French engineering, Albanian fjords and the beautiful valley of Valbonë

The diesel engine coughed a few times and then went out in a cloud of smoke….

We had been on our journey for not more than 3 minutes and that after having to wait for four days for the water level to rise, so that we could travel at all…..

Alma’s (and, to put the records straight – also Ana’s) second recommendation had been, to visit the remote valley of Valbonë and its famous national park.

To get there, you have two options – to face a long drive East crossing nearly the whole country, often close to the border to Kosovo, or to tackle the somewhat neglected service road to the impressive dam at Koman

and to shortcut the journey from there with a ferry ride along the reservoir to the small town of Fierza.

This ferry ride – if the ferry was going – was not to be missed, but because of the poor road condition, it would have meant a very early start from Shkodrë, which was not something I would have enjoyed, especially if I could be avoided.

And sure enough – there was another way: staying at “Vila Franceze”.

This concrete fortress, looking like a set for an early James Bond movie and build in the middle of absolutely no-where, used to be the home for the French engineers, who built both the dam and the adjacent hydro-electric power station, nearly 40 years ago.

Now run by Amazona and her small team of Albanian and Italian helpers, it offers a brush with history by allowing guests to stay in the living quarters of the engineers and enjoying their amenities like swimming or kayaking at a small French Riviera set up at the Drin river

or a simple dinner at the spacious old dining and function room.

When arriving at the villa, I was told that I was in luck, as the ferry – after three days with low water levels in the reservoir – was ready to go the next morning.

Following a good night’s sleep in what must have been an engineer’s home for a number of years, I started to scale with my little Czech car the 130 m rock face just next to the dam, drove through a poorly lit service tunnel

and finally ended up on the Rozafa, a bizarre arrangement of poorly welded sheets of steel with a number of reused bus seats in a small cabin on top and with an old diesel engine in its bowels.

Despite the multiple examples of poor craftsmanship on this vessel, the Rozafa looked reasonably trustworthy compared the Frankenstein assembly next to us, which featured the whole top section of an old bus glued to something like a steel canoe. This contraption was used as a people ferry and it was listing dangerously to its starboard side…..

Considering this, the failing of our engine didn’t come as a great surprise, but with most of the crew giving the mechanic a helping hand, and with a lot of shouting and swearing at the poor man, we were prevented from sinking and soon up and running again.

The following three hour cruise along the reservoir, with some sections being not wider than 50 meters and with waterfalls on both sides, can only be described as spectacular and just comparable with a trip through the fjords of the West Coast of Norway or Chilean Patagonia.

The state of the ferry was forgotten, the poor seating and the missing hospitality on board didn’t play a role any more and the only subject of conversation was now the landscape around us, the sheer rock faces, the green mountain sides and the few small houses clinging from time to time to rocky pieces of land, between the deep water and the towering mountain tops.

Arriving finally at Fierza and without getting stuck in the loose soil that was used as a make shift ramp,

the road – in a much better condition now – continued into the mountains, once again towards the border to Montenegro. Passing a number of mosques and minarets dating back to the Ottaman empire,

I picked up Linsi, an Albanian hitchhiker, who joined me all the way to the end of the road, which was the trail head for the classic mountain crossing to the small village of Theth in the next valley.

It turned out that Linsi was working in a hotel nearby and after taking him up on his offer of a Turkish coffee in exchange for his free ride, I decided to make the place my base for the exploration of this part of Albania.

With luck on my side, the weather improved the next day considerably, allowing for more hiking on virtually deserted mountain trails in the Albanian Alps.


Alma’s first recommendation was to head North to a part of Albania that is geographically more Montenegrin than Albanian, as it is completely surrounded by the neighbouring country.

There are only few or probably no regular buses which are going there, so that I had to organise myself a car for this trip.

My “brand new” Skoda arrived, being 7 years old with 93 000 km on the clock and a manual gearbox with a dodgy fifth gear…..Well, the engine sounded fine, the tires had some threat left and the brakes were working – with my fingers crossed (not while driving though) I decided that it should be fine…..

The road out of Shkodra, pass some impressive communist era monuments, idealising the Albanian partisan,

was for the first hour or so pretty unexciting, except from being from time to time overtaken by local cars in a rather spectacular fashion.

Passing through a roundabout, that gave also the option to head for Montenegro, I was driving further North, towards a giant white cross made of stones on the side of a mountain. Here the road started to ascend and the number of plaques remembering less fortunate drivers increased.

Crossing a small plateau, there came a slight drop and then….the abyss !

Meandering down in multiple hairpin turns, the road dropped suddenly for what looked like well over a thousand altitude meters…The only time I had seen something similar, was the famous Norwegian Trollstigen, which I tried – and failed – to scale with an old bicycle many years ago…..

At the beginning of this spectactular drop stood a lonely catering van and as this was a good place to park the car, I stopped and ordered an espresso.

The owner gave me a hard look, sighed and said: “OK, just wait a moment….”

He stepped outside and just then I noticed the trailer fitted with a diesel generator next to the van.

Five minutes after firing up the beast, I was presented with an excellent espresso, more or less in the same league as at Bar Italia in Soho, despite the fact that it was presented in a paper cup!

This environmentally somewhat questionable caffeine fix set me back the equivalent of 90 cents, which left room for a couple of Turkish chocolade bars to sustain me on the onwards journey.

What followed can only be discribed as absolutely spectacular ……

First the road descended in sheer never ending bends until crossing the bridge over the Cemi river, which had made good use of the past few million years by creating this canyon.

It then went alongside the river, creating again and again beautiful new views of the narrow valley with impossibly steep mountain sides just next to it.

The occasional rock on the road made me appreciate that I had not rented a convertible car and some sections of this trail North, I passed at some speed, as the sometimes overhanging rock faces made me just too uneasy.

In the beautiful small village of Tamarë I had to leave the car behind as the road, which was following the river, had changed now into a dirt track, which I considered too risky to take without a 4×4.

This however gave me a great opportunity for some hiking in this unique landscape which, as I realised then, must indeed have been a partisan’s paradise and a nightmare for any invader of this part of the world.

After just over 10 kms, I arrived in the small hamlet of Vukël, which featured only a few guesthouses and a bar, where the appearance of a Northerner raised – just for a moment – one or the other eye brow.

By then it had also started to rain, so that I decided to hitch a ride for my return journey in an old Mercedes, which somehow managed to cross small rivers, manoeuvre around or through potholes, which could have swallowed a small house, while avoiding being smashed by any falling rocks.

I tried to concentrate on the images of a building site in Frankfurt on the smartphone of the other passenger and avoided to think about the at times sheer drops just next to the road and the multiple memorial plaques I had passed, commemorating villagers who didn’t manage to make the journey back to Tamarë….

However, somehow we made it back to my Czech carriage and after unsucessfully offering my new rallye team any money for their efforts (and for the heavy wear on the car….), I continued with my journey further North.

The road continued in the same breathtaking fashion and I asked myself how many brave men and women must have lost their lives to cut this small but vital line of tarmac through narrow gorges, accross rivers and along steep hillsides to provide even the most remote houses and villages with an access to the rest of the country.

Finally there was only the occasional car on the road and only the two remote but oh so beautiful valleys of Lëpushë and then Vermosh remained.

I checked in as the only guest at the slightly misleadingly named “Alpini Hotel”, where I was given a simple room with four beds in a family house with a communal bathroom. That was absolutely fine though, as I enjoyed from here an outstanding view over the peaceful valley with its green fields, its fruit trees in blossom and its small holdings, backed by the still snowcapped mountains in the East.

Soon I had befriended – with the help of a few lumps of cheese – a couple of young gun dogs and together with my two new friends, I started to explore this remote part of the Balkan.

Mi Casa es tu Casa

It is easy to walk pass my home in Shkodra, the main city in the North of Albania, and that despite the fact that I am staying at the former Russian Consulate and before that the former home of Pietro Marubi, the first photographer in this part of the world.

“Mi Casa es tu Casa” , an old Italian villa, which is owned by the charismatic Alma, is today – despite its historic importance and its central location – dwarfed by the towering fasade of the new Golden Palace Hotel, which is dominating Skënderbeg Boulevard which leads to Democracy Square, the center of the city. Only a hidden iron gate on the far side of the hotel is now the remaining entrance to this once famous address.

Unusual, considering the male dominated society in Albania, the building has been in the ownership of women for nearly a hundred years and going by the expressed will of my host, it will continue to be so in the future as well.

The place – in tune with its name – is giving a temporary home not only to adventurous travellers from all over the world, but also to a handful of adopted dogs and to some cats which Alma tends to aquire, following all necessary health checks and vaccinations, from the two local shelters. Some of them stay while some others tend to get adopted over time.

More character is added to the place by an interesting collection of – at times very personal – Albanian and Italian memorabilia and of local household items from bygone days.

Alma is a walking enceclopaedia on all matters concerning Shkodra and Albania, the local history and – of course – both local as well as Italian food.

If it is while sitting in her kitchen enjoying some vegetable from her allotment as part of my breakfast or over dinner at one of the local Italian restaurants, I am enjoying Alma’s company and I am taking careful notes for the next step of my journey.

(If you want to read more about Alma and about the other extraordinary women that used to live in “Mi Casa es tu Casa”, just visit

Going to the vet in Albania

Ilir and Dritan have arrived on time, I am – as usual – a couple of minutes late….Some things never change……

I am meeting my Albanian colleagues in front of a cafe in the center of Tirana, following some communication by e-mail over the last few weeks.

My new aquaintances have very kindly agreed to show me a couple of upmarket clinics in the capital, to give me an idea of the best of care that is and that can be provided to pets here at the moment.

One has to remember that Albania is not a rich country and the ownership of dogs and cats was considered a bourgeois fancy, that was frowned upon by the communist Hoxha regime. Only in the last two decades this has slowly changed.

Albania has a single vet school, no organised companion animal veterinary association and there is still very little interaction with colleagues and education providers from outside of the country.

The two clinics we visit are not far from the city center and they have well organised and uncluttered consulting rooms and waiting rooms

with a good supply of pet food and accessoires for their urban clientele. In both places there is a dedicated grooming room – something I would have loved to have provided to my clients in Virginia Water….

The teams in these clinics, consisting mainly of vets without any qualified veterinary nurses, love to have a foreign visitor and they are more than happy showing me around.

I am told that the usual consulting fee here is about 8 Euros, but that even that is frequently considered as too expensive by some pet owners. Both places feature operating theatres with Isoflurane as the main gaseous anaesthetic agent.

Despite vaccines readily available, a lot of pet owners consider this an unnecessary expense, resulting still in very frequent cases of parvovirus and distemper infections.

Corporate structures, pet insurance provision or health plans which are now so common in the North of Europe, are still unthinkable here. But with an eager, outward looking young profession, which – as in many other sectors of society – is catching up fast with the rest of the continent, a steadily improving provision of care is just a matter of time.

Outside of one of the clinics we are coming across one of Albania’s street dogs. A very prominent tag in its left ear – something I consider more with live stock than with dogs – gives an indication that the local authorities are providing some basic care for these dogs. However, it doesn’t distract from the fact that Albania – like may other countries on the Balkan – still faces a huge stray dog issue.

Addressing in an ethically acceptable and efficient way this problem might some consider the more pressing issue at the moment . I think (and I hope) that with increasing wealth – as many other countries have demonstrated – both first class veterinary and animal welfare issues of homeless pets can be addressed at the same time.

Further North to Tirana

It proofed to be not so simple, getting from Northern Greece into Albania. Sensible people – unlike me – seem to fly via Athens to Tirana, which, as previously explained, is not an option for me on this trip.

There is no direct bus from Ioannina to Tirana, although rumour has it, that a long distance coach between Athens and the Albanian capital is passing by Ioannina and that it can be flagged down at a cafe just outside of town.

With a bit further digging I find out though, that there is a direct bus between Ioannina and Gjirocastër – a UNESCO World Heritage site – in the South of Albania. Once over the border, I trust (correctly) that there will be ample transport options to the capital.

Entering this time a considerably more comfortable coach at the central bus station, I am within two hours transported for 90 kilometers across the border, through a long valley with beautiful green mountains on both sides and along a river with pristine water.

Just before sunset I am arriving in Gjirocastër, the “Stone City”, which is the site of an impressive mediaval fortress on a nearby hill. I am picked up by a lovely man who doesn’t speak any English or any other language we a both are able to converse in and brought to “Grand Pa’s House” which is beautifully kept and conveniently located at the foothills of the castle.

Gjirocastër, its history and its site would provide ample material for another chapter in this diary, but following a short stroll through its deserted streets very early the next morning (ahead of the daily bus loads of tourists)

I am on the road again, catching another bus – this time again of the battered minibus variety – which is promising to take me for 14 Euros the required 230 kms further North to Tirana.

Following an hour’s wait – as I had just missed the 11 o’clock schedule – I am somewhat surprised that the bus driver, who could also have earned a living as a night club bouncer, is ushering me further down the aisle exactly to my alocated seat, based on my pretty rudimentary and certainly not machine readable ticket……

Here I am unmistakably told to remain for the duration of the whole trip.

The reason for this becomes clear over the next 4 hours, which develop into a colourful caleidoscope of Albanian village life, which no guide book or travel programme would be able to provide.

While our little bus is rolling through the stunning mediterranian countryside of Southern Albania, the driver is stopping at everyone who is indicating that he or she in need of transport up North, lining his pockets with unrecorded banknotes and coins.

For a couple of Euros a fellow foreigner with a hugh back pack is entering the bus. It turns out that he is on a mission to maneuver the Vlora river with his inflatable kanu. After 10 kilometers he is leaving again.

Villagers dressed in black, clearly on their way to a funeral, are entering and then leaving in the following village. A young boy is handed over to the driver with clear instructions by the mother where to drop him off again. The little boy is hugging his mother and his brother who has come along to see him off and then the bus continues on its journey.

At a spring next to the road, the driver stops to fill up a 5l plastic container with the water.

A parcel is handed to the driver, which after a journey of 100 kms is leaving the bus again.

A guy with a damaged car radiator is been refused access to the bus because he doesn’t seem to be able to pay the fare ?

Throughout the whole trip, the bus is filling up with a colourful mix of Albanian society and then emptying again.

At a roadsite cafeteria, the bus drives on to the gravel car park, the driver shouts out of the window and a young girl comes running with a ready made Turkish coffee.

At a larger service station, we are taking a break and I make the pointless attempt to invite the main protagonist of this trip to a coffee…. of course he doesn’t need to pay here for his food or drinks, as he has just dropped off a whole bus load of new hungry and thirsty customers…..

However, I seem to have scored some points with the man, as he then tells me – after guessing my nationality correctly – that he has a couple of children living in Berlin.

In just over 4 hours this incredibly entertain trip comes to an end at the North-South Bus Terminal at the outskirts of Tirana, from where for a further bus fare of 0.35 cent, a local commuter bus is bringing me to the doorsteps of my home for the next few days.

Three coins and four names

There are three coins on a small piece of paper and a few more just next to it on a table in a room where normally there shouldn’t be coins or a table and certainly not a building….

The reason for this is, that the table in question is just standing next to the abyss on an overhanging mountain side in the remote Tzoumerka region of Northern Greece and it could have been standing there for the last 800 years.

I have been stopping at the Kipinas Monastery, which is a small cluster of rooms that – gravity defying – appears to have been glued onto the sheer rockface, to protect its inhibitants – Byzantine monks and their flock – from foreign invaders.

Further defensive features are a small draw bridge and a complex tunnel system that is leading over 200 meters into the mountain and to an own water supply.

Well hidden and towering over the road and the Kallarytikos river below, its precarious and yet ingenious construction has stood the test of time.

Kindly encouraging the monks in a magical place like this to pray for your loved ones can certainly not do any harm…..

Costas and Michalis

While strolling along the promenade in Ioannina, just below the Aslan Pasha Mosque, I am coming across the beautiful sculpture of a couple, which – I find – is in perfect juxtaposition to the lake and to the mountains behind it.

The elegant simplicity of the figures, reminds me a bit of the “Couple on Seat” by Lynn Chadwick in the center of Canary Wharf (and in other locations).

While standing infront of the sculpture, I am noticing the sound of some beautiful piano music nearby, which is so in tune with the whole surrounding.

The piano is being played by Costas, who – as I find out later – is travelling and playing the piano in company of his canine friend Michalis, who is a beautiful 8 year old cross breed, who appears to have taken a liking to this combination of stunning sites, fine classical music and of a lot of attention (and treats ?) from the passers by.

Both this spot and one on an Aegean island at sunset are Costas’ favourite places and entirely appreciating the wisdom of his choice, I am sitting down just listening and enjoying life, helped further by Michalis rolling himself up right next to me…..

Once again I find that the best things in life are actually free and that you notice sheer perfection when you see it.

Witnessing this perfect example of the human-animal bond, the simplicity of life of this modern day Diogenes, the beauty of the lake, of the still snow capped mountains and of the sculpture of the couple, and listening at the same time to these timeless tunes, is making me happy for the rest of the day….

Before you wonder though……of course I left a decent tip in Costas’ box before I left and let’s agree that the best things in life are ….nearly…. free….

Midnight train to Greece

It was 3 o’clock in the morning just North of Skopje, when the door to the compartment was pulled open and my girlfriend and I, together with an American couple, were told to step outside immediately.

Still half asleep we looked at each other when one of the police officers jumped onto the seats of the railway carriage and produced a long screwdriver. Within minutes the ceiling of the compartment was disembled and realising what was happening, I wispered to my partner, that we would be in for the Grandmother of all troubles if someone had planted anything there….

A few minutes later and after thankfully nothing had been found, we were again allowed to return to our seats and without a word of apology the officials left, heading for their next unsuspecting victims….

Hard to believe that this is now nearly 40 (!) years ago and at that time I had just finished my first year at vet school. Together with my Norwegian girlfriend I had hitchhiked from Hanover to Salzburg, where we boarded a train, that was carrying us over the following 36 hours from the North of Austria through Yugoslavia to Athens. The train ride was all but comfortable and the rudeness of the Yugoslav police and border guards was not only a nuisance, but the knowledge that we would also have to return that way, hung then like a dark cloud over our heads while we were spending our holidays in the sun on the beaches of Paros and Antiparos.

Once again I am standing in the center of Belgrade – not only my university course, but also a few decades of work are behind me, my then girl friend is now a respected lecturer in animal welfare at the vet school of her native Oslo, the state of Yugoslavia has ceased to exist and has been replaced by a handful of smaller, independent nations and somewhat disappointingly, there is no longer a train allowing this form of travelling….

There is apparently a night train that connects Belgrade with Thessaloniki, but if at all, it only operates during the summer months and as it is just the first day of May, I have come too early.

The views from the train journey have remained with me though and my plan is, over the following weeks, to learn more about the people of the Balkan, to walk across their mountains, to eat their food, to drink coffee, wine and raki, to listen and to talk.

I want to visit my friends and colleagues here and – hopefully – make a few new ones.

If all is going well, my route will take me from Belgrade to Thessaloniki in Macedonia, to Ioannina and the Pindos mountains, then through the whole of Albania and pass Tirana to the mountains in the North. From there I hope to cross into Montenegro, visit Dubrovnik on the Southern tip of Croatia, before heading North into Bosnia Herzegovina to travel pass Mostar and Sarajevo back to Belgrade.

Without access to a train, but being determined to cover the distance by land, the even more uncomfortable alternative of an overnight bus journey is the second best option…..

Having reduced my necessary belongings for the next month to whatever fits into a backpack, that can be carried with not too much effort over mountains, I am finding myself in the not very inviting surroundings of Belgrade’s central bus terminal and after an involuntary tour of pretty much the whole site, I arrive just in time at platform 5 where my international carrier turns out to be a somewhat worn mini bus that looks as if it had a former life as a busy airport shuttle. Slowly I am starting to understand the puzzlement in the faces of my Serbian friends, when I told them what I was planning to do and their subsequent question why I wasn’t flying….

Well, now it is too late anyway to turn and I enter the nightbus to Thessaloniki….

What follows is certainly not the most comfortable night I had in my life, but despite us covering over 600 kilometers and two border crossings in just under 11 hours, it doesn’t involve unfriendly border guards and thankfully no screwdrivers or any other household tools get involved.

At just before 6 am the next morning I am sitting down in a small cafeneon in Thessaloniki and order my first Greek coffee on this new adventure……

Seven guitars

There are seven guitars hanging off the wall in Alistair’s living room and a couple of microphones are lying on the breakfast table – signs of a monastic life dedicated to music and lyrics…..

Born and bred just around the corner and living here ever since, Alistair is my perfect host in Manchester, this archetypal English city in the North, which – after so many years on the island – I am now visiting for the first time.

With its city center, where the wrought iron fenced facades tell of previous riches and of its now uncomfortable colonial history, where modern coffee chains mingle with addresses like Canada or India House. A place which features large deprived areas and yet not one but even two of the World’s most famous (and expensive) football clubs with the eternal rival – Liverpool – just a stone throw away towards the East.

Having for a few days updated myself on the newest ideas in veterinary care at the grand location of the converted Victorian Central Railway Station, my focus is now on checking out the local music club scene and for this I decided Alistair couldn’t be better suited.

Staying for another night and following his advice I am setting out late on Saturday evening, strolling through the densely populated city center towards a small Jazz club in the Northern Quarter.

Walking along the old canal, passing Gay Village, I am approached by the towering figure of a guy in drag with a faux fur coat and on 14 inch stiletto heels, trying to usher me into one of the local bars. I have to smile and decline politely, but while carrying on with my walk, I can’t help feeling like a fly that just had a close encounter with a praying mantis…..

A few minutes later I am entering the already packed Matt & Phredd’s Jazz Club and after finding myself somewhat lost in the crowd, nursing my first Cuba Libre of a few that night, I notice that a chair just next to the stage appears to be still vacant.

Utilizing my German genes, I am seizing it (even without having a towel….) and luckily only a couple of hours later I become aware of a “Reserved” sign on which I have been sitting the whole evening…..

At that point however it didn’t matter anymore…

Shortly after my arrival, Terri Shaltiel and her band are entering the stage and the audience is being treated to a great fusion of soul, blues and R n B. A bit of Amy Winehouse, a bit of Aretha Franklin and of Gladys Knight with some impressive instrumental solos adding to the mix.

In the breaks, while sharing drinks with Bolee, the bass guitarist, I am once again reminded how small the world is, when it turns out that he had served in the British Army in both Hanover and Paderborn, exactly at the same time when I was studying there veterinary medicine and when I started with my first job mainly treating farming animals.

Time for another drink and for more “Sweet Things” by Terri Shaltiel….

Morning run in Marseille

There are these irritating first five minutes that are hurting when going for a run in the morning. The whole body has to follow the mind, accepting that from a state of total rest and immobility all systems have to be activated to reach three times the previous heart rate, to adapt the body to the cold and to move in a fast and balanced way.

It is 6.00 am at the beginning of December and while stepping out of the quirky surroundings of Mama Shelter, my home in France for a few days, I am reminding myself that I am not really an early morning runner, but if you want to experience a still sleeping city this way, you need to bite the bullet…..

Following a brief uphill section towards Notre Dame Du Mont, the road descends towards the habour where the sea food venders are busy setting up their stalls. At this time of the day there are hardly any cars on the roads and I am able to run along the waterfront of Quai de Rive Neuve towards Parc Emile Duclaux where I was fortunate enough to enjoy a reception together with my French colleagues in the glamorous Palais du Pharo the previous night.

Built by Napoleon III in the middle of the 19th century and towering over the entrance of the habour, it gives this rough Mediterranean seafarer city a more respectable front.

Turning South here, with my body now fully awake, I am faced with the main challenge for this run: finding a route uphill to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde before sunrise.

Despite it is overtowering the whole city and the surrounding countryside, I am finding it surprisingly difficult to see this landmark among the narrow streets of the 7th arrondissement. Several times I am stranded in some dead end roads adding to the mileage of my morning run.

Eventually my system of moving in roughly the right direction and using all roads leading uphill, pays off and I find a small pass heading directly to this beautiful church.

There are just a few minutes to spare before the sun is rising behind the mountains in the East, covering the whole city into a warm orange glow.

This spectacle only lasts a few minutes, which is perfect as my body is now cooling fast and I am starting to head downhill through the streets and staircases of the 6th arrondissement

towards the column of Place Castellane, which featured in Conrad’s now over a hundred year old and so fittingly named novel “The Arrow of Gold”.

No time though for me to sit down and read, but instead to give it a final push uphill for a warm shower and a hard earned breakfast at Mama Shelter.