Hiking the Accursed Mountains in Albania

I know, I know, we left you in Romania and now I’m talking about Albania. We finished our biking in Fagaras and spent the next three days in transit: first a 9-hour train ride to traverse 400 km in Romania to Timisoara (yes, Romanian trains are slow) and then a series of trains to Belgrade and onward to Podgorica. The largest hiccup was that the train from Romania to cross the Serbian border turned out to have been discontinued in August, so we had to take one train from Timisoara to a town near the border, then bike as fast as humanly possible across the border to catch the last train of the night to Belgrade. But we made it, had a rainy night in Belgrade, and spent the following day on a train into Montenegro.

Of course, with four trains and a bicycle ride, our journey took a lot more than 18 hours!
Of course, with four trains and a bicycle ride, our journey took a lot more than 18 hours!

In Podgorica, we met up with my parents, who’d flown in from Santa Barbara, and then headed out the next day across the border to Shkoder, Albania, where we spent the night and then took a shuttle up into the mountains on a winding semi-paved road. After two hours’ drive, we climbed out of the shuttle and onto a waiting ferry for an absolutely spectacular ride across Lake Koman. The steep, rugged mountains descended all the way to the lakeshore. I took way too many pictures!

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P1080604At the other end of the ferry, we hopped onto another shuttle that dropped us by the side of the road, from which, in theory, we could walk to our night’s accommodation, a rustic homestay in the tiny village of Dragobi. After asking a few locals, we managed to find Fariz’s house, where we settled into a surprisingly comfortable night after going for a short hike up the side valley and then sharing dinner with Fariz himself.

Next we set out on our three-day loop hike, first along the river and up a gentle incline to our next night’s homestay, and then more steeply up and over a mountain to a sheep farm where we spent the following night. The weather was perfect and the scenery was stunning, with rugged mountains and alpine meadows framed by stony peaks. Our hosts fed us well, almost exclusively with food grown on their own land or milked from their own sheep and cows!

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P1100944We had a comfortable night in a regular hotel in Valbona before setting out on the hike that brings thousands of visitors to the area: the hike up over the pass from Valbona to Theth, covering on foot a span unconnected by roads, through spectacular mountain scenery. The walk was easier than expected, and we arrived in Theth by 2 in the afternoon for a relaxing evening of reading and watching the clouds roll in for a nighttime thunderstorm. We’d really lucked out on the weather for our hikes!

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From Theth we chartered a 4WD taxi to take us up the rutted, rocky road out of the valley and then on increasingly well-paved roads back to Podgorica. In the end we had four days of hiking and 6 nights away from our base in Podgorica, from which we’d head out the next morning for a week of driving through the Albanian countryside. My parents were a bit under the weather, but Michael and I still felt healthy as we did the grocery shopping and ate a tasty Italian dinner.

Wrapping up Spain with the Millers

I’m so far behind on the blog that I considered declaring bankruptcy and just skipping the last two weeks, but we have gone to so many amazing places that I just couldn’t omit them. So from here on out we’ll be heavy on the photos, light on the commentary.

Zaragoza: lovely in the evening, plus Easter week festivities in the middle of the night and a morning at the Moorish palace of the Aljaferia, now the Aragonese parliament. Oh, and a really tasty chorizo sandwich for a $1.20 breakfast at the market full of old women shopping for Easter dinner ingredients.

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Barcelona: lovely but filled to the brim with tourists. We’d spent a week in Barcelona in 2011, so we had a relaxing few days walking around the amazing modernist architecture of the Eixample and doing some travel planning in between eating tasty meals. The most memorable involved striking up a conversation with the two men at the neighboring table, who turned out to be sailing captains in a training class before sailing to Ibiza and Mallorca respectively. We ended the evening with shots of aguardiente all around! For those who haven’t visited Barcelona yet, here are a few highlight photos from our last visit — we took no photos this time!

From Barcelona we headed to Can Boix, a hotel in the foothills of the Pyrenees where I had spent many summers as a kid while my geologist dad did fieldwork. Since my last visit was at the age of six, my memories of the place revolved around the swimming pool and soccer field, but on this return visit I realized what a beautiful place it really is. Nestled into a valley lined by amazing rock formations, Can Boix now has a renowned chef and printed leaflets for all the surrounding hiking trails, plus fabulous views from the terrace of our room. We spent two and a half days there and I spent twelve hours hiking as well as joining the Millers for Easter mass and a drive up the valley to the county seat, only a few miles from Andorra, where we watched world-class kayakers practice on the 1992 Olympic kayaking course.

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Driving south from Can Boix, we referred carefully to my map of castles and made a quick stop at the Castell de Montsonís for lovely views over the valley and then a longer tour at the Castello de Loarre, whose name is reminiscent of its more famous cousins in France, but which is a medieval fortress instead of the plush luxury palaces of the Loire.

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After an overnight stop in Zaragoza (great views of the basilica and old stone bridge, followed by freshly fried croquettes and tempura onion in Roquefort sauce at an upscale food court), we embellished our final day of driving with not only Roman ruins and two monasteries but also a set of ruins labeled only on our map as “ciclopeas,” which turned out to mean Neolithic ruins made of large stones on a dusty dirt road.

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And for our final night with Gretchen and Frank, Michael booked us into a 12th century castle restored in 1975 to become a parador, one of a government-run chain of upscale hotels. Did you hear that? We stayed in ANOTHER CASTLE!!

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And then – sadly – we had to bid farewell to Gretchen and Frank, leaving them at a hotel next to the Madrid airport and dropping off our trusty rental car. They flew to Atlanta and we headed to the Avis rental car counter to pick up rental car #2 and our friend Tiffany, who’d flown in from London for a four-day whirlwind visit! But that’s for the next blog post.

One farewell photo of the four of us:

P1070946See how much fun it is to come visit us??! Feel free to join us on another leg of our journey … just let me know when you’re free and we’ll make it work!

 

Heavenly temples at Haiensa

After a day in transit (ferry from Jejudo to Wando, bus to Gwangju and on to Daegu), we spent the day Tuesday at Haiensa, one of the “jewel temples” of Korean Buddhism. Nestled in the hills, it’s a gorgeous temple that also holds the Tripitaka Koreana, a set of thousands of wooden blocks in which the Buddhist scriptures were painstakingly carved back in the 13th century. We very much enjoyed wandering around the beautiful setting and wondering about monks’ lives there hundreds of years ago, though the Tripitaka Koreana itself is well preserved inside buildings that don’t allow visitors.

From Haiensa we set out upward to hike to the highest peaks in Gayasan National Park, which sounds ambitious, but was a relatively short 3-hour trek, albeit with a lot of uphill. Views from the top were hazy, but it was nice to make the most of our day at Haiensa.

That said, I have to leave you with a photo of Haiensa itself:

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Hiking in Seoraksan National Park, day 2: toward Daechongbong

After the first day of hiking in Seoraksan, I thought we had just been lucky to choose the most spectacular trail in the park, and that day two might be a disappointment, but not only did Monday dawn sunny instead of hazy but we also happened upon an amazing trail up a rocky gorge, with pools of clear blue water, several waterfalls, gorgeous foliage, and above all amazing rocks. The guidebook simply described it as one of the routes up to Daechongbong, the highest peak in the park and an 11-hour roundtrip, so we decided to just hike up for a few hours and see how it went.

We got an early start to give ourselves the opportunity for a nice long hike, and boy was it a butt-kicker! The first few miles of the trail were crowded, mostly with hikers going more slowly than we were, and so we would struggle to get past the big groups of slow hikers and then feel like we couldn’t stop lest we end up having to pass the same groups again! So we hiked rapidly up and up and up through stunning scenery.

After two hours or so the crowds thinned somewhat and the trail steepened even further. I can’t believe the number of stone stairs we climbed up and up. Wearily we made it to a high pass with spectacular views down at the valley we had climbed and out to the mountains beyond.

Following lunch there, we could make our way much more slowly down the trail, with much less company en route and plenty of time to just gaze in awe at the scenery we were lucky enough to be passing through. Photos wouldn’t do it justice. Among our fellow hikers were a man who proudly declared he was 72 as he hiked rapidly down from the 1100m pass and a friendly woman who chatted with us in English for a while, both of which made for nice encounters.

On the way home, Michael found raving reviews for an Italian restaurant kind of in the middle of nowhere so we ended up having a delicious dinner and getting to go home early and collapse into bed!

Hiking in Seoraksan National Park, day 1: Ulsan Bawi

We arrived at Seoraksan National Park around 2 in the afternoon, and set out on the first 4-hour hike we saw on the map. Turned out to be quite the hike, with the last mile almost entirely climbing up stairs, first stone and then metal walkways superimposed on huge cliffs. But the foliage was breathtaking and the rock summit we emerged onto impressive – a wonderful hike!