Friday, 8 September. This morning early, today’s rain moved in ahead of schedule…that’s life in the mountains. I will fish today, but I am wisely going to hold off until the lightning moves on. Common sense would dictate that standing in a lightning storm with a long stick studded with metal, is just not prudent. The fish will be there. I went out yesterday after getting settled in here in Theth. I was reminded very quickly of the difference between the trout in the US and their cousins here in Europe. The European trout are much more wily and they don’t attack the fly like they do in the mountains of the western United States. Yesterday the score was: Albanian trout 4/ Niel 0.
I would like to finish the rest of my journey, to the end point so far. Wednesday 6, September I left Bar Montenegro. I explained that I was going to drop the idea of the train and bus; the idea of traveling North to go South didn’t make good sense. Yes it was incredibly cheap, and yes I would see more of the countryside. Bar lies almost directly west of Shkoder, a one hour (+/-) drive, and I thought it would’ve been fun to drive it. I talked to Zuzana at the front desk about this prospect, and she quickly connected me to Dusan (Dushahn). He was concerned with “manual or automatic transmission” and the price was 60 euros. I thought that even though it was twice the cost of train/bus, it would be fun to drive, and stop and look at some sites that Elton (Albaniantrip.com) had pointed out. Well, Dusan was at my hotel right on time, very nice fellow, and as we were looking over a very sporty little Peugeot, I asked him where I would drop the car in Shkoder. Dead stop. Apparently they don’t rent cars from country to country here. If so, it would be 7/800 euros. A day rental was 60 euros and a great bargain. We laughed at my miscommunication, and he was very kind about it.
Now with gear in hand, I trundled back into the hotel and saw Jazzmina, at the front desk. I had just checked out, and we had spoken. Her face looked troubled as I reappeared. I explain to her what had just happened, and she smiled as she reached for phone. We were talking about shared experiences earlier, as I had worked in hotels in my younger days. It was all about problem-solving. She spoke to Emil (eh-mil, or eh-mi), and she got excited as she hung up. “My friend Emil is going to Shkoder today, as luck would have it…does that sound good?” I couldn’t believe my luck. “He is asking 50 euros, and I told him no problem, because I knew you were going to pay Dusan 60 euros for the rental car”, her voice trailed off. I said, “ano”, and insisted that she take the 10 euro difference for her. After a back and forth, she relented. Very sweet, and very smart, the qualities that ring true for me. I thanked her profusely, and she came around from the desk to give me a kiss on both cheeks to wish me well
Before we knew it, Emi was walking in the door. His English was good, and we worked through with basic Slavic root words. Thank goodness that I have begun to grasp Slovak, it really helped. Emil was driving a sleek 5-series BMW. “Wow!…really?” was my reaction. He shrugged like it was no big deal. We loaded my bag into the trunk and he insisted that I sit in the front passenger seat. Emil asked if it would be ok if we stopped at his house to pick up his luggage since he was going to stay in Brajse (bry-shuh), just inside the Montenegrin border from Albania. I told him it was no problem, of course. To my great surprise he lived in Stari Bar (Old Bari). It is a very famous fortress town, and a trip that I missed with Marcel and Max the day prior. It was incredible! Very beautiful hillside fortress, overlooking the modern Bar down below and the Adraitc Sea. Of course it was his home town, so we stopped alot and talked to his friends, and yelled as we exchanged horn-toots with others in town. It was clear that we weren’t going to take the highway as we began to climb up into the coastal range. As we weaved in and out of mountain shadows, windows down and a perfectly dry 75F day with music blasting…we talked, pantomimed, and laughed our way through a laid-back and scenic drive to Shkoder.
At Brajse, the innkeeper insisted that we have a coffee and rest for a bit. He spoke English, German, French, and of course Albanian and Montenegrin. Azo was very nice, and upon learning that I decided to retire in Europe, announced that coffee and water (sparkling) was on him. Emi joked that it will show up on his hotel bill, and Azo smiled. There was never any hint of hurry, and when all had been consumed, we bid him farewell, Emi would return here later. We jumped into the Beemer and headed for the border. We smiled because there were no cars as well pulled up to the post, the guard smiled as Emi told him what I was doing, welcomed us to Albania, and in 20 minutes were winding through Shkoder. Emi found my hotel, “Petit Hotel Elita”, Pavo set me up, and I spent 64 euro for a suite. Emi wished me luck, handed me his card, as I pressed another 10 euro into his palm. He put up a valiant fight, but I won in the end. He drove off, honked once and disappeared down one of the narrow alleys.
After a short chat with Marija, my front desk head, I stumbled into my suite, and couldn’t believe my luck…again. I truly believe that some of the snags that I encountered along the way, were easier handled because I may have access to a bit more money than most travelers. It has helped to no end, and I am by no stretch a rich man, I have saved, and I am careful to not broadcast it. I cooled down in my suite for an hour as it was much warmer down in Shkoder (85F/30C). I actually watched tv for the first time since I arrived last December. Aside from going to a coffee house to watch football or Formula One, this was the first time that I pointedly turned on a television. I have one in my apartment and it has never been on. I spoke to Marija on my way out for a bite and she confirmed that I had a reservation for the minibus to Theth the next morning at 7am. Thanking her (bowing), I headed out onto the streets of Shkoder.
Shkoder sits on the shore of Lake Shkodra, the largest lake in Southern Europe. Lake Shodra is shared with Montenegro, and is split evenly by the two countries. Shkoder is a brawny, up-and-coming town in northern Albania, and besides being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Balkans, it is also considered to be the “Gateway to Theth National Park”. The architecture of Shkoder is dominated by both mosques and churches, it is very diverse, and the mood is very ebullient and light. I was looking for surf slippers to fly fish with, and despite the language, all the shopkeepers were very warm and accommodating. I didn’t find them, but they weren’t key. Lunch was a pizza and sparkling water, it set me back 7 euros ($7.10). Now superbly sated, I wandered back to Hotel Elita a sweating mess, addressed Marija, and laid out in the air conditioning watching a football match. I slept hard for three hours. My trip with Emi was a fun-filled 2 1/2 side trip to Shkoder arriving at 1230/1 o’clock. I awakened at 5pm, and took a cool shower, feeling refreshed, and headed out to take a walk in the breezy warmth of early evening. If midday seemed busy to me; now there were people everwhere. Families with kids, young women dressed well on their way to a party or disco perhaps, and always the older folks milling about the innumerable cafes. The cafes, with the rich smell of coffee and tobacco wafting and then lingering in the soft warm evening breeze, what a heady mixture for this midwestern boy. There is something here in the Balkans, an intangible, that has a sense of the exotic for me. “Two worlds colliding”, if you will. This land has an incredibly “ancient” feel about it. I know..I know, I have stated this many times, but for someone who revels in a connection with the past, to be standing in it, eating it, consuming it , and in turned being consumed by it… is a dream come true.
Of course I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, in anticipation for my drive to Theth early. Thursday morning I was up early at 5am in order to meditate and chant prior to the start of my day. I re-packed the evening prior and was set to go at 6:45am. I said goodbye to Marija, and promised to stay again at Petit Hotel Elita, and loaded into a car to be taken to the bus. My driver for the minibus was Zimi, and this wasn’t what I expected. I thought I would be in one of the little 4×4 Mercedes buses from the ’90’s…yeah but they are so beat up they look like they are from the ’60’s or ’70’s. Zimi’s minibus was a newer model, and in great shape. We drove out of Shkoder and swung northwest around the lake to Koplik, and then veer to the northeast into the Albanian Alps. As we ascended, I could look down and saw Shkoder, lying alongside the glistening lake, and ringed with a lofty necklace of mountains. I could also see the Buna river meeting the Drina and turning 90 degrees into Lake Shkodra.
As I walked down the driveway to Bujtina Polia, Pavo appeared out of a mass of Germans, and smiled ear-to-ear. We bowed to each other and I gave him a big hug. Bujtina in Albanian means “inn or hotel”, or more simply put “home”. I am home now until at least the end of September, and maybe a week or so into October, that is unless Pavo and Vlora get tired of me and I get booted. Thursday was spent decompressing, and about 1:30pm I got on the water. I found a nice pool among sharp falls in a steep drop. First cast, strike but I wasn’t quick enough and missed him. I stayed with the pool and lost another two strikes. Further down the river became less steep, but the pools were non-existent. I went with a smaller fly, and still was not quick enough to bring the strike home. Done in by the relentless Balkan sun after almost 3 hours, I hiked back to Bujtina Polia, retired to the patio with an Italian lemon soda, and the shade. The bujtina was inundated with a massive group of Germans, and dinner last night was their last night and a loud, alcohol-fueled din filled the hall. Our meals here are beyond imagination. Vlora and the staff put on a full spread for both breakfast and dinner. I am quite used to these breakfasts with fresh cows milf and granola, tomatoes, slaw, eggs (hard-boiled & scrambled), breads, and coffee. Breakfast is included with stay. There is always a side table overflowing with meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, and yogurt spreads; this is the “pack-a-lunch” table.
…. and now we are all caught up. I have had a great time getting here, and the journey continues. Although I am nestled here in Theth, everday seems still a passage to somewhere else. I have yet to take a hike down to “Theth proper”. It’s a nice 1.5km (+/- 1 mile). It is 1:30 here (6:30am/Chicago) and the clouds are becoming lighter. I am going to venture further down the river. I had not intended to write a post of this length, and so soon after my last post, but I will busier from here on in. There have been several requests for more pictures and once I learn how to get the photos into my WordPress cache, I will populate the posts with a few more than usual. For once in my life, I am writing for you the reader, please feel free to let me know what you like. Since I began writing in my teens, I have always considered writing a “personal exercise in art”, I was not interested in being read, and worked at crafty an expression of my own art. I am now in some sort of umbral stage, where I am writing from inside the shadow of my own sun. I would like to be read. It should be known also, that the following posts will be geared a bit more to the fly fishing world and a bit less on my travels and travails. My goal is to let the world know about the fly fishing here in Theth, and Valbonne should I get there on this trip. The waters are wild, and the conditions are a bit more difficult than anything I’ve fished in the past. I will be plugging Bujtina Polia shamelessly, and my many connections along the way.
I am grateful for those of you who are taking the time to follow me. I am cautious to keep my posts short as I know most you don’t have a great deal of time. There will always be exceptions to that rule. It is time to get on the water and figure out how to land an Albanian Trout. I wish you all well, and thank you for staying with me. Please take good care of yourselves, and take care of each other.