In the far north of Albania, near the borders of Macedonia and Kosovo, lie the Albanian Alps, more fondly referred to as “The Accursed Mountains.” It’s a remote, rugged, relatively unpopulated area of Albania where life still revolves around laws and customs from the late Middle Ages and the geography and architecture give the feeling of Middle Earth. Recently, I and my Peace Corps friends Deb, Alison and Ron had the opportunity experience a true Albanian-style adventure when we spent a weekend in the Accursed Mountain village of Theth.
*Full disclosure: Some of the photos in this post are not mine. Because the weather was overcast during the trip, many of the photos I took don’t do justice to Thethi’s beauty and, as a result, I have supplemented my pictures with some from other sources..
Tribal Albania: Ghegs and the Kanun
Albania has two distinct ethnic subgroups: Ghegs, who reside in the north (including in Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo, home to many ethnic Albanians), and Tosks, who live in the central and southern parts of the country. The Ghegs were largely ignored by the Ottomans during their 500-year occupation of Albania and, as a result, their tribal (i.e., clan-based) system was maintained, their Catholicism was never supplanted by Islam and the Gheg dialect remained intact (which it still is today). It was only at the end of World War II, when the Communists took over, that the Gheg’s clan-based system was challenged, making it the longest enduring tribal society in Europe.
Today, Tosk is the official Albanian dialect but the northern Ghegs still subscribe to different customs and ways of life than the rest of Albania. The key to these differences is the Kanun (pronounced kah-NOON), an ancient, non-religious system of laws that was first codified in the 1400s. Some sources say the Kanun dates from the 1400s and others maintain that its origins go all the way back to Illyrian times and that it was merely formalized in the 1400s. Either way, it’s old.
Containing more than 1,200 laws, the Kanun prescribes proper behavior in all aspects of life: property ownership, marriage, family loyalty and hospitality among them. Two foundational aspects of the Kanun are “besa” (pronounced bay-sah), which means “honor,” and “hakmarrje” (pronounced hahk-mar-yeh), which means vengeance, revenge and/or vendetta….take your choice. Can you see where this is going? Another defining characteristic of the Kanun is that is it fiercely patriarchal: men have privileges and women, who are viewed as of little value, have few. This also goes somewhere interesting….
The Kanun expressly states that “spilled blood must be met with spilled blood,” meaning that, in order maintain one’s honor, there is an obligation to avenge any insult or injury to one’s family with murder. This blood revenge (called “gjakmarrje”) is prescribed as a response not only to physical injury, but also to insult or dishonor. The murder is the method by which one regains honor for one’s family, but then the other family is obligated to avenge their dishonor and on and on and on…
“Spilled blood must be met with spilled blood”
Women, children and the elderly are exempt from revenge murders; the back-and-forth cycle of violence is limited to grown male relatives, but young boys grow up and blood feuds can go on for years. As a result, men in the family flee or go into hiding, some leaving the country to seek asylum elsewhere, others withdrawing into protected family compounds where they live less-than-happy, less-than-productive lives. In the old days, targeted individuals retreated into fortified, lock-in towers called “kulla” to hide and wait until some other family member was murdered. Here is the kulla still standing in Theth:
As noted in this article about a current-day blood feud, it’s estimated that blood feuds have accounted for 10,000 deaths in the 25 years since Communism fell. In the first four months of this year, 35 deaths have been attributed to blood feuds. In theory, it’s possible to settle feuds financially, but I haven’t been able to find much information on this.
The Kanun is highly patriarchal: only male heirs can inherit property, women are not permitted to transact business and marriages are arranged (in fact, refusal to participate in an arranged marriage could trigger a blood feud). Basically, women are viewed as property.
But, there is a way out — a means by which a woman can extricate herself from the strictures of the Kanun: by living as a “sworn virgin.” Some women become sworn virgins to avoid arranged marriages, others to gain rights or freedoms otherwise denied them. Either way, by taking an oath of lifelong celibacy, sworn virgins become entitled to all the rights and privileges of men: they can own land, conduct business, work in jobs traditionally limited to men and even smoke and drink. They dress as men and live as men. Here are a couple of pictures of sworn virgins taken by photographer Jill Peters. You can see more pictures here.
Trials and Tribulations, Part 1: Traveling to Theth
Theth is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Albania. It’s positively other-wordly — sort of Middle Earth-y — as if hobbits are somewhere in the vicinity. But, there’s a price: getting there is an arduous, sometimes hair-raising experience and that’s where the Adventure in the Accursed Mountains begins….
The road to Theth looks like this:
In spite of the poor picture quality, you can see that the road is a twisty mess. Here’s what you can’t see: the elevation, the changes in elevation (the highest peak in the Accursed Mountains is 8,839 feet and the average height is 8,000 to 8,500 feet), how much of the road is unpaved and how dangerous it is. The last part of the trip to Theth is about 40 kilometers (25 miles). That breaks down into 25 kilometers (~16 miles) of ascent on a nicely paved, one-lane road full of hairpin turns and 15 km (~9 miles) of descent on an unpaved, pothole-filled, rutted, one-lane road with lots of hairpin turns and rocks and no guard rails.
In an effort to avoid a hair-raising, vomit-inducing, potentially unsafe furgon trip to Theth, my friends and I hired a private car to get us there and back. The driver, Altin, warned us that the last part of the road was bad and made sure we knew that those nine miles would be bumpy and extremely slow. What he didn’t tell us was that we would be traveling in a VW minivan, not a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle intended for off-road travel.
The first part of the drive to Theth was fine. The paved road to the top of the mountain was steep and curvey, but Altin took it slow and was careful about negotiating passing room with oncoming cars. Then we got to the infamous last nine miles and spent about 2 1/2 hours bumping and jostling along as Altin tried to navigate the ruts to avoid getting stuck on rocks while simultaneously attempting to stay away from the road’s edge — a steep, unguarded drop-off. Several times we did bottom out on a rock and we four passengers had to get out of the car so that Altin could move the car without damaging it.
We also encountered a number of oncoming cars, which necessitated an elaborate dance of figuring out who needed to back up to a wide spot in the road and how to get past each other without damaging the cars and/or tumbling over the edge.
At one point we came face-to-face with a caravan of ridiculously oversized vehicles — including a truck and a house trailer — transporting ATVs. Our driver was frustrated and annoyed that anyone would attempt an already dangerous road with such large vehicles and their wrangler, a German guy with a walkie-talkie, was similarly frustrated and annoyed because we were impeding their progress.
There was a period of time where it simply didn’t seem possible that the caravan could get around us, but their wrangler knew what he was doing and eventually made it happen.
By the time we got to Theth, everyone was exhausted. The trip had been so arduous that the general consensus was, “let’s enjoy ourselves this weekend because we will never make this trip again.”
The Little Town Village that Time Forgot
Theth is incredibly small — a true mountain village. It’s so small that I have been unable to locate any information on its population other than some guesses that there are 15-20 families with fewer (5-10?) in the winter when the roads are impassable. Other than guest houses with adjacent cafes and restaurants, there are no commercial establishments in Theth — everything is either grown/made locally or brought in from the outside.
Officially, Theth is a national park but in Albania that’s mostly a designation, not a promise of certain amenities (maps, guides, signs, navigable roads, etc.). Currently the village gets about 10,000 visitors per year, mostly “adventure tourists” looking to hike, climb, cave and otherwise discover undiscovered places. A number of large international NGOs are funneling money into Theth in the hope of developing tourism beyond its current level: 15-20 guest houses with a total of about 200 beds.
We had bad weather during much of our trip and, as a result, weren’t able to visit some of the area’s must-sees: a waterfall and the “Blue Eye,” an amazingly clear natural spring. But, we did get to wander the village, take in the unusual architecture and meet some cows, horses and sheep.
The Kanun, Guests and God
The Kanun’s laws on hospitality state that “the house of an Albanian belongs to God and to the guest” meaning that guests are messengers of the gods and hosts become divine by opening their homes, sharing their food and defending the guest from danger (including avenging their death if a murder were to take place). To show lack of care for a guest is a loss of honor (“besa”).
This commitment to hospitality exists throughout Albania (although probably without the avenging part) and Albanians are known for being welcoming and generous. Albanians are justifiably proud of the fact that, in spite of the Nazi occupation, they sheltered and protected Jews during the Holocaust. At the beginning of World War II, Albania’s Jewish population numbered only 200. During the war, as word got out that Albanian Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics were providing refuge, many more Jews were smuggled into the country, mostly through Kosovo. By the end of the war, about 2,000 Jews resided in Albania. Since then, Albania and Albanians have been recognized by the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem Museum for their role in rescuing Jews.
Albanians are proud of the fact that they sheltered and protected Jews during the Holocaust
Our group experienced a much less dramatic bit of north-Albanian hospitality when we wandered over to a newly renovated guest house to check out the accommodations. The next thing we knew, we were being served petulla (fried dough), cheese and fig jam by the owners.
Trials and Tribulations, Part 2: Leaving Theth
On our second day in Theth it poured. It poured all day and all night and sometimes poured even harder. We were supposed to leave on the third day and all of us showed up at breakfast that morning wondering how we were going to get back over the mountain in rainy, foggy, muddy conditions in a vehicle not intended for off-road use. The prospect — after such an arduous ride in — of attempting such a trip seemed not just unrealistic, it seemed terrifying.
We decided that we would talk with our driver about staying an extra day and waiting for conditions to improve. We planned to tell him that he could stay the extra day with us or, if he preferred, head back on his own and we would arrange for another driver and vehicle. But, it turned out that Altin had the same safety concerns and proposed that we attempt to leave Theth that morning by hiring a driver with an off-road vehicle to get us past the unpaved part of the road and back onto terra firma, at which point Altin — who would be following us — would drive us the rest of the way.
By that point the rain had stopped and so we felt that Altin’s suggestion was viable. He made a few calls and then told us he had found a local driver with an off-road vehicle. But, it turned out that the off-road vehicle was in fact a furgon (a full-sized transport van) that was high-clearance but without four-wheel drive. Altin told us that such vehicles were specially outfitted for local conditions but we were skeptical. We decided that we would attempt the trip but would return to Theth if it quickly became clear that it was unsafe.
A few minutes later, our furgon and its (young) driver showed up. It was a rattle-trap vehicle that had seen better days a long time ago. We loaded in and started up the mountain with Deb riding shotgun so that she could 1) avoid car-sickness and 2) assess the driver’s skills. Quickly it became clear that we were in good hands. The furgon had a strong engine and its high clearance allowed it to handle the roads. The ride was bumpy, but actually less so than on the way in. Most important, the driver knew the road. At one point Deb turned around, gave us a thumbs-up and said, “on a 10-point scale, he gets a nine.”
We were rolling and Altin was right behind us in the VW, navigating more easily because, without passengers and luggage, his car was riding higher. And then, about 30-40 minutes into the trip, the furgon suddenly lost power. Several times the driver was able to re-start the engine by working the clutch while rolling backwards but it kept cutting out (we found out later that the fuel pump had stopped working). Altin, Ron and the driver pushed the furgon off the road and made some calls so that the driver could get help and we could get another furgon.
Grateful it wasn’t raining, we waited by the side of the road for 45 minutes to an hour until furgon #2 showed up. We piled in and once again took off up the mountain, Altin behind us. The driver, like the first driver, knew his stuff and the furgon handled the road with ease. Then, 20-30 minutes later, the driver pulled over to take a call on this cell phone. It was Altin — no longer behind us — calling to say that he had hit a rock and punctured his oil pan…could we come back? The driver found a wide-ish (not wide, wide-ish) spot in the road, did a u-turn and headed back down the mountain to rescue Altin. I had no idea what would happen when we got there, but the driver — whose favorite expression appeared to be “s’ka problem” (“not a problem”) — had a plan and a tow rope and we started towing Altin’s car up the mountain.
Problem solved, except that the tow rope came loose from Altin’s car twice and we had to stop and reattach it. Then there was the point where Altin’s left-front wheel slipped off the road. Each time, we all groaned while the driver (whose name I can’t remember) said “s’ka problem” and made things right again.
Finally, we made it to the top of the mountain where the paved road started, but we now needed the furgon driver to take us to Koplik, the first town big enough to have a repair shop for Altin’s car and buses/furgons for the rest of us to get back to civilization. With 25 kilometers of descent ahead of us, the furgon driver (“Mr. S’ka Problem”) detached Altin’s car and drove behind Altin as he used gravity to glide down the mountain and his muscles to manage the car without its power steering and power brakes.
On the way down, we volunteers marveled at how wrong we had been about furgon travel to/from Theth. Sure, we didn’t want to stand in the aisles of a jam-packed furgon with closed windows and vomiting children for 40+ kilometers, but we also realized that with the right vehicle and the right driver the trip wasn’t so bad after all. While our trip in the private car left us all convinced we would never return to Theth, our misadventures with furgon travel persuaded us otherwise and I am now planning to return with a friend next spring.
Ending the Adventure with Another WTA Moment
We made it to Koplik at about 2:30, five-and-a-half hours after we left Theth. The driver headed back over the mountain, Altin headed to the repair shop and the rest of us boarded transportation back to our homes.
On the bus back to Tirana, the driver spent part of the trip listening to some sort of English-language instruction where the teacher would say a sentence in Albanian and then allow time for the student to say the sentence in English before providing the answer. It took me a while before I realized how bizarre the sentences were and at that point had time to write down only two before the driver changed to a different channel: “His two sons were lost in an accident” and “He stole me blind.” After a day full of WTA (“welcome to Albania”) experiences, it was yet another WTA moment.