Fushe Lura was like a rumour, a myth. We’ve read about it somewhere, ‘the worlds 501 most wild places’ book perhaps; a short story about a hidden village, completely forgotten, up on the mountains in Albania. Disconnected from the world, it’s nowhere in the maps or any other conventional guide we searched in but the description of the place, together with the mystery, appealed to us. We wanted to check it out. First, though, we needed to find it and get to it.
We only knew 3 things: (1) it’s somewhere seriously remote in Albania. (2) There are no maps or sign posts in Albania. (3) The closest town is called Peshkopi, which is a cool name for a town anyway. We thought it was enough to start with so we went on.
Weather: warmer, drier
Total mileage: 3100
Soundtrack: Classic rock (Abbey Road, Ziggy Stardust, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley)
Early morning. We’re entering Albania and immediately there are several life threatening situations. We’re driving south, on an Albanian ‘highway’. We’re sharing it with drivers who want to die on the road today, but not alone. It’s hard; at any given moment someone is doing something really stupid that can finish this trip for us. And the rest of our future trips too.
After a while we’re turning east, leaving the suicidal highway. The road’s narrowing. On the right there’s a sheer cliff, on the left high rocks. We’re climbing. Often the rocks clear way to fields where farmers are working, the whole family together, with scythes and sickles. When we’re passing they all stop, smile and wave.
It’s quiet and pleasant around. I like it; it feels like... an earthy smiley place.
The tarmac road is ending and we’re now following a dirt track. The day is getting hot and the air dusty.
A couple of sheppards ahead leading their flocks down the mountain. They see us and immediately smile and wave. We’re waving back and asking how far Pashkopi is. They are both thinking and nodding, one is showing 3 fingers, the other 4.
|Where is Fushe Lura?|
We’re driving for another few hours before entering a little town. It’s buzzing. Everyone’s out, it’s market day today; women in head scarves are selling honey and cheese, elders with Qeleshe are loading goats into pickup trucks, young men standing, smoking and staring – A ram is running into the road! – emergency break! Everyone’s stopping to stare at us. We’re waving and the whole street waves back.
Albania has been isolated for years. The country was separated from Yugoslavia right after the Second World War and applied a strict communist regime. Their only outside partner was Russia but after they were betrayed they’ve had to ally themselves with 60’s China. Good days. Until the 90’s the country was completely sealed, when every spare penny was spent on fortification of the borders. Bunkers are still visible anywhere.
Then, during the 90’s, the country suffered a series of economical devastations followed by heavy corruption, food shortages and the expected violent riots. Its not a main tourist attraction and only a small number of visitors enter the country each year. Even nowadays, locals cannot ignore our presence. Wherever we go, they’d stop and look.
Midday, we’re arriving to Peshkopi. Cradled between high peaks; it’s a busy little town. Heavy traffic of pedestrians, rusty cars, horses with carts and donkeys. We’re crawling through the streets; shops with no signs, streets with no names, traffic lights without any meaning. We are stopping, asking for directions. A crowd of people instantly gather around us, staring and smiling, trying to figure out who we are. A translator’s being called, a young boy. He’s running towards the gathering, his friends are following. “You from England!” he’s shouting, announcing to the crowd. “To Fishe Lura you need drive up mountains! 3 hours” – and he’s showing 4 fingers.
We’re leaving the town for a quiet bendy road again. Farms dot the slopes ahead, old woman is pulling her donkey in the middle of the road, a pile of hay attached to its back.
The road forks. We’re stopping, again, waiting for someone to pass and point the way. A happy group of kids is jumping down from the trees. They’re selling cherry and immediately reaching to our window. “You from England? I speak English! I sell cherry!” We’re getting our directions and buying a bag of that wonderfully juicy fruit, 70 pence for 2 kilos. Sweet.
We’re driving for another hour or two without seeing a soul.
Afternoon, the dirt track is turning into a rocky path, disappearing further up above the peaks. It’s a challenging off road drive. Large rocks lose stones and tough terrain; we’re being banged and thrown from side to side, fearing for a suspension fault or worse, a puncher.
Progressing slowly we’re crossing another mountain pass. The path has now disappeared completely, becoming an endless field of boulders and razor sharp rocks facing upward. It looks to painful, for us and to the car. We’re stopping. It’s silent. The wind is hauling and it’s getting chilly. A debate: should we stop and set camp here or better, give up and retreat back to the valley, to wonderful Peshkopi. Suddenly, an engine sound from far behind. A car’s approaching.
It’s another off road vehicle. An old face is smiling at us from the dusty, muddy window. Stopping next to us, a short man, late 50’s, is jumping out. We’re trying to make a conversation with him, using broken words, hands signs and pantomime.
|The 'road' to Peshkopi|
What is he saying? Is he suggesting we’d follow him to Fushe Lura? Is there really such a place, Fushe Lura? And, more bizarrely, could we possibly DRIVE to there, through this terrain? The man is jumping back into his car and starting to ascend. We like his style so we’re obviously following.
It’s tough, but no worries people. Land Rover, this time, got it right. Our Disco 3 (have I introduced Boudicca already...?) has 2 chassis. The first one is the boring one, and it’s for normal road driving. The second chassis, though, is for off road. It feels solid but agile. I would never dare jogging on this terrain myself but Boudicca does it naturally and loves it.
Furthermore, the whole system can be lifted to create that clearance that is needed to get to those remote places such as Fushe Lura. In a hard off road driving this gives a relaxing comfortable feeling that all guts of the car are far enough above those mean rocks and we’ll probably be able to get out of this place with everything intact.
So we’ve made it. It was only after another 4 hours but finally we are here.
First feeling: this was a fucking excellent trip! Second feeling: we’re not sure we really want to stay here. This village is not only remote, it’s isolated. It feels like it, and it doesn’t feel good.
The inhabitants, only men, are all staring at us through doors and windows. There are heavy bars on the windows. Those folks are not smiling or waving, they don’t seem happy. Now they are gathering around, suspiciously. Third feeling, naturally: are we being welcomed here...?
We’re looking around for our jumpy old guide. We need to make a quick contact with him, so the rest will maybe figure out we came with him. Now the people from the crumbly cafe are coming out too, circling the vehicle. There are about 200 men in this little street now and they all look hungry for something.
– There he is!
We’re calling him to thank him and asking if there’s any hotel around. This village seems too hostile for wild camping. He’s pointing up. There, on the hill above the cafe, stands a beautiful shinny hotel. It’s all looking too freaky now but still, our instincts are shouting at us: ‘do NOT camp around here!’ – So we are getting up to that hotel and checking in.
We’re in. The hotel gates are being closed and locked behind. We’re being advised to lock our doors and to never leave the lobby door open. Welcome to Fushe Lura, such a lovely place.
In the morning, fresh and meditated, we reflected. It was the best drive so far and we’ve made it to here so we should at least give the place a chance. After our breakfast we booked another night and went for a walk around. We climbed on the spectacular Lura mountains above the village, explored and met a few locals.
We met a Sheppard who offered his cigarette. He was confused because we’ve been married for 7 years with no children. He has 5, and another 31 hungry goats.
We met the horseman. He walks the long way around to get wood. He doesn’t know where we are going to but he’s happy to give us directions.
We met Illy. He finished school at 11, works at the hotel, likes hip-hop from England (but never saw a map before) and adores our Land Rover. He also really needs to be introduced to a tooth brush, but I didn’t feel like taking that role.
Finally, we met Daniel. He’s 10 and he’s the village phenomena. He speaks fluent English and runs the hotel. He likes maths, plans to go to university and dreams of being a pilot. I liked that kid.
We’ve had a long chat and Daniel told us about his village. In his 10 years of experience it’s never looked too good. There are 700 hundreds people, few have anything to do. There’s no income and no jobs here. Those who could, left, including all the young women, hoping to marry someone in the city. The closest school is in Peshkopi, 4 hours down that path we came on, and anyway, there are only 10 cars in the village.
Perspective; lesson learnt. On the surface some places, just like people, can be looked intimidating, unwelcoming, dodgy even. However, we are not going to let that initial uncomfortable feeling hold us back. Instead, we’ve decided, we’ll stick around, get to know the place and understand it. This is, eventually, a fundamental aspect of travelling.
Thank you Fushe Lura!
|Above Fushe Lura|
Next on our journey: A dip in Lake Ohrid in Macedonia; the oldest, deepest and biggest lake in Europe. Then we’ll climb on Olympus, the ‘mountain of gods’, and do some olive picking in Greece. In between we’ll jump again into Albania, mainly because we really liked it. Stick around!
Jen & Noam