SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS Three UNESCO Sites and Two Forgotten Valleys
Overview A dense 9-day circular trip from/to Saranda or Corfu explores the hidden wonders of the South. The seven diverse walks cover two remote valleys and are best walked in spring and autumn. Discover the natural and cultural delights of the Albanian Riviera, Permet and two world heritage towns Gjirokaster and Berat. “Southern Albanian Highlands” Highlights:
insights into rural lifestyle and first hand experiencing of unspoilt hospitality mixture of nature and culture, mountains and sea, cities and villages two UNESCO world heritage sites: an archaeological site and Ottoman old town two horse-supported treks of three days each
Duration: 9 days Group Size: 6-12 (possibility for private departure starting from one person) Accommodation: simple, simple clean guesthouses and family-run or historic hotels Difficulty: 2/4 - rocky terrain, long transfer hike on day 4 can be replaced Walks: 7x | 6h average walking time Luggage Transfers: yes, by horse and car Extension: suggested to spend one day in UNESCO town Berat, half-way into the journey
Itinerary Outline 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
Saranda – Gjirokaster: Arrival and sightseeing. Hotel [-/-D] Gjirokaster – Limar: Entering the Zagoria Valley. Guesthouse [B/LP/D] Limar – Sheper: Transfer walk through villages. Guesthouse [B/LP/D] Sheper – Permet: Crossing of Dhembel Pass to Permet. Hotel [B/LP/D] Permet – Vlore: Benje Springs & Canyon, Ardenica and Berat. Hotel [B/LP/D] Vlora – Terbac: Crossing St. Georg Pass to Shushica Valley. Guesthouse [B/LP/D] Terbac – Kallarat: Transfer walk through rollings hills. Guesthouse [B/LP/D] Kallarat – Qeparo: Grand crossing of the Coastal Mountains. Hotel [B/LP/D] Qeparo – Saranda: Albanian Riviera and Butrint [B/L/-]
Tour Facts Services included:
4x accommodation in simple & boutique hotels, private rooms with en-suite bathroom 4x accommodation in guest houses, shared facilities and rooms with 2-4 beds full board (meals in restaurants and picnics) English, German, Italian, Spanish or French speaking guide (inquire for others) all transports within Albania incl. transfers from/to airport, ferry trip entrance fees at cultural sights
At your own:
airfare insurance (compulsory for every participant) tips and personal expenses for drinks or souvenirs
Hikers should bring the following equipment: Hiking boots, gaiters, rainwear (90% of rain falls in winter), sun protection (cream, hat, glasses), 25 to 35 liters backpack, 1.5 liters water gear, towel and swimsuit (optional). Please note that suitcases are not suitable for transport on horses and only one piece of baggage with maximum weight of 15kg is included. Visitors are expected to respect the wildlife, leave what they find, dispose of their waste properly and to be considerate with locals.
Welcome to Ismail Kadare’s Albania The Blue Eye, “City of Stone” and its Ottoman Mansion
We suggest the 9am departure from Corfu (runs year around) to leave enough time for a visit of Gjirokaster. After meeting at the ferry port we head inland to the "Blue Eye", a magical icy karst spring in a jungle-like environment. With views of our first trekking area, up and down serpentines, the Muzina Pass is crossed before reaching Gjirokastra (90min). Famed for its fortress like Ottoman mansions, the city is also birthplace of Dictator Enver Hoxha as well as Albania's most influential, Nobel-nominated writer Ismail Kadare. Protected by the status of a museum town, the buildings survived the socialist modernization campaign and are today inscribed in the world heritage list. A maze of narrow cobbled streets and Kadare’s book “Chronicles in Stone” connect the splendid mansion we visit, Enver’s birth house that holds the ethnographic museum and also the castle. Inside captured war materials and an American “spy plane” are lined up and one wing was used as a prison, the views from the iconic clock tower are amazing. You could also explore the town and upper neighborhoods individually. Dinner with local specialties like “qifqi” (riceballs) is served at a small tavern and overnight arranged in a historical buildings of the old town district.
A Forgotten Place between Gjirokaster and Permet The Zagoria Valley – A Place Where Time Stands Still
A transfer through the Dropul Valley takes us into the Kelcyra Gorge shaped by one of Europe’s last wild river and to the village Peshtan (45min). Compared to our previous trek in Shushica, the Zagoria Valley is of astonishing different character, most of it remains covered by forest, out of which to both sides mountains rises. The Dhembeli-Nemercka and Lunxheri-Bureto Range encompass and shield off the valley from the outside world. Only on an ancient caravan route we can reach the highest pass and soon the almost deserted village Kala, where only one family remains. The river below Limar is crossed via one of Ali Pahsa’s impressive Ottoman stone bridges and we can spot remains of cobbled road. The views to Mt Strakavec, remote feeling and vernacular stone architecture of Limar leave a lasting impression. A stroll through the village reveals its whole extent and we can learn more about life here from our hosts. Overnight in the house of the teacher who takes care of the 10 pupils that remain in the village.
Glory of Days Past, Stone Villages and Shepherds Trails Exploring rural life and natural sights on a transfer hike in Zagoria
The settlements Southbound are only connected by footpaths we use to reach Hoshteve. Passing several traditional villages we have the chance to experience rural lifestyle, meet the locals and admire the mountain splendor above as well as course of the Zagoria River below. Nearby the village Doshnica a waterfall can be visited at a geologically interesting fold, depending on the water level we may continue along the river or backtrack to the village. The large meadows near the river are used in winter whereas flocks are taken up the mountain side in summer, another Ottoman bridge connects it the neighboring village. Animal husbandry, bee keeping and the collection of medical herbs have been the only sources of meager income, triggering mass emigration to Greece after the turnaround in 1990. In Hoshteve the church of the Holy Apostle is a true delight and the village bar offers refreshments. A short transfer brings u to Sheper, a larger and more modern village at the trail head of the following day's walk. Overnight in a simple guesthouse of an Aroman / Vllach family, nomadic shepherds who were forcefully settled here during communism.
On an Ancient Trade Route to the City of Flowers Leaving Zagoria across the Dhembel Pass (1.450m) for Permet
Over the Dhembel-Nemercke Range we return on a caravan route to the outside world. As the drive around takes locals just as long as the walk across, the challenging crossing is still in use. Marveling about the peaks of Mt. Cajupi Mountain’s across the valley, we climb in a crack uphill to the pastures that serve shepherds, who come from as far as Konispol (the southernmost point of Albania), as their summer quarters. It is not uncommon for the flocks to travel more than 10 days in search of fertile meadows. The alpine valley is bare of vegetation, flanked by steep slopes and the Dhembel Pass (1450m) at its end offers views of the Eastern Highlands, across into Greece and to city Permet far below. The long rocky descent requires attention and leads to Leuse, another beautiful stone village with amazing fresco-covered church, probably the most beautiful in Southern Albania. It is then only a 15min walk to reach the city center and our centrally located hotel. For dinner we taste the city’s famous cuisine, sample wines and raki. There’s also a chance for a private screening of a black and white movie in the aged cinema.
The Unknown Wonders of Permet Sopot Waterfall, Baths & Village of Benja and Coastal Town Vlora
It is only a 40min drive to the trailhead of the Sopot Waterfall, its location at the base of the 650m Nemercka wall, right under the second highest summit of Southern Albania, make it one of the many stunning natural monuments just outside of Permet. Another awaits at the entrance of the Lengarica Canyon, the thermal pools of Benje are said to have a healing effect on many ailments. Soak and relax in the sulfuric waters or explore the river canyon, your guide chooses a suitable walk depending on the time of the year. Later we stroll together to the tiny village Benje where we sample raki and gliko, a sweet local delight made from preserved fruits, at a family home. It will take 2:30h to follow the Vjosa River through the Kelcyra Gorge into the coastal plain and reach the saltpans and Gulf of Vlora. The quite Adriatic port had played a major role in the 1997 unrest but now attracts holiday makers with its sandy beaches and pleasant evening stroll called the â€œxhiroâ€?. A savory sea-food dinner awaits us at the family run pension only few meters from the beach.
Journey into the Highlands of Laberia Entering the Shushica Valley via the St. Gerog Caravan Crossing
The short drive (45min, 30km) along coves and pebble beaches offers views of Sazan Island and the Karaburun’s spine. The peninsula separates the Adriatic from the Ionian Sea and forms the Street of Otronto, the narrowest passage with Italy. The village Dukat is our starting point and embedded in a small side valley at the foothills of the Llogara Natinalpark. On a forgotten caravan route that connected the Roman harbor with inland colonies, now only used by goat herders, we ascend over meadows and through fir to the St. George Pass (1.132m). After lunch we turn a last time towards the sea before descending into the Shushica Valley and Southern Highlands. Panoramic views of the Ceraunian Range’s (Greek for thunder-split peaks) highest tops accompany the descent on a donkey trail which leads us through ancient oak forest and the deserted village Pirgu to Terbac. In the afternoon you can explore the village and remains of communist buildings. Delicious homemade dinner and overnight in a guesthouse of a shepherd’s family.
History and Culture of the Southern Highlands Transfer hike through rolling hills of the Lower Kurvelesh
A more relaxed walking day, that can be further shortened, takes you from Terbac along the village floor to Kallarat. Passing the lower neighborhoods we cross inside a canyon the turquoise river and rise again for views of Mt. Kendervices (2121m) further inland. Through orchards and light forest, meeting donkey riders along the way, we approach Vranisht, a village situated at the foot of the highest coastal mountain, Cika (2044m). After a café pause and chatting with the locals we continue on dirt road before entering a narrow path that takes us through the hills. Yesterday’s St. Georg crossing as well as the slopes of Mt. Bogonica are visible from the lass pass above Kallarat. As in most of Laberia’s villages many monuments dedicated to the partisan’s anti-fascist struggle can be found here and the locals still keep books and pictures of former dictator Enver Hoxha. There’s a swimming opportunity near the village where we stay overnight with different families, tasting more of the pastoral community’s cuisine, excellent cheese and other milk products.
The Grand Crossing of the Ceraunian Range Panoramic Views from Balcony of the Riviera and Pastoral Life
The longest and most challenging walk of this journey traverses the Coastal Mountains and takes us to the Ionian Sea. From the partisan monument the path leads first to the ruined old village. Burned down by Greek troops at the brink of World War I, it is an eerie site with panoramic views. A long climb, partly in the shade, partly on scree, takes us to a series of flat meadows hidden on the plateau. Two groups of shepherds reside here for half the year, in turns the men take care of the flock, wolfs pose a constant danger to it. Our effort is rewarded reaching the highest point on 1400m above the sea. A place dubbed the Balcony of the Riviera offers a panoramic view from the Greek border and island Corfu over most of the Riviera to coastal town Himara. The ridge walk grants views to often snow-covered Nemercka (2482m), the highland villages, rugged Ceraunian Range and diverse coast line. We descend to the village Pilur and drive few minutes to the laid back sea-side village Qeparo, where we stay in a family-run pension at the beach. Our host is a fisher who, according to the rumors, lost his arm in an accident fishing with dynamite.
Farewell from Berat and Our New Mediterranean Love A great Journey of Southern Albania ends.
The last day is filled with cultural discovery, in the morning we visit perched on a cliff and overlooking the seemingly endless olive groves Old Qeparo. Time seems to stand still in the maze of stone houses and cobbled streets. The nearby Bay of Porto Palermo is the only safe harbor and used since ancient times by sailors, it was of such strategical importance that Ali Pasha constructed a castle here and the Soviets submarine pens to access the Mediterranean. Past pretty villages, citrus groves and olive plantations we return to Saranda and visit the UNESCO listed archaeological site Butrint. The former Greek colony is surrounded by a lagoon that was recently also declared national park. At the beautiful islands of Ksamil we enjoy the best seafood and beaches the country has to offer before returning to the city where we wish each other farewell. Our multi-faceted journey ends in Saranda in time to catch the 4pm ferry (May to mid-October) to Corfu, it is also worth to stay another night to explore the great restaurant scene and enjoy the vibrant promenade before leaving earlier on the following day. Are you looking for more? Extend your stay by adding days at the beaches of the Riviera, join a tour in Northern Albania or explore the other Balkans nations on a trip to neighboring Montenegro, Kosovo or Macedonia.
Two 3-day treks in Zagoria & Kurvelesh combined with UNESCO World Heritage sites Gjirokaster and Butrint as well as Albanian Riviera Coast.
Published on May 20, 2015
Two 3-day treks in Zagoria & Kurvelesh combined with UNESCO World Heritage sites Gjirokaster and Butrint as well as Albanian Riviera Coast.