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.