Somewhere North of Sarandë: Lost in the Mountains of Albania

by Thom Brown

In the latest entry of the On the Edges of Europe column, travel journalist Thom Brown and his travel companions take a wrong turn on a mountain in Albania and must rely on the kindness of strangers to help them get back to their hotel.

I’d found the perfect spot, gazing down upon the Blue Eye from between some trees on a hill, a little off the footpath to guarantee solitude. From this vantage point, the crowds of tourists were obscured by the foliage. It was just me and the water, forming a single, silent bond. Greens swirled within a pool of dazzling pale blue, creating a shimmering marble that made me feel like an astronaut looking down on Earth.

Albania is, without doubt, among Europe’s most picturesque countries. The Blue Eye is the jewel in a crown comprised of the Dinaric Alps. We’d driven from the mouth of the Bistricë River by the sea of Sarandë and followed it to its source in the Blue Eye. In just 60 minutes – half by car, half by foot – we’d made it.

In this natural spring, the clear water is still visible 50 meters below the surface, while the full depth remains unknown. This gives the place a sacred quality, the place you’d go to remind yourself that everything is basically okay, no matter what’s going on in your life or the world. The magic is somewhat diluted, though, by an overpriced souvenir shop and a viewing platform crammed with social media influencers and their selfie sticks.

That’s why I kept on climbing, following the steep footpath in the heat when most were already content with what they’d seen. Up there, I inhaled the peace for a fair while, right up to the point that I remembered Casandra and Avely were somewhere in the valley waiting for me.

“Sorry, I got distracted,” I told my two fellow travelers.

“That’s okay. It’s just a long way, and I have no idea where we’re actually going,” Avely explained.

We’d hired a car, and Avely was the designated driver on the basis that the rest of us didn’t have a license. She was nervous, having never driven abroad before and Albanian roads being notoriously under-maintained. Up to this point, though, it had been plain sailing, and she was growing in confidence.

We left the crowds and followed the footpath back towards the car park, where local people had gathered to grill food and play loud music. Was this a day of celebration or just how the people here spent their weekends? We had no idea, but either way, the noise was spoiling the peace of the countryside, and we were keen to get moving and head deeper into Albania’s wilderness.

We traveled north on smooth asphalt, windows down and cheesy 90s pop music blaring from the speakers. The small Hyundai hire car effortlessly glided around the hairpin bends, eating up the altitude and transporting us to some of Europe’s most spectacular viewpoints. The panorama of mountains was dramatic but non-threatening; a patchwork of deep green and wolf gray. The spring air was crisp and comfortably cool.

We cruised carefully so as not to exceed the surprisingly low speed limits nor scratch the vehicle. We also took every opportunity to pull over, stand on the edge of the mountain, and silently consume every detail of the view before getting back in the car and back on the road.

There’s a waterfall nearby that I’ve been to before. It’s nice,” Casandra said. “Wanna go?”

“Yes!” we responded in emphatic unison.

The map marked out a parking lot, which turned out to be an empty patch of loose rocks. I picked up a large, heavy wooden stick, swung it back behind my head, and, channeling my inner Tiger Woods, smashed one of the rocks off the edge of the mountain into the shrubbery below.

We wandered joyfully and carefree down the rough footpath, listening for the sound of trickling water to confirm we were on the right track. The path snaked up and to the left, but before we could scale this section of the hike, a small creature peeked over the crest of the hill. Two curved horns appeared first, then two brown ears, and finally the full head of an Albanian goat.

It trotted down towards us, followed immediately by two more, then another four, and another eight, until the entire path ahead was filled by a block of hairy bleating livestock. In the middle of the crowd, a white dog sat with his tongue flopped out. Several other shabby sheepdogs also emerged from the crowd. Fearlessly, the goats marched towards us, some climbing effortlessly up the cliff face, others leaning their front hooves on branches to stand and eat the leaves from the bushes.

Within moments, we found ourselves engulfed by goats and dogs, surrounded by a swirl of fur and wagging tails. With no shepherd in sight, we stayed for far too long, petting the animals and taking in this unique vignette of Balkan life. Then, we continued to the waterfall, a serene sight in itself and a perfect place to take a break after the excitement of the hike. I filled my filter water bottle directly from nature’s faucet, and we hiked back to the car.

We’d spent far too long at the Blue Eye and the waterfall and collectively agreed we should head straight for the hotel. Google Maps said it was about an hour and a half, but at our pace, we knew it would take longer.

We returned to the road, but it was no longer smooth and pleasant asphalt. It was rough and rocky, some parts jagged enough to tilt the car and potentially even pop a tire. We crawled at a snail’s pace trying to find the smoothest route. Already, this didn’t feel right. However, Maps showed no alternative route other than to double back and take a much longer way around.

“This is creepy,” Avely said with more than a hint of trepidation in her voice. “I’m not sure I can do this.”

“This is the only route. I think if we just keep going, we’ll get back to a normal road. It can’t be like this for long. You’ve got this,” I reassured her, internally terrified of being wrong.

The car continued to edge forward as Avely expertly dodged the sharper rocks and traced the increasingly narrow road up the mountain. 30 minutes passed, then an hour. I checked my phone and the time of arrival hadn’t budged since we set off.

I looked out the passenger window and saw the bottom of the vibrant orange sun hit the horizon. Time was running out quicker than expected, and there was no sign of respite.

“I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to do this! I can’t!” Avely’s voice trembled, on the edge of tears as the fruitlessness of our efforts was becoming clear.

“We can’t turn around now; the road’s too narrow. I’m sure we’ll find a proper road soon. Let’s just power through,” I replied, once more trying to hide my lack of confidence.

“Okay, then you two need to get out. You’re weighing the car down.”

Me and Casandra exited the vehicle and began emptying the path of larger rocks, clearing a way for Avely to make more progress. Avely hit the gas in frustration and disappeared up the mountain, leaving us to hike behind as the sky faded to black.

The noise of the engine gradually became more distant until we were left with an eerie silence. At this rate, it looked like we might be spending the night deep within the Albanian wilderness.

We caught up with the car at around 10pm. Avely had parked right before a tight bend with a sheer drop on one side. We all realized this was it. We weren’t going any further, but we weren’t going back down.

A shadowy figure emerged from a bush, snarling and then barking, which at least confirmed that it wasn’t a bear. But a dog wasn’t much better, so me and Casandra jumped back into the safety of our vehicle.

“I’m so sorry,” Avely cried.

“It’s not your fault,” we consoled her.

“I just wanted to get up the mountain as quickly as possible. I was at least happy that you two wouldn’t be in the car if anything happened.”

It was time to start thinking about rescue and survival. Years of watching Bear Grylls on television had prepared me for this moment. I knew we had enough food and water to last the night, and come sunrise, we’d surely find our way to the safety of civilization.

Avely rang 112, the emergency line for Europe.

“Hello…erm, hi? Hello? Do you speak English? We’re stuck in the mountains. Do you speak English?”

The line cut off.

“What the hell?! He didn’t speak English and was acting so relaxed. No urgency whatsoever.”

“Shall we ring the hotel? Maybe they can help us?” Casandra suggested.

Albanians are known for their friendliness and hospitality, so I was hopeful a local would come to our aid.

They answered quickly. “Yes, hello!”

“Hi, this is a bit weird, but we’ve booked to stay at your hotel, and we’re stuck on a mountain,” Avely tried to explain.

“Err… Sorry, I no understand.”

“We’re stuck. We need help.”

“Yes, the hotel is open. You are very welcome.”

“No, we need someone to rescue us. We need help.”

“Yes, hotel is open, please come. At end of the road, turn right.”

This went on for a while until the hotel owner sent her daughter’s phone number.

Avely picked up her phone for the third time and explained the situation.

“Hi! Sorry, I am in France, but I can try to help you. Okay, one minute. Send your location on WhatsApp, and I will try to find help,” said the daughter.

We sat silently in total darkness, the lights off to conserve the car’s battery. I looked up at the stars, unsure of what level of panic to adopt or whether to simply enjoy the adventure as it unraveled.

The phone rang.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good thanks, you?” I answered, reverting to British politeness.

“You are stuck, right?”

“Oh yeah, sorry. Yeah, we’re stuck.”

“Okay, I’ve called the village administrator. Please put your hazard lights on.”

We did as instructed, unsure of what a village administrator was or how they’d got involved.

“Okay, he sees you!” The hotelier’s daughter confirmed. “Wait there with your lights on. Someone is coming!”

The three of us simultaneously sighed with relief, no longer concerned about battery life or food rations. After a wait that felt far too long, a truck arrived with two men and a young boy, who acted as a translator.

“Don’t worry,” the boy smiled. “We will help you.”

One of the men took our hire car and confidently swung it around.

“We need to go back down. You can’t go up that way,” he insisted, confirming we’d eventually made the right decision by pulling over. We were never going to meet a real road.

The rest of us piled into the truck, a much more suitable vehicle for these conditions.

With one hand on the wheel, the other holding a lit cigarette, he made quick progress back towards the bottom. We sat quietly, feeling sorry for ourselves but grateful to be leaving just after midnight rather than waiting for sunrise.

The two cars stopped when we got to an asphalt road, back where we’d left the road in the first place. We gave the men some cash, and they left us to drive back to Sarandë in our scratched and dented Hyundai.

It was late. We were exhausted. So we fired up the radio and turned it up loud, happy to be spending the night in a warm bed.

Ahead, a car drove suspiciously slowly, so we overtook it before the rearview mirror lit up with flashing lights.

“Oh god, what now?” I asked, desperate for no more adventures.

A police officer came to the window.

“Hello. Your lights don’t work?” he inquired.

“I’m so sorry,” Avely said with exasperation. “We were in the mountains. We’ve been stuck for hours on dodgy roads and…”

“Yes,” I interrupted. “Yes, our lights work.”

The cop leaned in, pressed a switch, and the lights came on.

“Okay, you’re fine. Drive safe.”

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