Discovering Albania’s Timeless Vjosa River

18 Shtator 2023, 13:15Society TEMA

Discovering Albania’s Timeless Vjosa River

A journey along southern Albania’s Vjosa River, one of Europe’s last undammed waterways, means traversing a landscape that looks much as it has for centuries. Flowing from Greece’s northwestern border to the Adriatic Sea, the Vjosa rushes into box canyons and gorges formed by steep forests of maples, oaks and firs. Ancient stone bridges connect its banks, spanning turquoise water. Sheep graze the valley floor, and vineyards, family farms, orchards and olive groves intermingle with fields of dandelions and red poppies.

Earlier this year, Albania took a critical step toward preserving this timelessness with the establishment of the Vjosa Wild River National Park, a first in Europe, and a destination included on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. The Albanian government, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, nongovernmental organizations from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, and the adventure apparel retailer Patagonia worked together to protect Albania’s 120-mile section of the river and its main tributaries. (The 169-mile Vjosa’s source is in Greece’s Pindus Mountains.) After years of protests against mining and dam projects, and support from Leonardo DiCaprio, the park’s designation was a victory.

“Our support for the Vjosa really stepped up when we began partnering with the Albanian government in 2021, to do something that hadn’t been done before,” said Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s chief executive. According to Mr. Gellert, the plan is for the park to be fully operational, with a visitor center and staff, in 2024.

For both locals and tourists, the park’s designation is a boon, if not a lifeline. Communities have depended on the river since before recorded history. And in a country already renowned for its food, the Vjosa Valley’s terroir sets the bar even higher. Hearty fruits and vegetables, trout, mountain honey, lamb, wine, veal, raki (brandy), cheeses and herbs are in abundance — along with Balkan hospitality.

When I arrived in late April, snow still covered the peaks above the river. I’d come to raft, hike and cycle segments of the new park, which, including Vjosa’s tributaries, safeguards around 250 miles of river and more than 31,000 acres: an ecosystem with around 1,200 species, 15 of which are threatened. I was also there to learn about tourism’s growing influence.

“Ten years ago, everyone was running away from the villages,” Mirela Kumbaro, Albania’s Minister of Tourism and Environment, wrote in an email. “Now we have more and more people who, after emigrating, are returning to their villages to open guesthouses, agritourism and agricultural farms,” she wrote. “I see the future of tourism as friendly with the environment, with people who will value nature as a priceless asset.”

Paddling with the queen

The valley bustled with visitors when I made my first stop in the town of Permet, which straddles a bend in the Vjosa about 20 miles from the Greek border. The second annual Vjosa n’Fest, celebrating the river’s culture, was in full swing in the former Ottoman commercial center, called the “City of Roses,” that’s becoming an adventure hub. The festival’s lineup included musical acts, guided hiking, horseback-riding, cycling and rafting.

As evening fell, locals and foreigners in outdoor gear packed the streets, listening to the festival’s headlining ensemble: Sazet e Permetit. With each sultry song — a blend of polyphonic voices, clarinets, violins and accordions — the crowd locked arms to revel under the stars.

The next morning, after a breakfast of traditional gliko — nuts or fruit boiled in sugar water and stored in syrup — and strong stove-cooked coffee, I walked from my guesthouse to the main square’s riverside cafes and shops. Old men played dominoes in front of a produce stand. At the offices of Vjosa Explorer, a company that leads raft tours, I reserved the final spot in a raft of bleary-eyed festival goers.

We were awakened by the cold river, running high with snowmelt, as it snaked between canyon walls. About halfway into the three-hour expedition, we pulled onto a pebbly beach. One of Vjosa Explorer’s owners, Irma Tako, waited on the beach.

“The first time I visited Western Europe and saw fruit so shiny and perfect, I was ashamed of our ugly fruit in Albania,” Ms. Tako said, passing out apples. “Then I ate that shiny fruit and realized it was tasteless. Our fruit in Albania is like the country itself: not polished, but full of flavor.”

Behind us, 8,143-foot Maja e Papingut, the highest point in the Nemercka Range, poked through wispy clouds. Locals call the mountain by its mythical name: Maja e Drites or “Peak of Light.”

“I really saw my country for the first time when I rafted the Vjosa,” Ms. Tako said, handing me a cup of mountain tea with linden flowers, sage, lemon and honey. “I’m scared of mass tourism. I call Vjosa the queen, and the mountains are her crown. We must show her, and her crown, respect.”

From obscurity to adventure-travel magnet

On an infrastructural level, Albania is not, as Ms. Tako mentioned, polished. Where this country, especially its remote interior, shines is with local guesthouses, local interactions (yes, accept that glass of raki), and unscripted discovery.

“Because we’re natural hosts and have a varied geography — sea, mountains and rivers like Vjosa — in a small area, the country always exceeds expectations,” Gent Mati, the founder of Outdoor Albania, which has led adventure tours since 1991, told me over the phone.

This combination of hospitality and untapped potential makes the relatively undiscovered Vjosa Valley intoxicating. It also creates fertile conditions for overtourism.

Mass tourism and urbanization is a risk, said Andrej Sovinc, a protected area expert with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the organization that classified the Vjosa as a national park. “To address this, we are developing a vision for sustainable tourism development in and around the Vjosa W.R.N.P. that puts local people and the conservation of natural and cultural values at the focus.”

Walking with culture’s caretakers

For the next several days, I stayed at Ferma Albanik, a family-run guesthouse whose owner, Elona Bejo, works with local farmers for ingredients she doesn’t grow herself.

“Farmers here are the caretakers of culture,” said Ms. Bejo, who acts as Albanik’s gardener, concierge, yoga instructor and hiking guide. “It’s important that the families with endurance — those who stayed in the valley instead of leaving — are shown appreciation as the economy shifts to tourism.”

My initial hike was a moderate one up to the spring-fed, 65-foot Sopoti Waterfall. The next trek was an hour’s walk south of Permet to the 18th-century Orthodox St. Mary’s Church in the hillside settlement of Leusa. The three-nave, stone-and-brick church, which has an intricately carved wooden iconostasis, is awash with frescoes and murals.

I then met Ms. Bejo, who guided me into the narrow Lengarica Canyon, which cradles the Lengarica River, a Vjosa tributary, and a series of hot springs near the village of Benja. We walked past the Ottoman-era Katiu Bridge that frames the largest of the thermal baths, already crowded. We ambled upstream, in knee-deep water, to more secluded pools. Each of the six sulfur baths has a specific medical benefit. We chose the one for rheumatism and relaxed as a rain shower passed over.

The next day, we made a 45-minute scramble from the riverside town of Kelcyra to the unmarked remains of a 2,400-year-old Illyrian fortress on a ridge overlooking the Vjosa. Hundreds of feet below the ruins, a tour of kayakers — orange boats and red helmets against electric-teal water — paddled through the Kelcyra Gorge. From this strategic vantage, ancient residents once communicated with smoke signals to other outposts, warning of invaders: Greeks, Macedonians, Romans.

Between treks, we walked to villages to visit families who work with Ms. Bejo. In Gostivisht, Flora and Krenar Sali have 150 beehives making honey from mountain flowers called Bedunica. In the village of Peshtan, below the nearly 6,000-foot Mount Golikut, we met Mira Muka, who runs the Bujtina Peshtan guesthouse and camp site. She showed us her collection of weapons from the Vjosa’s Italian-Greek frontline during World War II. “About 10 years ago, 15 people stopped here,” she said. “This year, it will be 1,500. The Vjosa gives us everything: people, fish, water. It is our past and future.”

Cycling to the Adriatic

For my last stretch, I hopped on the country’s new, 675-mile UNESCO Cycling Route — part of which rolls through the Vjosa basin to the river’s Adriatic terminus. My ride (around 30 miles per day over three days) began in Gjirokastra, a World Heritage Site inscribed for its “architectural character typical of the Ottoman period.” The town’s slate-roofed buildings are spread along the Drinos River, one of the park’s newly protected tributaries.

The hometown of the author Ismail Kadare and the dictator Enver Hoxha, “Stone City” buzzed with visitors roaming its 13th-century castle and its bazaar’s steep, cobbled streets. In front of the GjiroArt Center, a cooperative of local artisans, I joined a group drinking fire-roasted coffee. “Our idea in Gjirokastra is to show traditions and hospitality matter,” one artist said, filling cups.

The trail continued north along the Drinos, passing the 222-acre Archaeological Park of Antigonea, where stone blocks outline an ancient Greek city. The path followed a state road with rolling climbs and sweeping descents opening into valleys. Sheep glided across green pastures like bleating clouds.

In the city of Tepelena, a 19th-century castle stood guard near the confluence of the Drinos and Vjosa. I stopped at the Lord Byron Guest House, named for the English poet who visited the town in 1809. In the courtyard, surrounded by fruit trees, I sat down for lunch made with ingredients grown on the property’s farm: green salad, grilled peppers and eggplant, pasta with olive oil and garlic.

From here, the route shifted back to the Vjosa, where solitude was broken by villages perched above farmland. Families looked up from work to wave. The course eventually took me past another archaeological treasure, Byllis, and the remains of an Illyrian city.

“Vjosa’s big picture includes the environment, economic growth, and the balance between them,” said Rezarta Bare, a tourism adviser for the German Agency for International Cooperation in Albania, which supported the UNESCO Cycling Route. “The real story, though, is about people. This region’s people are warm and kind, the epitome of southern Albanian hospitality. The Vjosa conversation is important because it sheds light on the vulnerability of people, nature and culture — all intertwined on this untamed river.”

Wine in the delta

The river ended just north of Vlora, the country’s second largest coastal city, founded by Greeks 2,600 years ago. After wrestling traffic here at the beginning of the Albanian Riviera, which is squeezed between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, I rode to the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area.

Covering nearly 50,000 acres between the Vjosa Delta and Narta Lagoon, the bayou-like expanse is heaven for birders; with nearly 200 species, including flamingoes, it’s a critical migratory habitat. It’s also the center of a recent Vjosa controversy as the government has begun constructing a new airport within the protected zone.

Near the mouth of the river, I pedaled past salt flats to Katina Balaj, the Balaj Winery’s restaurant and tasting room, and, with a glass of orange wine, watched the sun settle over the delta.

“In environmental protection, you have to win every day so when you finally have a win that is long lasting, such as the declaration of the Vjosa Wild River National Park, it’s important to pause and feel a moment of hope,” Patagonia’s Ryan Gellert wrote in an email after I finished the journey. “It was an incredible moment for all of us, but we are clear eyed that the work really starts here.” (NYT)

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