Paradise found! You’ll never guess where…

I have officially found paradise and I am the first to admit I found it in the most unlikely place. When invited to go on an adventure to Valbona national park in the north east of Albania by a group of Austrians I really had no clue what I was in for but as we all know true love strikes when we least expect it and aren’t paying attention. The view on the drive there gave me some idea just what I was in for but even then I wasn’t prepared for the strike of cupid’s arrow.

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Like any good love story, there were some trials and hardship to overcome before the happy ending. The drive there was grueling with a million (this is not exaggerating ) twists and turns which finally resulted in a break to to be sick.  On the positive side, this unexpected stop did result in an interesting cultural exchange where I learned  the Austrian slang for going to throw up which is to “nach melk telefonieren” which basically means to telephone melk (a town in Austria that in german is pronouced Mölk) which is supposed to sound like the throw up noise. Gotta love those cultural exchanges.

Gentle readers, please forgive me in advance for the gratuitous mountain photo porn that is about to come at you, I just could not stop myself from taking tons of pictures of this spectacular scenery. But it wasn’t just the scenery that wooed me about Valbona (I promise there is more than just mountains – photos animals, people and food up next!) but the entire pace of life, if you are craving an escape from the hectic life drop everything and head towards Valbona. I promise you will not regret it.

Springtime mountain

We were lucky enough to stay at Kol Gjoni’s guesthouse, which is essentially staying in the upstairs of his A-frame home on his farm set in the river valley.  Included in the 20 Euros per person per night is meals around the table in his living room, prepared by his wife and daughters with fresh ingredients from the surrounding family farm, complete with the wood fire burning in the background.

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The man of the house himself – Kol Gjoni. For fun on the last morning he put on the traditional costume of the North of Albania.

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The cozy guesthouse, a welcome sight after the 7 hour drive from Tirana!

We arrived friday night and after being bowed over by the scenery, were greeted with a hearty meal made with the freshest ingredients possible. If I wasn’t travelling, I would have seriously would have stuffed my suitcase with a pound of the creamiest butter I have ever eaten, thick fragrant honey from the backyard bees, and some raki that literally purifies your insides. Sadly I just took away memories and potentially tighter pants…

Dinner

I ate so much fresh goat cheese, and then I got to meet the goats responsible!

After dinner came stories translated first from Albanian to German and then into English for me while everyone sank into their chairs around the fire. I am not sure how much I understood with the amounts lost in translation but regardless the atmosphere itself was enough to bask in. I did learn that in the past to touch a man’s moustache was a very serious insult that could result in death however. Kol Gjani told us that his grandfathers mustache was even grander than his, I personally found this difficult to believe…

Kol Gjani

I mean check out that stash!

The next morning we woke up early to get a jump start on the day and hike to see the local waterfall. Before we left for our hike Kol Gjoni’s wife showed us milking the cow and then took Patrick and I in to meet the families newest additions.

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A whole pen of baby goats!!! Check out that cuteness!

I felt pretty lucky to get to meet some of the producers of all the excellent product we were enjoying.

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Because babies shouldn’t get all the love.

Normally when you are hiking you have to hike a little bit before you get to the amazing sights – lazy hikers Valbona is for you! This was our view just literally walking out the door of the guesthouse onto the guesthouse balcony.

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All of us were ready for a little more challenge however, these Austrians mean business!

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Reinhard who is here working on the issues of rural schools in Albania and taking amazing pictures.

This was my first trip with Austrians, but I have to say I am impressed, they really do not mess around when it comes to gear, machines and cookies. I had some pretty serious toy and box of cookies envy.

I drooled when I saw what this bad boy could do in 4 wheel drive and all the toys it could hold!

I drooled when I saw what this bad boy could do in 4 wheel drive and all the toys it could hold! Reinhard is a lucky guy.

Valbona wasn’t all siting around eating and petting baby goats. Things got a little more serious when we began the search for an elusive waterfall.

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Yes that is snow in the background of the river crossing… Cold feet!

The adventure wasn’t just limited to the trail. When the hike went on longer than intended and we got thirsty we took a risk and drank some of the local stream leading to discussion about beaver fever. I am hoping we all come away ok!

Drinking deep on faith that it is clean. Not sure this was our best move...

Drinking deep on faith that it is clean. Not sure this was our best move…

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Phillip was a mountain goat on the rocks but not a big fan of cold feet.

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One of several tricky crossings, but check out the sweet bridge we made!

We couldn’t get to the waterfall due to snow levels and were a bit disappointed. However for me that was quickly mollified when we got home to fresh bread and another fantastic meal prepared by Kol Gjani’s lovely wife and daughter.

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Making fresh bread that would win in a contest against even the best bakery. Bring it on challengers!

Austrian beer

Some Austrian beer waiting for us upon return from the hike.

A decadent lunch upon our return, a nap and then a long walk through the valley at twilight to get a coffee before coming back to play some soccer with the local kids before another farm fresh dinner next in the coziest living room I have ever been in with fast growing friends. For me this is what life if all about.

As I tucked into my sleeping bag that night, I was already scheming for when I could return. Is there anything better than being tucked in next to a wood burning stove before bed?

fire before bed

As a bonus on our way home on sunday, we stopped at this little gem of a lake for some parting goodbyes. If you make this journey I guarantee you will not regret it.

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Until next time, mirupafshim!

Ps. One more mountain shot for good luck 🙂

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