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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Valbona, Albania: No ski lifts, but also no crowds 14/11/2013

When the mountains finally disrobed on our fourth day of skiing, I understood.
After a run of low clouds, driving snow and frightening avalanche conditions, the sky opened up, revealing jagged, couloir-streaked peaks rising violently out of a narrow river valley sparkling with fresh snow. The Accursed Mountains at Valbona, Albania — a ski destination like no other — had finally lifted their hex.
The trail we would cut on our 3,000-vertical-foot climb that day would be the only ski tracks in sight.
After we slogged our way through forests of beech and pine, the mountain opened up above tree line, and when we finally crested the 6,000-foot summit we had been aiming for, we were treated to sweeping views of a frosted forest plunging to the valley, where the Valbona River meandered past the clutch of stone homes that constitute the rugged hamlet of the same name. We soaked in the alpine silence until the whoosh of our guide’s first turn down the mountain. We pushed off and followed him down.
With a soundtrack of livestock bells and a landscape of dramatic peaks, the isolated valley of Valbona suggests the Swiss Alps, but without the annoyance of lifts and people. If ski touring in wild mountains is your thing, it’s Mecca.
Valbona has been gaining in popularity as a summer hiking destination, but in winter, you’re unlikely to bump into tourists.
Our trip was such an oddity that when an Albanian television crew working on a travel piece got wind of our visit, they ambushed us at the trailhead one day to quiz us on how we had found our way to this hinterland.
We had come for the area’s famed steeps, but an unseasonable warm, rainy spell, followed by heavy snow, created dangerous avalanche conditions for much of the trip.
Showing an unnerving bedside manner one gray morning, our excellent guide, Gent Mati, assessed the snowpack.
“I’ve never seen the valley so unstable,” he said, a little too honestly for comfort.
As if to prove his point, the valley boomed with what sounded like explosions that morning. From the second-story deck of a local farmer’s home, we watched avalanche after avalanche rumble down the mountains across the valley. Mountainsides seemed to crumble into a giant white mist. It was beautiful and unsettling, and it was time to ski.
The conditions kept us away from the vertiginous runs Valbona is famous for, but fortunately the forested mountainsides leave plenty of safer options for skiing on unstable days. Gent, a soft-spoken, safety-conscious and utterly dependable guide, has skied the Albanian Alps his entire life. He led us into the forest on lower-angle slopes unlikely to slide. Besides a handful of rugged roads that remain unplowed in the winter, there are few trails around Valbona, so we cut through untouched snow, winding our way through deathly quiet woods. We were rewarded with deep powder runs.
Though we didn’t make it to the steeps we had hoped for, we were hardly disappointed. Half the reason to make the trek to Valbona is to stay in the sleepy hamlet in the shadow of the Alps, to drink homemade rakia with villagers and to hear their stories. They tell of the hard life during Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship and complain of the difficulties in adjusting to Albania’s new hypercapitalism, which has brought more freedom but considerably less security.
Albania has opened up greatly since Hoxa’s death in 1985. Evidence of his 40-year reign is plentiful, though, from the blocky monstrosities that make up the skyline of the capital, Tirana, to the tens of thousands of concrete bunkers he ordered constructed, ostensibly to prepare for a war with Yugoslavia that never came.
Albania still feels like the frontier of Europe, but a budding tourism industry has made many of the country’s little-visited wild places more accessible. Much of the country is dotted by the Albanian Alps, a mountain chain that stretches across northern Albania, with some of Europe’s best skiing and not a single chair lift to access it. That means no one to compete with for tracks if you’re willing to put some skins on and work for your turns.
In Valbona, home to roughly 100 families, that trickle of tourism has been a lifeline for farmers who have seen state subsidies diminish since the end of communism. With harsh winters and limited grazing, eking out a living as a herder would be impossible for some without the added income from visitors.
“If it wasn’t for tourism, we would have left the valley,” said Kol Gjoni, a farmer we stayed with, who runs a guest house in his home with two large rooms.
Wood stoves in both rooms keep visitors toasty at night — though Kol’s powerful homemade rakia, a traditional plum liquor, does the trick, too.
A quiet hotel at the end of Valbona’s valley is an alternative to home stays, but I recommend the latter, which allow villagers like Kol to make extra money.
Having a host family to chat with not only deepened our understanding of the area but also gave us something better to do at night than play cards in a hotel bar. Gent, our guide, seems to know everyone in the valley, and there are many home stay possibilities. We stayed three nights at Kol’s two-story stone house. Like many in the valley, Kol makes his living off livestock, keeping goats on his rough-hewn farm set hard against the mountains a snowbound kilometer from any road in winter.
Kol and his wife plied us with hearty food made almost entirely from products from their farm. A sturdy, rugged figure with a thick mustache and a broad smile, he spoke of the difficulties navigating the abrupt shift from communism to capitalism and of how hard he worked to send his daughter to college, balancing his farming with serving tourists.
We would chat into the evening with Kol, warmed by a fire, plot our next day’s adventure and sleep early.
And that’s the charm of Valbona: What’s missing from the valley is its chief lure. Without après-ski options, gourmet restaurants and cushy hotels, a winter trip here is refreshingly simple: ski, eat, sleep, repeat.

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