So after a lovely dinner in the courtyard of my hotel (Italian because after all, the northern region of Albania was heavily influenced by the Italians), and some local Albanian music, I called it a night. Gasi and I had breakfast in the morning and then we hit the road around 9:45 a.m. headed for the town of Komani about 40 km north of Shkodra. Komani sits on Lake Komani, which was created during the communist area when the government dammed the rivers for hydroelectric power. (Two other lakes were formed in the area, the Van-Dejes and the Fierza.). We would then be travelling from Komeni up Lake Komeni on one of the car ferries to the village of Fierza. From there we would eventually drive to the village of Valbona.
Anyway, the drive took us north along through a small number of villages, including the village of Mjede where an enormous Saturday market was underway as we passed through town. There were lots and lots of folks selling produce and home made preserves as well as fish mongers selling fish from bins on the side of the road. I really knew I was in the country when we passed by four wagons being pulled by horses parked by the side of the road. (And again, no camera at the ready, dammit.)
Once out of the village, the population became more sparse and we began to climb into the mountains. Now Gasi had warned me the road was a little rough, and he was 100% correct. In spots the road was just fine, but in other spots, it was as if someone had taken a shovel and chipped away at the asphalt. Weird.
We did not see much traffic as we climbed and wound our way through the mountains. Now as luck would have it, we were passing by Van-Dejes Lake, one of the other man made lakes, but because I was not on the driver side of the car, I could not get a good shot of the lake. At one point we even passed by fish farms, but just as I was about to snap a picture over Gasie’s shoulder, we turned a corner and the fish farm was gone. Dammit!
Now I could see that the road and incline was pretty hard on cars and as we drove the “Check Battery” light came on in Gasie’s SUV. And at this point, we were high up a hillside in the middle of nowhere. Uh oh. Now I should say that Gesie just got the vehicle back last night as he had it in the shop for some alternator issues that arose the day before I arrived.
Anyway, Gasie pulled the car over and opened the hood and then did what guys do who are not auto mechanics. He fiddled with a couple wires, came back and started the car up and immediately shut it off again. Gasie then made a phone call to the car repair place where the vehicle had been and proceeded to have a lengthy discussion with the guy on the other end of the phone.
The long and short was we would proceed, but once off the ferry Gasie would take the SUV to a mechanic in the town Bajram Curri, which we had to pass through, to have the vehicle checked/repaired. Hopefully we would make it there.
So off we set towards the ferry dock in Komani. Every few minutes, Gasi was checking the power in his battery with some gage he had. Fortunately, it appeared the battery had sufficient, but not 100% power. As we bounced and bumped along, I just kept looking at the scenery and thinking what a great story this was going to make if we actually did break down. And poor Gasi. The guy kept apologizing over and over again. I just laughed and told him “stuff happens”.
Fortunately, the dam at Komani Lake soon came into view and about 30 minutes after we had stopped, we were pulling into the ferry line. The police officer directing traffic advised that the ferry was running a bit late, so Gesie turned around and stopped at a little café where we could take a break before boarding the ferry. Now I was a little nervous that the car was turned off. Hopefully it would start up again.
Anyway, we no sooner sat down than I began to see cars driving in the opposite direction. It appeared that the ferry had arrived. I asked Gasie about boarding and he told me we had a lot of time. O.K. then. We finished our drinks and then proceeded to get in the car (it started) to drive back to the ferry line, which by now was gone. So once we passed the entry point, we proceeded to drive up and around a mountain road. Uh where are we going?
Well, it turns out that with the dam, the lake is slightly elevated so in order to reach the ferry we had to drive a about a kilometre uphill and then through a long tunnel cut into the mountain. Um, this was original. Anyway, we rounded the last bend in the tunnel and then came to a complete stop. What the heck? We then proceeded to wait and wait. Slowly but surely we inched our way through the tunnel. It took at least 20 minutes to drive the length of 6 cars. Come on man. I grew up riding ferries. How hard can it be to board a ferry? Well glad you asked. In this case. Really hard. As in, drive forward, stop to pay someone to board (that’s right drivers in cars paid as they boarded) and then, get this, each car had to turn around and back onto the ferry. What a sh*t show.
And initially I thought well I guess there is only one way on and one way off so the cars have to be backed on, but no. There was a ramp at both ends of the ferry. Apparently, though, the captain only has the ability to steer the boat from the front unlike ferries in Washington State and B.C. that go back and forth between points without reversing the boat. I decided either Albanian captains need some lessons from the professionals in Canada and the U.S. or they need to build better ferries. Gesh!
So all told, it probably took another hour just to load the boat for the 30ish cars and buses that were on the boat. By the time we backed onto the ferry, it was almost full. The good news was that because we had to back in, we were going to be one of the first off the ferry, the bad news was that all the good seats on the ferry were taken.
Once we boarded and I walked the two decks, I decided to stand near the front of the ferry on the top deck with a family on one side of me and a group of young women (maybe in their late teens/early 20s) on the other side of me. Initially this was fine, but eventually the women became a problem (more about that later).
Anyway, with the last of the cars boarded, the rope was untied and the captain backed the ferry away from the dock, turned it around and began our two hour journey north to Fierza.
Now as I mentioned, Lake Koman was formed when the Drini valley was dammed in the early 1970s under the communist regime. The resulting lake spans approximately 30 km eastward to the town of Fierza, the location of a second dam which created Fierza Lake that stretches to near the Kosovo border.
Now the big draw about the two plus hour boat trip is that the ferry passes between 1000-1500 metre high mountains through a series of deep gorges and past connected lakes. There are very few residents living in the area anymore. In fact, there are a number of abandoned residences we would see along the way.
And as luck would have it, the weather could not have been better. Beautiful, not a cloud in the sky, sunny day with a bit of a breeze. However, as I came to find out, that breeze would become a full blown gale depending up the section of the lake. Just as in winds passing between tall buildings, the high mountain gorges act as wind tunnels accelerating the wind. As a result, there were times on the trip that the hot mountain air was literally blowing the hats off peoples heads.
Anyway, we began the beautiful journey through the high desert mountain range, and as we travelled, someone decided to play some traditional Albanian music. That immediately caused four women to stand and commence dancing a traditional Albanian dance complete raising held hands in the air and stepping around in a circle. Two guys even got in on the act and when it was over, they were given a big round of applause. Super fun to watch.
Now we continued to pass through magnificent scenery, with the gorgeous turquoise water sparkling against the grey stone hillside. Periodically we would see the odd abandoned home, another ferry boat and even a farm. But for the most part, it was gorgeous scene after gorgeous scene. And rather than describe what I saw, I think it is best to just let the pictures and a video do the talking.
And about those girls. Well they were sitting to my left towards the front of the boat. They were initially quiet and enjoying a bit of a picnic. However, about a half hour into the trip, they decided it was time to “pose” for their instagram pictures. Now the way these young ladies started carrying on, you would think they were modeling for Victoria’s Secret. (And I can assure you none of them were close to being considered “wings” material.). At one point, one of the young ladies grabbed a bottle of wine, perched herself on the railing and leaned backwards. Now at this point, if she fell that were her own damn fault, but there were people standing below her and she did not seem to give a whit about them.
I finally got so sick of them, I walked down the stairs to the deck below and leaned on the railing at the front of the ship. I ended up staying there for the remainder of the trip. (Turned out to be a smart thing because I now had an unobstructed view of the scenery.)
We finally pulled into the dock at Fierza just after 3:00 p.m. The game plan was to stop in Bajram Curri to drop off the car before proceeding on to Valbona. One of the local hiking guides would drive us to Valbona where we were spending the night. The good thing was that we were spending the entire day tomorrow hiking in the Albanian Alps (the mountain range that forms the border between Albania and Montenegro), so we did not need the car.
The trip to Bajram Curri took about 15 minutes on a surprisingly good road. We dropped the car off with a mechanic Gesi knew. The two chatted about the problem and then when the mechanic went to start the car, IT WOULD NOT START. Gasi and the guy pushed the car into the car bey while I watched. How freakin’ lucky were we!! The guy seemed to know the problem, so would let Gasi know when the car was ready to pick up.
Gasi and I then walked up the hill and while I grabbed some lunch, Gasi went to meet the hiking guide who would be driving us to Valbona. By 4:00 p.m. we were back on the road travelling along the Valbona River through some of the most amazing scenery I can recall. Unfortunately, the drive to Valbona only took about thirty minutes because I could have enjoyed the views all day long. Fortunately, I was going to see the view up close and personal tomorrow when Gasi and I would tackle the mountains on a half day hike. Yikes. (At this point, I was regretting all that food from Montenegro!)