Larry Luxner

From Israel to the Balkans: Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro

Our group, photographed along the trail in Albania between Balqine and Dobërdol, included American, British and Israeli hikers; journalist Larry Luxner is second from left. (Photo by Virtyt Gacaferri)
Our group, photographed along the trail in Albania between Balqine and Dobërdol, included American, British and Israeli hikers; journalist Larry Luxner is second from left. (Photo by Virtyt Gacaferri)

TREKUFIRI, Albania — Barely three months after receiving an email invitation to experience the “Peaks of the Balkans,” here I was standing on one—and not even knowing which country we were in.

As sheep bells trinkled in the distance, I looked at my Fitbit: more than 27,000 steps walked and the equivalent of 202 floors climbed since leaving the Vila Natyra guest house in the Albanian town of Valbonë during my first day on the trail.

In fact, civilization pretty much fell away during that first hour of hiking as we passed a multi-story hotel, a roadside kiosk, a radio tower and finally a squat gray concrete bunker—one of an estimated 175,000 bunkerët built throughout Albania during the fanatical reign of Marxist dictator Enver Hoxha to protect the masses against a feared Soviet or American invasion that never came.

My fellow hikers and I took a group selfie standing atop this bunker, which, curiously, would be the only one we’d see over the next four days. It was a fitting reminder of the tyrannical regimes that for much of the 20th century had ruled not only Albania but to a lesser extent Yugoslavia—the unruly federation whose collapse would one day give rise to the independent nations of Montenegro and later Kosovo.

A shepherd’s dog wanders past an abandoned boundary marker at the border between Albania and former Yugoslavia, now Montenegro. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

So which of the three was I in? Looking around my surroundings, there was simply no way to tell at that moment—somewhat of an irony given how fearsome and impenetrable international borders once were in this unfortunate part of the world.

That I was in the Balkans at all was thanks to Kosovar entrepreneur Vyrtit Gacaferri, whose company, Balkan Natural Adventure, had graciously invited me to join a nine-day intensive hike through the not surprisingly named Accursed Mountains as a freelance journalist. It would turn out to be even more physically punishing than my October 2021 solo coastal hike from Rosh Hanikra—on Israel’s border with Lebanon—south to Tel Aviv.

The entire Peaks of the Balkans route crosses 140.9 kilometers of difficult, rugged terrain, though I only had time to do days 3 through 6 of this well-planned itinerary. Virtyt, who’s currently in Israel representing Kosovo at IMTM 2023—the 29th International Mediterranean Tourism Fair taking place this week at Expo Tel Aviv—assured me I’d be able to complete the journey even though I was twice the age of pretty much everyone else in the group.

The beginning of the trail

In preparation for the big adventure, I visited a Tel Aviv outdoor sports shop and bought the best Oboz hiking boots available. Also on the shopping list: a well-fitting Gregory backpack equipped with a 3-liter “hydration bladder” that allows its user to conveniently slurp water through a tube while hiking, without the need to constantly stop for water breaks.

Hikers pose atop a crumbling bunker outside Valbonë in northern Albania. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Besides Virtyt and myself, our little hiking party consisted of two Brits, two Americans, one Israeli and 22-year-old Albanian tour guide Donika Matoshi, who’s explored these unspoiled mountains for years and knows pretty much every tree, herb, mushroom and insect in the Balkans.

Trudging along a trail that was barely discernible at times, our forested path gave way to lush meadows and then rocky terrain that suddenly seemed more difficult with each passing step.

We soon came upon Hedije Hysaj, 56, who runs a café from a lonely hut less than one kilometer from the Montenegrin border. Hedije worked in a farming cooperative during communist times and has continued to come to this hardscrabble place long after its collapse.

These days, she survives by selling coffee and a delicious concoction called kos to the 30 or so tourists who pass through every day. Made with fermented sheep milk, local honey and fresh blueberries, this dessert costs 250 leks or 2€ and provides a much-needed energy boost for the path ahead.

Hedije Hysaj, 56, an Albanian peasant woman living near the border with Montenegro, poses for a picture with Israeli trekker Yoray Rubenstein of Rishon L’Tzion. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

A deteriorating stone boundary marker in a grassy field delineates the border between Albania and the former Yugoslavia. At one time, Albanian guards were trained to shoot and kill anyone daring to escape. But these days, local shepherds are just as oblivious to the once-feared border as the sheep they tend.

From destitute berry picker to profitable guest house owner

Despite my best efforts, as the day wore on I just couldn’t keep up with the others. Taking pity upon me, Virtyt adjusted his pace to mine. It was nightfall by the time we emerged from a forest near Çerem, flashlights in hand, and straggled into Guesthouse Kujtimi—cheered on by our worried hiking companions who had arrived more than an hour earlier.

The owner, Kujtim Goçi, has been working in tourism ever since the Peaks of the Balkans trail was established. But he wasn’t always a successful businessman.

“Things were very difficult during communist times,” he said in Albanian, with Virtyt serving as translator. “In 1975, my father was sent to prison, accused of ‘agitation and propaganda’ for saying that life was not good here. That left my mother to raise eight children by herself.”

A crumbling boundary stone at Albania’s border with Montenegro bears the Cyrillic abbreviation for Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

After the Marxist dictatorship of Ramiz Alia—Enver Hoxha’s handpicked successor—fell apart in 1991 and Alia was put under house arrest, Kujtim and his family were destitute.

“We didn’t even have bread to eat,” he recalled. “During communism, more than 60 families lived here in Çerem, but many left because the road is bad and there are no schools. So we started collecting medicinal plants and selling them. Later on, I got a job as a policeman, and for the last 11 years I’m working in tourism.”

Fortunately, Kujtim saw the area’s potential for tourism and opened a guest house. Today, he can host up to 75 people at a time.

“A lot of tourists, including Israelis, come by car from Tiranë or Shkodra to have lunch at my guest house,” said Kujtim, who has invested at least 150,000€ in his project and is already making a profit. “I offer the best service I can, and we get good reviews online. The best thing this has brought me is that I’ve educated all four kids in business—two sons and two daughters.”

From left: Guest house owner Kujtim Goçi, certified guide Donika Matoshi, and tour operator Virtyt Gacaferri pose for pictures along the trail. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Tour operator taps Israeli market for adventure travel

Virtyt’s involvement in the tourism industry took a very different path.

A British-educated former journalist who covered Kosovo’s 1999 ethnic wars for the Prishtinë-based newspaper Koha Ditore, Virtyt later realized he could earn far more money as a fixer for foreign correspondents—among them Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, who three years later was kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS terrorists in Pakistan.

“From journalism, I moved to international organizations and business,” he said. “Nature and hiking was always a passion of mine, which I inherited from my father. But I had to leave Kosovo to follow my wife’s career.”

Virtyt started Balkan Natural Adventure in 2015 with his business partner, Nol Krasniqi, who was among the first Peaks of the Balkans guides. In 2022, BNA—one of four companies specializing in the Accursed Mountains—served more than 1,000 clients. Prices range between 600€ and 900€ per person, double occupancy for a 10-day excursion including food, guest houses, transfers and GPS files to stay on track. A private tour for two people costs 1,200€.

Freshly picked boronicë (blueberries) in the village of Çerem. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“We think the Israeli market has potential,” Virtyt told me. “Every year, the number of clients from Israel increases. They’re strong, and they never complain about physical pain or the length of the trip. But it’s a tough market because Israelis are very demanding when it comes to service.”

One such traveler is 34-year-old Yoray Rubinstein, an avid backpacker from Rishon L’Tzion who has hiked the entire Shvil Yisrael from Tel Dan to Eilat—a distance of 1,120 kilometers.

“Everywhere I go, I look for the human connection. That goes beyond the history of the places I visit, and in Albania, I really found that,” he said. “I really like trekking in general, but if there’s a possibility of meeting local people along the way, even better.”

‘The journey is difficult … but the payoff is worth every step’

Yoray added that he particularly enjoyed the local food—fresh and delicious despite the rough conditions—and the fact that in Albania, “religion is not central to the lives of the people.”

Indeed, Albanians are not particularly religious; in 1976, Hoxha famously declared his country to be the world’s first atheist state. Nevertheless, Albania is still overwhelmingly Muslim, as is Kosovo, with significant Christian Orthodox and Catholic minorities. No more than 50 Jews live in Albania today—nearly all of them foreigners—and the fact that Albanians saved Jews during the Holocaust contributes to the country’s positive image among Israelis today.

Likewise, Kosovo is one of only three nations (along with the United States and Guatemala) that maintain embassies in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv, and its government is supporting the construction of a Jewish museum in the medieval city of Prizren.

A retired British tourist finds his location on a panel near Çerem, Albania. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Idan Attia, co-owner of Haifa-based New Age Trekking, has sent about 50 Israelis on Peaks of the Balkans adventures since 2019. He says he fell in love with this region at first sight.

“At these heights, around 2,600 meters above sea level, live fascinating people with age-old traditions,” Idan says. “The journey is difficult, and suitable only for those who are accustomed to long distances and difficult climbing. But the payoff is worth every step—unique views, a history with many twists and turns, and a group of people that becomes a warm family.”

Perhaps the most unique view of my whole trip was the one I enjoyed from Trekufiri, which marks the tripoint where the borders of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro meet. But getting there was the most grueling part of the entire experience.

Setting out after spending the night at Guesthouse Leonardi in the village of Dobërdol, it was just me and Virtyt at this point—the younger, more experienced hikers had already gone ahead of us, and Virtyt didn’t want to leave me straggling. Pointing to a peak way on the distant horizon, he optimistically informed me that we’d be there within two hours.

A sign near Guesthouse Leonardi in Dobërdol—only a few kilometers from Albania’s borders with Montenegro and Kosovo—advertises internet access. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

The first hour was a gradual ascent as we passed scattered herds of sheep and a nearby guest house proudly advertising WiFi—not merely a luxury for tourists, but an absolute necessity for businesses that need online booking capability. But then, the terrain worsened and each step became a supreme effort.

A tripoint to remember

At one point, Virtyt—aided by GPS and a supreme gift for patience—even took my backpack in addition to his own as I frantically grasped at clumps of grass to pull myself up to the next rock. At times I thought I might lose my balance and tumble down the mountain. Our progress was measured in meters, with me calling out “How much longer?” every few minutes.

Finally we cleared the ridge and saw a vertical pile of rocks in the distance. With renewed energy, I resumed the treacherous climb and was soon face-to-face with the most unusual tripoint I had ever gazed upon—and I’ve seen plenty in my travels. Among them: the roadside union of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana; the tropical tripoint where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil come together; the open field where Austria, Hungary and Slovakia meet, and the forest where a stone marker commemorates the tripoint of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

I’ve even been to one quadripoint: Four Corners National Monument, where a reinforced brass disk marks the remote desert geodesic point neatly splitting Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah into four states, much to the delight of tourists and Navajo souvenir vendors.

A carefully constructed monument of rocks marks Trekufiri, which at 2,366 meters above sea level marks the spot where Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro meet. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

But Trekufiri (also known by its Montenegrin name, Tromeђa) is different. Perched at 2,366 meters above sea level, it’s basically a lonely tower of flat granite slabs erected anonymously. There’s no official marker, no explanation and not a soul to greet us—only howling winds.

Virtyt and I snapped a few selfies, then inspected a nearby gray metal box surrounded by rocks and somehow drilled into the ground. Inside this box are deeply personal missives left over the years by hikers from dozens of countries in a variety of languages. The tradition distinctly reminded me of the Western Wall—a sort of spiritual Kotel for trekkers in the Balkans.

As I opened the lid to add my own, I spotted one note at random on crumpled graph paper, left by an Australian hiker named Molly. Quoting from “A Philosophy of Walking” by Frederic Gros, Molly wrote: “You are doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walking makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing.”


Wild blueberries and politics

Crossing into Montenegro, though not officially, we stopped along the trail to enjoy a prepacked lunch of bread, cheese, tomatoes and apples, gradually descending until we encountered a road and some friendly Montenegrin border policemen who didn’t care how we had entered their country. After taking selfies with them, they pointed the way forward and we trudged toward our destination: Roshkodol, elevation 1,610 meters.

Montenegrin police patrol their remote border with Kosovo near Dobërdol. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

But after several more hours of steep ascents and equally steep descents, I was simply too tired to continue. As Virtyt and I hiked zig-zagged back into Kosovo and into the tiny village of Bjeshka e Belegut, another road appeared. We came upon an elderly couple loading their battered pickup truck with boxes of freshly picked boronicë—blueberries—to take to market. Virtyt asked the man how much he’d charge to drive us to Pejë.

Agreeing on a price, Virtyt and I squeezed into the back with our gear and off we went over the rutted road. Before long, I got thirsty and took a schlup from the hydration bladder attached to my backpack. The farmer’s wife gazed at me curiously and discreetly asked Virtyt if I had some kind of rare disease. No, he replied, I was just sipping water. We all had a big laugh; it felt like a scene straight out of Seinfeld.

Before transferring us to another vehicle that had come to take us the rest of the way, the kindly farmers gave us an enormous bag of freshly picked boronicë and wished us a safe journey.

We arrived in Pejë (also spelled Peja)—Kosovo’s fourth-largest city—as night fell, just in time for a pre-arranged dinner with the town’s mayor, Gazmend Muxhateri. One of the country’s best-known politicians, Gazmend is also vice-president of the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo opposition party.

Informational sign points the direction, walking time and altitude of various points of interest along Kosovo’s’ border with Montenegro. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Kosovo’s Pejë still bears scars of ethnic hatred

In December, Gazmend led a municipal delegation to Israel, where among other things he signed a sister-city agreement with Netanya. One of his biggest goals: to boost tourism to Pejë and nearby points of interest including the city’s old Ottoman bazaar, its beautifully preserved medieval Serbian architecture, Kosovo’s longest zipline and no less than four daring Via Ferrata trails for rock-climbing enthusiasts in breathtaking Rugova Gorge.

Sonila Ismailaj, 19, offers coffee and kos—an Albanian dessert made with sheep yogurt, local honey and fresh blueberries—for 2€ each to tourists passing through the village of Çerem. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

He also wants to open—of all things—a ski lodge that he hopes will attract visitors from nearby countries.

“There are no ski resorts in Albania or Macedonia. All their citizens are going to Bulgaria or Serbia for skiing,” Gazmen said. “A lot of our citizens live in Switzerland and Germany, and they come here in the summer. But if we had a ski resort, they’d also come in winter.”

After three nights roughing it in remote mountain cabins under primitive conditions, lodging at Pejë’s Hotel Kulla e Zenel Beut was akin to sleeping in paradise.

Located smack in the center of town, this beautifully restored wood-and-stone house is considered Kosovo’s best boutique property. Hotel owner and manager Valon Begolli is a direct descendant of the Albanian feudal family that built the house in 1870.

Valon Begolli stands in front of his restored Hotel Kulla e Zenel Beut, a boutique property in the city of Pejë, Kosovo. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“We lived here until March 1999. But when the Serbs started bombing our neighbors, we ran away to Montenegro as refugees,” he said. “Meanwhile, this place was burned completely to the ground. Everything was stolen.”

The old fortress was hardly the only residence destroyed during the horrible ethnic tensions that followed Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s. Some 11,800 houses were set on fire in Pejë, forcing many of its then-130,000 residents to flee to Albania or Montenegro.

A region worth visiting—again and again

“When we came back, only the four walls were left,” said Valon. At first, he planned to live upstairs and maybe open a restaurant. But after Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, many Americans and Europeans discovered this new country on the map—and the entrepreneur decided to turn his historic house into an eight-room boutique hotel.

Last July, after two years and 300,000€ worth of meticulous restoration work, Valon opened for business. One night at the Kulla e Zenel Beut costs between 60€ and 90€, including breakfast. Since launching online bookings in September, he’s had a steady stream of guests from a variety of countries including Israel.

Interior of the Kulla e Zenel Beut, an eight-room hotel in Pejë that’s considered the best boutique property in Kosovo. The building dates from 1870. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Among other things, the hotel restaurant is famous for its local specialty, Tava e Pejes, a slow-cooked stew of lamb or beef, tomatoes, peppers, cheese and spices.

“People relate Kosovo and this region with war and conflict, so expectations are very low,” he said. “But when they come here and see a normal country with its wealth of culture and natural beauty, they’re impressed.”

True as that is, sadly my adventure had to end at some point. Early the following morning, Gazmend sent his chauffeur to drop me off in the Albanian city of Shkodra, a five-hour drive to the west. From there, my plan was to visit Vlorë—site of the future Jewish Museum of Albania—on my way via public bus back to Tiranë, and finally fly home to Tel Aviv.

All told, I had hiked only 40.6 kilometers from Valbonë to Bjeshka e Belegut, the same distance as a nine-hour trek along Israel’s coast from Bat Yam to Netanya. But this trip covered three obscure countries and 513 floors—the equivalent of climbing to the top of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper three times, and then some. It was the toughest physical challenge I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to do it again. My new mantra for 2023: “Next year in the Balkans!”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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