A cup of coffee in the woods

— text anf photos by Altripiani.org


We are in Albania, and last night, following a stroke of luck, we got to Theth after what had been a very long day. We are staying in a guesthouse in the village. There are a few of them, but since the road was reopened just a week ago following heavy snowfalls, not all of the accommodation was able to open.

We are with Pavlin, a lad who is past 40 but if it wasn’t for his beard, I would say he was ten years younger. He is a nature guide, and in the summer takes groups of hikers down paths between Theth and Valbona. He speaks Italian because prior to making his dreams of renovating the house where he was born and of creating his nature-based business come true, he had to roll up his sleeves and perform a number of tiring jobs in Italy. He naturally confesses that he is very happy to have been able to return home, to his mountains. As we sit with bowls of hot soup, I have him give me a few tips. And with his help, we try to organise the day that lies ahead.

When you plan an itinerary, there are some things that leave their mark on you. You try to solve them in your mind to take them as a reference later, especially if you have to negotiate an area that you are unfamiliar with. The sign for a bar offering refreshments in the middle of the woods definitely piqued our curiosity. It is represented on the map with a brown circle and a cup of steaming coffee. Glorija and I looked at each other and thought, “who would want to open a bar up there?”. On the following day, it wasn’t just any old bar that we found, but a beautiful chalet built by hand over ten long seasons of business. Having received yearly permits to reside in the woods, Zef, the bar’s creator, set about introducing improvements to an enchanted place, invented from nothing.

Zef is a big guy who is about 30 years old and fears nothing. He took on this beautiful challenge with a philosophy and spends a large amount of the time alone. He has a horse which he uses to carry materials up and down, and certainly does not care about fashion. In fact, his flannel shirt is a testament to what he puts in to building a dream. We naturally stop to have a cup of coffee with Zef, offering him a few of Glorija’s delicious homemade energy bars. He explains to us that although hiking on the Albanian Alps became popular just a few years ago, it is growing fast and is therefore becoming a great resource for many young people. In summer, there are so many people that two trusty co-workers join Zef in sleeping at his bar in the evenings to be ready early in the morning.

He smiles a lot, and is happy to enjoy our company. He warns us that we will probably encounter a lot of snow from the pass going down to the opposite side, as it faces north. He tells us to give it a go, and several times notes that “You’re experts with good shoes!”
There is a stupendous view over both valleys at the Valbona Pass (1810 m a.s.l.). During the summer, the climb up to this pass is much easier, even if you have to be well trained. Entire groups of trekkers nimbly cross from the Theth Valley to the Valbona Valley and back. The complete trek is 15 km long and requires a six to seven-hour hike with almost 1000m difference in height. There is only one path which is easy to make out and is well-marked with white and red signs. Then the snow changes everything.

After our break and the usual photographs, we start to cut a slightly downhill slope while trying to single out the summer trail. I find myself at the front and I go forward in the snow while trying to create some good steps for Glorija who is following close behind me. The difficulty always lies in not losing your balance, given the significant weight of your backpack and the slippery slope. We don’t have crampons, but little would change on this soft snow. However, the mountain pines help us and give us confidence should we fall, so we try to go further forward. After about half an hour of attempts and with little headway made, I start to get nervous: this is not a good sign. I feel like I’m no longer thinking calmly, and I think of my responsibility for Glorija. Indeed, when you see that something isn’t working on the mountains, you’ve only got one option: you go back.

We immediately realised that we had made the right decision, even if that meant a new, round-about detour to resume the set line. When we got back to the valley, we learned that a few years ago a pair of Australians had pushed themselves too far. They both slipped because of the unstable snow and the rocky drop did not spare their fall.

While we sipped beer at the village of Theth, we then learned from the chit-chat that when there is snow, you must never try to follow the summer trail, but almost aim immediately right, towards the channel arriving straight at the pass following the vertical. That being said, each one makes their own assessment. Once again, it was proof to us that when faced with a difficult choice, giving up usually saves your life. Who knows, one day maybe we’ll be back to plot our route in upper Valbona.

Giacomo Frison and Glorija Blazinšek
We are Giacomo and Glorija, two photographers from Venice.
We have different characters that work well together, complementing each other.
Two sensibilities, two ways of interpreting beauty and the common desire to tell moments, stories and people in a spontaneous way. / www.altripiani.org

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