliage; only to dip into lush valleys where dilapidated shepherds’ huts are often the only sign of civilization.

The level of resourcefulness and hospitality on display in the small hamlets one comes across – never more than a cluster of unpretentious buildings – is unmatched. Even remote guesthouses have you finish the day with a hot shower, family-style home cooking and an adequate place to rest your head. But don’t be fooled, it remains a rustic experience. Everything is shared. I repeat, everything. There may not be a lock on the bathroom door. Creaky floorboards, barking dogs and snoring neighbours will keep you up at night; and once you finally manage to fall asleep you may be woken early by your hosts busying themselves with breakfast preparations. Yes, the walls are thin. You will eventually grasp how many extra blankets it takes to keep warm at night, and you might just learn the hard way that you should have packed that Lifestraw. All a possible source of frustration, but in reality it is a privilege to share these simple homes and embrace, if only for a moment, a way of life that is a far cry from most people’s comfort zone.

It’s hard to imagine this rugged land as anything but peaceful and frozen in time with its unprotected borders, yet as evidenced by relics of Communist bunkers and shell-inflicted craters, it has seen more than its fair share of difficulty. From tribal blood feuds, to decades of isolation under Enver Hoxha’s brutal Communist regime, these idyllic meadows and mountainsides have borne witness to murders and displacement; and bloody battles were fought on their grounds during the late 1990s war. If mountains could talk… Listening to our guides made some of the stories come to life, but a good few appear buried beneath layers of rock and emotion.

Most days, since it was the end of hiking season, beyond the more accessible villages of Theth and Valbona, you’d be hard pressed to see another soul beside the odd shepherd. However, this is a region at the cusp of change. Guesthouses are popping up like mushrooms after a warm Summer rain, a sign of the times to come as this once off-limits place wakes up to the possibilities and challenges tourism brings. It’ll remain to be seen how exactly the increased attention will shape the rural way of life in this (for now) wild corner of Europe.

I count myself lucky to have had a chance to be present in the present – suspended in this seemingly made-up concept called time – while I was surrounded by such immense natural and human beauty. Equal parts liberating and captivating, invigorating and fatiguing; these mountains hold a special place in my heart. And no future development can take that away.

Our planner Claudia loves all things Balkans. She is also not afraid to wear the same clothes for days, overdose on Lemon Soda and sliced cucumbers, or pull a shameless plug for the lovely folks at Balkan N’ Adventure.

If mountains could talk... Listening to our guides made some of the stories come to life, but a good few appear buried beneath layers of rock and emotion.