High Viz Midges, Grasshoppers…and Lost Opportunities

I have been here in Theth for nearly 3 weeks and still cannot believe it. The scenery is spectacular, the visitors are never-ending, and the trout are still elusive. I remain determined to catch one, and have narrowed down to three flies that the trout are attracted to. If I could get quick enough to actually set the hook, I would at last land one. A few days earlier, on the lower Shala, where the canyon opens up to a broad, flat rocky plain, I was granted an entry into the very private world of the speckled trout. I stood on a VW-sized boulder and cast a bright yellow stonefly midge (the correct terminology would be “Flasher Yellow Pupa”). From the shadow beneath a boulder, and into a faint boiling pool, came two dark speckled trout. I kept my cool as first one , and then the other chased it down and then swam back to the shadow. This feint and retreat went on all afternoon. I went from pool to pool, boil to boil, and had nothing to show for it but a serious tan from the unrelenting Balkan sun. I had hiked the roughly 7k long road, up and down until settling onto a meadow at the point where the gorge peels away from itself on the western side.

The dance has gone on for three weeks now, and I have come to the conclusion that if we are going to bring fly fishing to Theth and Valbonne, it is better left to the local guides, with their flies and the local techniques they would practice. I have decided that there is no chance that I could guide outside fisherman, owing to the fact that I don’t have the knowledge of the local bugs, and I have only now begun to “crack the code” with the trout in the Shala River.

The Speckled Trout are rising to the only two flies that I have left, and after pitching all the flies in my arsenal, it comes down to two Chubby Chernobyls. The large Wooly Buggers (size #8) draw only passing interest, and anything else that’s “wet”, has to have at least a bead-head on it, or the fish will turn away immediately.

The most galling part of this experience is the fact that I can draw the trout out of the boils and eddys, pull them into the light, tempt them to hit my fly, and be ready for the strike – but it all falls apart as they close in. These gorgeous trout, speckled like swimming leopards, are equally confused by all of the dry flies that have hit the water above them. My “can’t miss” Adams, Parachute Adams, and all Blue Wing Olives are lost on my swimming quarry. In the end, it is the Chernobyl Ant, and the Chubby Chernobyl Hopper; they are smaller (size 10 to 14) and activate the fish.

At the end of the day, I will persevere; I know the fish are here in this river, and I finally understand how to find them. They lurk in the boiling waters behind massive rocks that stand like sentries in the fast moving bouncing flood of this gorge. I see them where the gorge opens into the flat plain heading down and out to the Koman Reservoir, and then into the Drina River to fill Lake Shkodra. From high up in the Albanian Alps, in peaks shared with Montenegro, fall the water. I hear this ancient watercourse at night through my open window as it lulls me to sleep, filling my dreams and at times haunting me. I am reminded of my favorite line from Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”: “Eventually all things merge into one and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters…”. Since discovering fly fishing and trout at an early age, I have been eternally held rapt by their lives in the moving liquid, clear in my mind as thoughts, as cold as a body can stand, and always luring me from the places that I dwell. I credit my Grandfather and my Brother John, and my dear departed Brother Steve for incubating the love and curiosity in me for fly fishing.

I will be leaving Theth, and the Shala in two weeks to cover my obligations in Tirana. This will be my last post regarding fly fishing, and I just want to assure the few dedicated readers that have been following this journey – that I will return to things perhaps more interesting to them. I love fly fishing as much as reading, writing, or playing the drums. For me, fly fishing makes me feel a bit perspicacious, simply because it is dually complex and simple in practice. My senses and mind see and process the difficult, and unobvious aspects of this life. It allows me entry into a focus on the circle of my existence, and involves moving meditation on my part. All senses are cued to the wind, the water, the sounds of life around me… and images and visions that are availed as a result of it.

Thank you all for joining this wonderful adventure. In my next post I will try and recount some of the highlights of my trip to this point. While here at Bujtina Polia I have met the cream of this world, people from far and wide, taking part in the best coffee/dinner conversation I have had in many years, and along the way I have been enlightened. I have been deeply gifted. Please take care of yourselves and each other.

My Time In Theth (Or Searching For The Missing Link at 700 Meters)

Monday, 12 September, 2022

Without knowing the entomological basics here in the high mountains of Albania, I have been dwelling in a house of trial and error. The local fishermen use “spoons” with a treble hook. The spoons spin, and cause a reflection, imitating a small fish or shiny bug, and the trout hit it. By contrast, I am using artificial flies, trying to mimic a particular stage of a bug’s life. There are 4 different stages that insects go through in development. They are as follows: 1) Nymph – when the insect first comes out of the egg. 2) Emerger (or Emerging) Stage – when the insect is just coming out of the water with wings and still apt to hang around the surface of the water. 3) Adult (or Dry Fly) – the insect has reached adulthood, is fully winged and is searching for a mate in or near its home waters… and 4) Spinner – the insect has mated, passed on, and is floating around on the surface of the water. Spinner can also be used to describe an insect that hasn’t made it past the emerger phase stuck in their shells, or having a hard time flying.

There is a maxim in fly fishing called “match the hatch”, and the idea is to come as close as possible to mimicing the bugs the trout know and will feed on. While I have been getting strikes on the flies that I have been casting, my biggest problem seems to be speed. I am still not quick enough; the trout here, speckled and rainbow, are much more wily and demand guile and invention from a fly fisherman. So far, this has been the most difficult fishing I have ever attempted. I know full well that it would be no problem to throw a spoon into a pool and yank out out a trout. What game is there in that? The trout up here spook very easily, and it would be easy to stand over a boiling pool and drag a spoon through it, and nail a trout.

Without a guide, and with my Balkan entomology lacking, I am at the mercy of the river, and ultimately the trout. I have used the time-honored method of turning over rocks to see what is hatching, or emerging, but this has not yielded much information. So, the burning question is – what is the missing link here for me? Beside the fact that I have to get quicker on the strike, the question remains: what is the fly at this time of year that the trout will strike with zeal? Because this is the first a many essays on fly fishing in the Balkans, it is imperative that the reader does not think me impatient, or even greedy. Fly fishing for most of us is a contemplative pursuit. Included in the familiarity with bugs, and the often difficult access to trout waters, fly fishermen usually stick to the theory that the pursuit is more important than the catch itself. When I tell people that I have never eaten a trout that I have caught, they cannot grasp the concept. I am always faced with, “then why do you fish?”. The best answer I can offer is that I put myself in the cycle (circle?) of nature, without trying to “conquer” it, or “control”, or even to “change it”. These three reasons alone are enough for me to continue to fly fish. I am of that ilk that can look at one hundred square miles of forest and appreciate the beauty of it all, without saying…”man, look at all those trees – thanks a lot of money in lumber”. The previous three reasons are also a human reaction to the natural world. For this fly fisherman, our pursuit is a way to keep those shackles unlocked and open, so we can truly appreciate where we are.

Sunrise over “The Great Wall” from the patio at Bujtina Polia

I did not fish this morning after meditation. I wanted to get this post done. There are some places that are considered “morning” or “late afternoon/dusk” trout waters. I have had strikes in the boiling pools of the Shala River here in Theth, also in the side pools of the descending runs of the flats in the mid-day and the heat of the Autumn Balkan sun.Up here at nearly 750m (2,440ft.), the altitude clarifies all things. The scenery is some of the most spectacular I have ever seen. That is taking into account all of the mountains I have seen in the US and Europe. I hope that more fly fishers take the trip up here and the other mountain rivers Albania has to offer.

This post is the first in a series of at least three that I plan to write considering Albania’s fly fishing options. I will go out later this afternoon and continue to search for the missing link, between what I think I know, and what actually works to land trout here in Theth. I am grateful to be in pursuit of such answers in this beautiful place. In the waters I am used to fishing – Montana and Wyoming – the trout attack most flies like a Great White shark goes at a seal. Here in the Albainian Alps, and most of the places I have wet a line in Europe, the trout have a tendency to be more demure. The link between where I am and where I would like to be lies with these coy and crafty mountain trout. There are other resources beside trial and error to teach me, and I intend to experience them first-hand. My stay at Bujtina Polia is quite enjoyable, and comfortable, Our meals are more than enough to keep our active engines running, Vlora is supremely imaginative, and we never eat the same thing twice.

Until we meet again, I wish you tight lines, blue skies, and a cozy place to rest your bones. I will continue to look for the missing link in the chain up here in Theth Valley. Be well and thank you for reading.

From The Sea To The Mountains, With A Wrinkle In The Landscape….

Into the mountains, with one last look at the Adriatic Sea.

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.

From my window…the river is just over the blue car

…. 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.

An Odyssey Still Unfolding

Theth Valley, Albania

I am on the move again. I made a mistake when I re-entered the EU and now must exit for another 90 days. The upshot is that I will be welcomed with open arms in Albania. The downshots are a few, but I will focus on what is positive, In short, I didn’t check in with the local police upon my entry into Slovakia, whereupon I would be given a sort of id number to help with tracking my visa application. This would explain why, even with some high-powered help, I was not able to secure a residency visa. No problem with me. This is a typical “live and learn” moment. If I don’t remain teachable, this whole European retiement plan of mine will sink quicker than the Spanish Armada..

After mulling over my travel options, I decided to go it on the ground. The airfare is astronomical right now because of the season. Money aside, I decided to make an “adventure” out of this chapter in my odyssey. I am taking an overnight bus to Belgrade Serbia. I may linger in Belgrade for a day or two and get a look at some of the history and culture. After talking to my good friend Elton who runs Albaniatrips.com (I will shamelessly plug this connection), I/we decided to do a few different twists on old model. I will take a train from Belgrade to Bar Montenegro. Bar is on the Adriatic Sea portion of their coast. From Bar, I will take a minibus to Shkoder. Shkoder is on the shore of Lake Shkodra, the largest lake in Southern Europe. Shkoder is also the gateway to Theth National Park, and Bujtina Polia. I will stay with my dear friend Pavlin for at least a month. I ultimately want to fly fish the Theth River (Lumi i Thethit). If you can recall, I was here in May to scout the river to fly fish. Any mention of the fishing will be featured in future posts from Bujtina Polia (bujtina {boo-teena} is Albanian for inn or hotel).

Not being a big fan of heat of the Adriatic, it will be a trial for me to stay in Bar for more than a day or two. Elton swears that I will love the train trip from Belgrade to Bar. The train wends a path through the Southern Alps of the Balkans. From Belgrade I will leave the Danube Plain and go directly into the mountains. Each of the nations call it their own, i.e., “Albanian Alps, Montenegrin Alps…etc. I will spend as much time as I can getting into some sort of shape, as I have a somewhat sedentary existence here in Bratislava. Aside from my morning walks along the Danube and through the Old Town, I sit plenty while reading and doing research on my papers. An evening walk to meet friends for dinner is hardly a “workout”.

I will leave here on 2 September, from the bus station which is hardly a ten minute walk from apartment. I decided on the overnight bus trip after researching the train trip; there are too many transfers in the middle of the night. So, I will leave here at 22:00 (10pm) and arrive in Belgrade at 7am. It will give me plenty of time to look for a hotel and scope out where the train station will be in relation to it all. Then I will get at a look at what Belgrade has to offer. The Sava river runs into the Danube in Belgrade. The Sava is known for great fly fishing, but I would be surprised if it happens in proximity to the city. From Belgrade on Saturday 3 September, until Bar (when – I’m not looking that far ahead), it will anyone”s guess how it will all work out.

I’m excited at the prospect of the uncertainty of how this trip will go. Even if I decided to fly to Tirana and get a hotel room, and know what is next,…etc. It would no less different than my last trip to Albania. The biggest difference will to take only my backpack, and my bookbag. I learned from the last trip that I didn’t need to drag a 25kg (55lb) duffel bag of items that I barely used. Also, the most glaring difference will be that I will not be “locked in” to an Airbnb stay for a period that would tie me to any one locale. I know that my internal compass always points to mountains, and recalling that my stay in Theth was too short, I will be anxious to wet a line day after day, and get in a few day hikes in the surrounding mountains.

So, dear friends, this will be my last missive until early September. I don’t write as though I have been entirely committed to a post a week, but aside from dinner/coffee with good friends, there is little to post. Hopefully this next portion of my odyssey will reveal a pearl or two. My focus will be on not only informing you of my whereabouts, but also to broadcast to others the bounty of Albania. From its glaciers to its bustling cities, I would like nothing more than the potential of this beautiful little nation laid bare for the world to see.

After some time in Theth, I will consult with Elton to see more of the unseen. He is an excellent source; I mean – hey – it’s his passion. He is one of my favorite humans on the planet. It seems he lives to solve problems and he makes it look easy. In the end, I will finish my trip in Tirana, and hopefully getting a chance to spend more time with a man I consider a “true Brother”. I really like the energy in the Albanian capital, and look forward to my visit with some friends that I made from my last stay.

I am ever grateful for those of you who take the time to read my posts. Also. I am eternally in your debt for any comments you might feel to offer. I will continue to humbly seek peace and solace for each and everyone of you in my morning askance. Until next itme, please, take good care yourselves and each other.

Last Thoughts On A Fortnight Past

It is feels very comforting to be back home now in Bratislava. I arrived last Monday 6, June in the early evening. To say that I had to “dig deep” to get here would be putting it mildly. My last 4 days In Tirana were spent in sickness. In the early morning of Friday, 3 June, I woke with an intense pain on my right side. From my shoulder to my hip, whenever I would move. It worsened if I had to cough, or get a quick breath. I had fallen twice in the mountains, both times on my right hip. I thought that by this time I had “walked it out” and wasn’t feeling any discomfort. It had been nearly 3 weeks to this point and I was feeling only mild discomfort. From nowhere this had spread up to my rib cage and continued to my shoulder. I could not figure out what was causing this.

An attempt to calm myself and breathe easy brought more pain. I began walking around my flat and didn’t feel anything in my hip. Pressing and prodding it, looking in vain for a site that was affecting this disturbance. In my mind I was running down a checklist; water?..yes; I had been eating, I had been moving – daily walks af good length. I sat and tried to relax everything, I began to meditate slowly – away from the distrubance inside of me – into a place that I found comfort. At once I hiccuped, and the pain shot through me like an eletrical current. Okay…”calm down”, I told myself. This went on most of Friday morning and into the day. I wasn’t hungry and couldn’t force myself to eat, only water.

On Saturday morning, the pain was more than I could bear. I phoned my host Dafne and explained what was happening. She was a complete angel;she was very quick to act. In a matter of minutes I was dressed and down on the street where a taxi was waiting to take me to the hospital. I was preparing myself for a 2 hour wait in the ER, paperwork…all the hoops like back in the US. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was hardly anyone there at 8am. The young doctor met me at the door and immediately began grilling me about my condition. Into an exam room and all the precursory signs showed I was normal. She drew blood, and then ordered an x-ray. Within minutes I was on the table, and it was over. She met me in the exam room, and explained that she was truly baffled. There were no signs of trauma, except my right hip (on which I fallen) showing a bruise that was nearly healed. I denied pain meds, as I was in recovery and she understood. She gave me her personal phone number and asked me to call her on Sunday (the next day) and let her know how/what I was feeling.

She gave me a hug and sent me to checkout and see the nurse for payment (it was the same person who did the x-ray!). The total bill came out to almost $300. I nearly fell off my chair. I paid it upfront with a card, a cost that am getting back from insurance…no questions. There was a taxi waiting to return to my flat, and once there I sat and fell asleep sitting up. I awoke late in the afternoon feeling refreshed and with very little pain…I was just tired. At this point I was wondering what my trip home was going to be like. Saturday evening laid me down to sleep unquietly until mid-morning Sunday, without pain. Feeling better, I took a warm shower and began to pack for my flight on Monday. I called the young doctor and let her know that I was feeling better, with no appreciable pain, and only that I was still not hungry. She suggested something light, expressed her thanks and wished me well.

I sat on Monday morning and relected on my time in Albania. The first 2 months on the Adriatic were fun, but not my best time. My trip really began when I became engaged in the mountains with Alfred in Valbonne, and then with Pavlin and his family in Theth. I met more people of interest in those places than my whole time in Durres, on the Adriatic. There were some highlights there too, but everything turned dramatically after contacting Elton and Alda at Albanian Trip. For me to exist in the mountains again was refreshing. I am excited at the prospect of getting fly fishing onto those two great Albanian rivers, and to awe people with the breathtaking landscape. I am eternally grateful to Alfred, Pavlin, and most importantly Elton. I was gifted with a few moments of his time and wisdom. He, and Pavlin, and Alfred have becomes Brothers to me in this spirit of adventure and forging ahead with new ideas. I will grasp those notions firmly. The history alone is stunning, and to stand in some of the places were it occured was humbling. I shall not soon forget my experience there.

My checkout time on Monday at the flat was 10am. I was up early, and ready to leave by 9. I checked into my 3pm flight, and everything was go. My strength was beginning to flag by this point, but I still had no interest in putting anything in my body when it didn’t want it. I’ve been there many times before and was not prepared any “accidents”…in either direction. I heaved my over-stuffed duffel onto my body, which by now was considerably lighter as I had lost some weight over the last 3-4 days. Luckily for me there was a cab stand just a few meters from my flat entrance and I staggered up to get to the airport. It was a quick ride to the airport, inexpensive and my driver was a nice middle-aged Albanian that liked to listen, as well as talk. He gave me a hug and wished me a safe trip. I reeled into the airport and it was just the opposite of what I was hoping for on a Monday. To call it a beehive would be a misnomer. I had 3 hours before boarding, and was lucky enough to find a New York Times to do a puzzle to pass some of the time.

I heard a pair of US tourists before I saw them. You know the type: loud, complaining, and acting as if they were the only ones there. Mixed into this were a few boys playing football in the waiting hall, some on 3-wheeled scooters zipping around, and your usual crying babies…we had it all. Funny though, with all of this going on, in a stream of people moving, and the heady miasmic atmosphere…the security guards (not TSA – these guys and gals had military everything on them) were concerned with the crying kids. They would walk by and kindly ask the parents to the “quiet room” until their flights were called. Bravo!, I thought it was brilliant. We loaded more than 45 minutes late, and then had to sit and wait as there was “a problem with the airspace” over Vienna Airport. I didn’t care, at this point I was starting to flag and decided to take a nap. Before I can recall we were off and after what seemed like a very short flight were landing in Vienna. I went right through passport control, claimed my bag and waddled out to catch the bus to Bratislava. I would take it to Nivy, our new shopping mall built over the bus station. It is hardly a 4 block walk to my apartment on Grosslingova. I had already planned on a taxi. I was done dragging this duffel any further. I was about text my landlord Vlad that I was at Vienna. He beat me to it and offered to pick me up at NIvy. I took it. By 6:30pm I was in my apartment and talking to Vlad. I was a few yards away from tears of joys to be back in my space finally.

It took a few days to recover, I’m eating again, and have gotten out to walk. I feel no pain, and I am leaving that mystery lie in Albania. Mysteries….there are so many in this life. I had checked in to let those that I know and love that I was home and safe. I was informed that my dearest niece and her husband had lost their child early in pregnancy. Maybe the trial of traveling in a weakened state, maybe having been worn down mentally after living by myself, or perhaps simple grief had me crying for quite some time over the last days. All the memories of the birth our daughter Ana flooded down the canyons of my past. It was a girl, and they were going to name her Charlotte Rae. I connected with her during my meditation yesterday as she went skyward. I am beginning to tear up now as I push this recollection to memory. Our time here is incredibly fleeting. Our lives and the time we are given with those we love is truly “given” and can be taken from us at any moment witout any explanation. The past fortnight has re-affirmed this notion, as I too felt like I was “close to the edge” at times during my ill health. If I have learned anythingfrom my voyage over the last 3 months, I have garnered the truth that I am a social being with an obligation to be connected to those that I meet…a social animal, if you will. Being entirely alone is perhaps not what I’m built for. I derive profound spiritual strength from human interaction. I know also (and have known), that we are spiritual beings having a human experience… not the other way around. (Thank You Sean O’Keefe) Once again, I thank all, or any, who are following me on this trip, and I wish you well. Please take care of yourselves, and take care of each. I will post again soon hopefully with news of my visa search.

Summertime. Football, & Hooligans

Everyday after breakfast I walk up to Skanderbeg Square to the bookstore Adrion It’s about a 4.4km (2 3/4mi) roundtrip and I look forward to it. I try to get up there to get a New York Times and walk back to my flat before the hottest part of the day. Lately, it seems like summer has set in here in Tirane. This week past has been in the upper 80’s/low 90’s. On Wednesday there was a presentation of the trophy for the first-ever UEFA Europa Conference League. The teams were AC Roma and Feyenoord (The Netherlands). I knew it was a big deal because many of the streets were blocked off and the entire area where I ived, called Blloku, was a “pedestrian zone.

There were far more people than I am used to seeing. I heard Italian and Dutch spoken at Tony’s as I ate breakfast in the usually quiet space. My waiters were hopping, and stopped to caution me to make sure that I was back at home here in Blloku before 4/5 that evening. After I left and began my walk up to Skanderbeg, I understood perfectly. At each major intersection that wasn’t blocked by fencing were at least a dozen policemen and women. It was actually nice to walk down and cross the tree-lined streets without traffic. Traffic here is a major problem, especially in tighter neighborhoods like Blloku (or Bllok…locally). I’ve mentioned that it’s like Lincoln Park without the threat of the inner city problems… I still stand by that statement. The square was full of both fans and Albanians celebrating the opportunity to see the trophy. A carnival had sprouted, and a huge screen as well. Air Albania stadium has a seating capacity of nearly 23,000, and it was reported that there were more than 100,000 fans for both sides in Tirane.

The Tuesday night prior, I read that Albania “deported” 48 Italians and 12 Dutch fans for being hooligans. I looked toward the stadium after I crossed the bridge over the Lana River at Bajram Curri Blvd, and noticed glass and debris still on the street. I’m glad I was invited to watch the game at Tony’s. My walk home is less than 5 minutes from there. As I walked through the shade, I marveled at how intense the heat from the sun became, even through the trees! My usual m.o. is to get my walk to Adrion in and maybe stop at the supermarket before 11;30, and be in my flat from Noon until 5/5:30. After that I’ll take a walk through the park (in the shade still) and end up at Tony’s for dinner around 6:30/7. Wednesday night was still a bit warm at 7 but I brought a long sleeve shirt because it cools off quickly ( nearly 70F) always with a nice breeze.

Last week I looked into tickets for this match, wanting to see real football from the stands. It would be my first since watching Ruzomberok vs. Zilina on my 2017 trip to Slovakia. I nearly fell off my chair at the price. I decided it would be best to watch it from a coffee house, with a macchiato in one of my haunts. I met “Tony” from Tony’s cafe last Sunday and he invited me to watch it there. It’s my “go-to”. The waiters there are great and I’m totally at home. Tony as it turns out, is actually Albanian, but has a sister in Idaho. He loved the bar and grill setting so much that he gave up his job running a large hotel kitchen and opened up a few years ago. I ate a late dinner and settled in with my New York Times until kick-off. I should point out that I was skeptical when it showed up on my phone for close eateries. I had checked into my flat and was hungry, it was the closest restaurant. When I walked in, there were old New York Times from 2019, and I quickly scoured them to see if the puzzles were done. After nearly three months of doing the puzzle online, I was ecstatic to actually write on paper.

At 9 o’clock, the game started, and I had a perfect seat on the patio. Owing to the fact that my dear friends the D’Amatos were Italian, I checked to make sure it was alright to root for a team that wasn’t their “house favorite”. I was worried from the beginning as the Dutch were always in the Roma pitch. A 1-0 start to the first half had me jump at the goal and hope that Feyenoord could be held at bay. Late in the second half I was seriously flagging and prayed that AC Roma would keep the Dutch away. I trundled back to my flat, with the roar of the stadium, less than a half-mile away, floating through the starry sky above me.

I awoke yesterday (Thursday 25 May) to check the score before my meditation and chant. I was happy to see that AC Roma held. It was already warm when I began my walk to Adrion, so being a “sissy” to the heat, I turned back and walked under the trees back to flat. Dripping wet already, I jumped into a cool shower and sat down to read for the afternoon. It was a smart move as it was 34C (94F). Today I thought about my coffee meet-up with Calvin. We met at Rilindja in Valbonne, as he was staying there as well. Calvin – a Canadian, is here as an educator. A more gregarious fellow would be hard to meet. He is well seasoned here in Albania, and offered some tips about living here full time. Our 2 hours at Tony’s went by quick, but we agreed to meet again as his schedule allows.

In the end, this afternoon I am writing from a cool space. It’s 5:30, for me, and I most likely will be going out for a late dinner. The temperature should be a “cooler” 26/27C (78/80F). Looking through the news from the US (I shun the news online), I see that there was another school shooting, and I’m not surprised. I don’t know when people in the US will stop talking and start listening. Everybody has an opinion, from poilitcians to movie stars, and people famous for doing nothing but staying in the news cycle. Most, if not all, offer no creative solutions and more of the same is going to be the order of the day. The answer lies between the Left and the Right. It’s a complete shame. More kids are dying from guns than disease. I still think the US has more potential than most nations in the world, but I also believe that potential has eroded sharply. Nobody wants to listen. I hope and pray that this violence is not visited upon my family and friends. There are moments that I feel like a coward for not staying. There also moments when I am glad that I made this move. There is no replacement for the safety I feel here in Europe. I have some decisions to make when I return “home” to Bratislava; returning to the US isn’t on the board.

I want to thank you all for following me. I wish for your safety, and hope you are well. Please take care of yourselves.

The Road Through Trees And Rocks

My time in Tirana in the last near week has been an education in itself. It doesn’t mater what the day of the week you are here, this city is on the move; people are what makes this place so electric to me. The young seem to power it now. Monday nights are just like Saturday nights. The cafes are packed with people drinking coffee, with some smoking – some not. During the day older men sit in the shade of a tree or awning talking through the hottest part of the day, and it’s countrywide. Everywhere I went I would see it.

If I had briefly touched on Skanderbeg, I would like to just give a short look at him here. Gjergj Kastrioti, also known to the world as Skanderbeg, was born in what is now the central portion of Albania. I pored over maps from the period of his birth and many were difficult to divine as being an accurate. Many early polities and most modern countries claim him as one of their sons. Even cultures as far away as Serbia and Greece have tried to co-opt Skanderbeg into their historical narrative. One thing is clear, myths and legends aside, Skanderbeg was the real thing. Just as the US has George Washington in myth, and legend, so does Albania. Skanderbeg most certainly makes Washington look like a chicken farmer with a sword.

In those early days of conquests and empire building renewed. The Ottoman Turks were THE force to be reckoned with. The Church in Rome was feeling the threat from the Ottomans, not only in the realm of religion, but politcally as well. The two (religion and politics) were deeply intertwined during this period. He was born to a father who was a vassal to the leader of the Ottomans. Albania at this time was a shifting sand of two rivers; one being the powerful Republic of Venice, and the other was Ottoman Turkey. At birth, Skanderbeg was given to the Sultan to make sure of his father’s allegiance to the Turks. In his late 30’s, during battle he deserted and went back the Albanians. He would lead a resistance to the Ottomans that would make Robert E. Lee seem like a mere checker player. For many years he would fight against overwhelming numbers, and thus held back the Turks from completely covering the rest Europe in blood.

It has taken me about 4 hours of reading to feebly attempt to winnow truth from fiction, and with Albania’s national hero it is an impossible task. His exploits are real, as countless historians can attest; where the myth-making comes from…well that’s history! Skanderbeg died in Kruja (Krew-ya), not far from Tirana. He was 63 years old and passed of old age. I would encourage anyone to Wiki this man and take a cursory look at what he did, and why Europe owes him a debt of honor. Indeed there are statues in Belgium and Italy. There are operas and poetry to pay homage; Lord Byron wrote one to honor Skanderbeg. The Turks would eventually extend to Hungary, across the east to Ukraine and surround the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov. The siege of Vienna in the fall of 1683 would call an end to Ottoman expansion into Central Europe. The players are too numerous to count, and the politics too complex for an overview of this nature. The Balkans would remain in the hands of the Ottomans for another 230 years, bringing their grand total in the Balkans to 500 years…give or take.

My point here, dear reader, is that this ancient place is finally free of the rulers with their own agendas. From the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, to the Ottomans, and guys like Enver Hoxha, whose despotic rule has abated; there is a strong sense of culture and hope here in Albania. I have seen it and heard it from the Albanians that I have been graced to have met…and it will carry on for another two weeks. I really like this city in the south of Europe. We will see what the “grand plan” has for me. Add this wonderful country to your travel plans. It is important to remember that I have only seen a rather small portion of what Albania has to offer. There is the south, Berat and the crystal waters of of the Vlora area. I still have much to see to properly asses this country overall.

So, I continue my road through the trees and stones. I have to give a mention to the shops and cafes that I frequent. I bought a new pair of eyeglasses at Lux Optika on Rruga Ibrahim Rugova. I was warmly greeted and taken care of like I was the only customer that mattered…I can’t wait to put them on and not squint in the sunlight. The doctor who gave me my eye exam nearly scolded me for waiting so long to get new glasses. The pair that I have are from 2017/18…can’t remember. The transition is no longer darkening, and I am pushing my eys through the bottom of my progressives. I was just passing by, and curious to see what they would cost. The glasses will cost me less than 1/3 of what I would payed (with my union insurance, I shouldered 10% of the cost…$900) in the US. Since my watch band fell apart, the young man at Lux Optika directed me a few doors down to Tuffina. The wonderful young lady there jumped right on it, attached the new band, and it was very, very inexpensive. Conversely, all of the watch shops prior wanted to sell me a new watch. Also, I have settled into a coffee shop rotation. I have a sumptious breakfast and dinner at Tony’s right around the corner from me. I met “Tony” yesterday and he is the best! I have “my guys”; Lawrence, Donald, Ulie (Yuly), and Ares are simply the at the pinnacle of service. They are very good about directions to a place I am looking for, and never hesitate to be tableside when needed. In the end, during my walk after dinner, I end up at Dua. There are always football matches, and yesterday I went to watch The Spanish Grand Prix there. It was a disastrous day for Ferrari, but I enjoyed the coffee and comradery.

I have offered only a thumbnail sketch of my time here in Tirana. I will post again soon. With more photos, and more events, it will be easier for you to grasp why I like it here so much. Thank you for following me, and I wish you well.

Theth In A Fleeting Breath

As Pavlin and I pulled through the gate, we were met by Pavlin and Vlora’s daughter Era. She was so happy to see her Daddy she jumped on the step hanging on the side of the Cruiser. Bujtina Polia is a mountain hotel, stout and soaring. I was struck firstly by the activity around it. There are 4 dogs attached to it and they always present. After meeting Pavlin’s wonderful wife Vlora, I dragged my gear to my room. I tidied myself and went down to the main room. It serves as a the main dining hall, a meeting place, and the coffee outlet. Pavlin and I sat at a table on the patio and talked about the fishing, the mountains, and the tourism to this valley.

The mountains climb up from the valley floor on three sides. This valley has a defined “U-shape”, unlike Valbonne which were complete walls going up on both sides. Theth valley has a more defined glacial-finished profile. Our conversations were so varied and touched on some many things…mountain life. history, sustainability, gear, the change of the seasons, and fly fishing. I was anxious to see what the river offered in terms of access, and flow. In spite of everything that Pavlin was shouldered with he found the time to give me the attention that I needed. I am forever grateful to him. Just like Alfred at Riindra, Pavlin was very attentive to what his guests needed. There are very few men like this. The children would come and go as we talked, and Pavlin didn’t even miss one beat; he would answer their questions, and see to their needs – returning to our conversations as if we were not put out.

Vlora was no different, as her patience seemed a bottomless well. The children, Era – the oldest and a sweet near- preteen, followed by Tom, and the youngest Arian; were a delight. Also, as we talked, people stopped by to visit, it was a busy hub of action. We had a nice supper and I retired early. Saturday, 14th/May was my only full day. We had great breakfast and headed out to some of Pavlin’s best spots to fish. It is important to remember that the Theth River was no different than the Valbonne. Wherever you are in the village, you can hear the sound of the tempestuous waters rolling down the valley. I slept with my window open to fall asleep and to arise to the rhythmic count of the waters; not a 4/4 beat – more like some ancient Gheg folk ballad.

Saturday was an education in just-plain-fishing for me. Pavlin took me down a rocky track above the river, and as we descended to the valley floor we could see areas where the rush had slowed. We parked across a river channel from an inn and restaurant hidden entirely from everything. Here the Theth was fed by water emanating from a single source in a grotto-like gorge.

From this gorge/grotto the crystal clear water washed down to the Theth. There were two footbridges that spanned the channel to the hidden inn and cafe. Pavlin set a course down the banks and I tripped and skidded behind him, still sore from my mishap in Valbonne. It didn’t take long to find pools and low-rapid flats.

I noticed what looked like Mayflies, so I switched to a ragged Adams Wulff that I had in the only flybox I brought along. I found a nice poolwith some aerating riffle sending water into it. I kept putting on the edge to drift into swirling pool. I wasn’t rewarded with a flash, or any movement to make out. Pavlin was using a casting setup, much like Alfred earlier in the week. I retied a Chubby Chernobyl terrestial to see if I could get anything to come up. Both flies were the smallest in my box, #14/16 hooks…small. The harder I worked the more I realized the merciless Balkan sun was cooking my head. I decided to have a sit in the shade and watch Pavlin, and to eyeball the other pools to see if there was anything moving.

I marveled at the scenery, the intense color color of the sky… a dome of uncut lapis lazuli above me. In the shade the breeze cooled me. After quite some time of changing location, my hip pushed me to relent my search. Pavlin and I headed back to see his friends at the cafe near the grotto. In all honesty, I couldn’t figure how people walked on this carpet of rocks and talus, and as I bucked and skidded behind Pavlin, I tried to imagine a conquering army moving up this valley. Sheer madness.

We sat with Pavlin’s friends for a bit, cooled off, and headed back to Bujtina Polia. Still discussing how to bring fishermen in from the outside without turning this valley into “Disneyworld-with-rocks”..my words, not his. I have been to a few rivers in our Western US where it looks like a hallway of grade-schoolers between classes. Too many people in one place with intentions that are opposite to what this endeavor is meant to be. To the uninitiated, fly fishing seems like a chemistry class with the casting, and entomology involved. That might be a half-truth; what is the most important is the connectedness with your surroundings, the water, and of course – the fish. Trout can be the wiliest fish to cast for, and require you to be a bit “plugged-in”. The wilder the river, the least a chance to have a fish that is going to be a pushover. I believe that would be true here in Theth (and Valbon as well)

Later on Saturday the weather changed drastically, as it often does in the mountains. Rain came down in buckets, as we retreated from the bench outside of the bujtina to the main hall, Pavlin and I weren’t sure we would get one last shot as we had hoped. When fishing it is sometimes better to fish in the rain – most species become more active. The rain slowed down enough after a few hours for us to go out and try our luck. Again I was given a few polite nibbles. Pavlin was gifted with a beautiful Brook trout. I had to chuckle as we leap-frogged around each other, and he with a fish tail sticking out of his jacket pocket. We headed back to Bujtina Polia to help Vlora and crew set up for a large dinner crowd. Bouncing along in the Cruiser with the fish tail hopping nad bopping as it stuck out of his jacket…a memory that I will not give up anytime soon.

I sat with Kristina for dinner. She was lovely young lady from Hamburg, Germany travelling by herself. She reminded me of my own daughter in many ways. We had a great talk as we ate our way through a very generous dinner. I bid her a good night after coffee and dessert. I was completely done at that point, and looking over at Pavlin still serving the big group of Italians (I think), he made everything look effortless. Oh to be a younger man!

Kristina and I were seated together for breakfast, as the group took up all of the other tables, and why not? Our conversation was spirited and sunny like the morning we looked out at. We bid each other a safe trip after breakfast, replete with kisses on both cheeks,,,yeah, I’m so continental now! I headed to my room to finish packing as Pavlin and I would leave for Tirana as soon as we could. Our drive would take some time to Tirana. I felt honored and grateful that Pavlin would take a day away from his duties to drive me.

Back up and over the mountains we went, winding our way down and out of Theth to Shkoder and into the flatlands to Tirana. As we neared the capital the traffic increased in volume. In the 3 1/2 – 4 hour drive we spoke of many things, and I felt some inner calling to get in the mix here and do what I could to keep the Albanian Alps wild by introducing the world to them. Our conversation always returned to the same point; how to bring the world in on our terms. There are no easy answers, and to be involved in the growth here would be an opportunity I’d invite at this stage in my life. I have the utmost respect for Alfred and Pavlin fir doing what they do.

Pavlin drove me right to my hotel, and made sure I was all set; and the hardest part of ny trip arrived. I was in near tears at departing, we became “brothers-in-soul”…at least I felt that way, I won’t speak for Pavlin. I owe Elton, Alda, and Vilma my wieght in gold for arranging my trip. Albanian Trip is THE tour operator here in Albania, as far as I am concerned. I had a day to let the week behind me bounce around in my head as I would debrief Elton, and in turn, be debriefed. I will post again right away to bring you all up to speed on my past week here in Tirana. All I can say is that this town is electric.

I will, in turn, touch on the last few remaining ideas about fly fishing in Albania. I appreciate any and all of you who are following me on this odyssey…yes there have been many changes in fortune so far. I have many tough decisions to make upon my return to Bratislava. Until that time, I’m going to wring every last drop from this cloth wrapped around me here in Albania. Please take care of ourselves, and take care of each other. I will post again very soon. Thank you…many times over.

Rebirth and The Alpine Continuum

Rilindja is Albanian for rebirth. Alfred chose the name wisely; I came alive again. For all of the situations and events that occured in Durres, it seemed like I was biding my time. Sure, the history of that area was great, but without some means of my own transport, I was a prisoner to the Sun and sand. From Tuesday afternoon, until Friday at 13:00 (1pm) when I parted with Alfred, my whole sense of self became re-oriented toward those mountains.

As we wound down to Fierze to meet the ferry at Lake Koman, Alfred and I talked of many things. I would like to turn around and come back here (and Theth) in July/August. I have plans to meet dear friends from the US elsewhere in Europa. I told Alfred how thankful and fortunate I felt for meeting him, and in turn having Alda and Elton take care of this trip. If I haven’t mentioned Albanian Trip, I will now. The story behind the origins and the end product of this trip is the result of the great work that Alda and Elton do at Albanian Trip. This happened because “god’s hand” is involved here. I was actually looking around to see how difficult it would be to go fly fishing here in Albania. I found Rilindja and was so impressed with its nearness to the Valbon (right across the road) and I emailed them to see what their rates were. I recieved an email from Elton, and we began a dialogue. Although it is named in my tags at the bottom of my blogs, google/search for Albanian Trip, let them know what you have in mind, and you will be taken care of very well. I’m going to end this paragraph with their accolades; They were chosen as a Conde’ Nast Travel Specialist for the 2nd year in a row. I am very fortunate to call Elton and Alda my friends. I will refer to them and their endeavor going forward.

It was with a heavy heart that I said farewell to Alfred…calling him “Albert” was running joke. The ferry was nearly full as we headed out of Fierze for the 4+ hour trek to Diga e Komanit. It was a liquid spectacle riddled with little side channels, and a sky framed by stone and greened inclines.

I sat in the shade and reflected on my short time in Dragobi and Valbona National Park. I went to see how this near-wild river could be fly fished, knowing full well that even nymphing was out of the question. Alfred and I tried going down after them in the roaring cataracts racing down the canyon. I tried to lay flys gently on top of them in the few pools we were graced with and only recieved a polite nibble in return. Alfred was “blessed” with 3 caught overall. Call it a “home team advantage”. The Valbon was not ready yet and Alfred was still determined to show me a good time. The unforgiving terrain wrenched my knee and did some “Balkan Voodoo” on my hip, but we did the best we could. I recalled the cool,crisp sheets in Hotel Rezidenca, and the breeze slipping through my window on the back of the muffled river roar…. and the coffee, always the coffee! I close my eyes and I see Maja Jezerce above me (top photo on this page), and the way the sunrise made the snow shimmer on the shoulder of the limestone redoubt.

Sitting in the shade of the upper deck, I tried to commit every vantage point to memory, and along with the sights, sounds, and smells to retain as much as possible. Here I was at the halfway point to this trip that Elton and Alda painstakingly put together, and so far it was nonpareil. I turned my attention to the watery rampart we were chugging through. I let my eyes linger on all of it. I watched as we motored past small fishing camps where the landscape allowed. Further down the sides would widen and spread out to reveal tilted fields with cows, sheep, goats, and a horse here and there. The grazing stock moved on the abrupt green carpet like humans walking a level surface.

We docked at Diga e Komanit and I met Kristian. A young Albanian with a quick smile and a can-do attitude, he was Pavlin’s driver. We began our trip down to Shkoder to meet Pavlin. At this point in my retelling I must reveal my attitude toward the road from the dock to Shkoder. It amounted to an over-wide goat path. There were potholes and gullies that would scare away the boldest Chicago drivers. Kristian held his frustration in and waited for his oppotuntities to pass. We descended, at times behind a gaggle of campers, and some very high-end Mercedes that had to creep in most places. The striking part of the roads in the highlands here in Albania is that they are just wide enough for their cars to pass slowly. I really enjoy the engaging talks I have with the young here. The young Albanians are excited about their future and happy to speak to someone fron the US; Kristian was no exception. Kristian’s English was very good; he would speak in halting rhythms only when he searched for the proper word or term. I asked if he had English in school, and he replied with a sly smile that he learned from watching “American movies”…especially action movies. That began a short row of he and I doing impressions of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris.

We rolled along out into the open valley toward Shkoder to meet Pavlin. Driving through little hamlets where the sway of time has left these people nearly untouched. The “ancient” is still here in the countrysides. This rock-ridden land slowy unfolds to the newer and more modern houses, and then we were in Shkoder. This is a bustling town on the shores of the largest lake in Southern Europe. Lake Shkodra ( or Shkoder in Albanian), and this city has a flavor entirely all of its own. Krisian navigated the crowded streets like a New York cab driver and swung around to park right in front of a man with with Ray Bans and the most imposing beard I have seen since David Brown from Rock Island Public House. Pavlin Polia was my host, and soon to be a kindred soul. We stopped at a patisserie to get some sweets to take to Bujtina Polia in Theth.

We swung by a place to drop Kristian, and of course, a short cup of coffee. Kristian was adept at coffee as well; he served Pavlin and I and pulled up a chair to join in our chat. Again, the pace of life here is on another plane. Pavlin and I got back in the 4-wheel drive Toyota cruiser and began the drive up to Theth Valley. We talked about everything on the spectrum. Stopping at a little market, I picked oranges the size of 12-inch softballs, and Pavlin took some yogurt and a few items. The climb up and over to Theth is not for the weak-hearted, especially with Pavlin at the wheel. We swung around hairpin curves, and through the stones that had tumbled, fallen, and came to rest right in the road. When I say “road”, I’m being very generous. This surface was paved as recently as 2 years (or so) ago, and it is verily wide enough for the European cars, let alone the mini-buses and campers that use it. Pavlin knows every turn, every meter, and I was never ill-at-ease.

We crested the mountain, with snow laying here and there, and stopped at a point to talk to a journalist that Pavlin knew. Here I must point out that we never just drove by people that he knew. There was always time to stop and chat…always. Pavlin is as affable as any man I have ever known. He carries himself with a quiet resolve, an behind what appears to a facade of strong bearing, he is as warm and inviting as they come. Now heading down the sharp incline into Theth Valley, I could see the town spread out along the Theth River. Nearing it, I was struck by its resemblance to the tiny mountain towns in Montana. As we wound through the village, there were so many waving, we bounced and careened to Bujtina Polia – Pavlin’s place. “Bujtina” means inn, or hotel.

I will end this post here in order to get a better photo of Bujtina Polia. For some reason my photos will not download to this site. I will have to ask Pavlin for a photo. I promise that rest of my journey will be as full of recollections as the past posts. I am in Tirana now and anxious to convey my experience here. I am always in deep appreciation for you that are reading and giving me feedback. I will post again very soon. Until then, please take of yourselves, and each other.

Corrections & Connections

Dear reader, in my last blog I made two statements that need to be emended. Number One: Alfred started Rlindja in 2004 (not 2012) Number Two: The name is RILINDJA (as you can see from the above photo). My Thanks to Alfred for pointing these errors out to me.

I am a bit later than planned to post this. Since Alfred dropped me off at Fierze to take the ferry down to Lake Koman, the whole tenor of my trip took on a much different feel. Alfred and I did our best to find pools and places that the trout might sit out the rushing mountain torrent. As I might have mentioned previously, we knew at the onset that I was still early for any productive fly fishing. There were portions of the lower Valbon that ran gray-white with silt and sediment. Alfred and I agreed and he was undaunted in finding productive water. Alfred has a very easy manner about him, laughs easily, and doesn’t seem to get upset about the little speed bumps in life. I am not saying this because he will be reading this, I am writing what I have experienced. We traveled to and from Rilindja, there was always a history lesson. There were questions from me to Alfred and he answered every single one. The subjects varied as we talked, and he was always patient as we would swing through culture and politics, family and religion, and somehow finishing with the river valley and existence in those mountains.

The section we spent a good deal of time in was called Dragobi, and this was the home of Alfred’s family going back many years. I must discuss Bajram Curri. Here in the mountainous north of Albania, just a short leap from Kosovo, is land that has been won and lost for the entirety of human history. You name them and they have tried to hold this place in conquest. The Illyrians were conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century bce, and that held until the 4th century when the forerunners of Albanians had become dance partners of the Byzantine Empire. Long before this time, at the beginning of the Bronze Age (2000bce), the Illyrians dwelt in this stone fortress provided by the Dinaric Alps. They were aided and protected further by many factors that worked in their favor…complex social and cultural practices. This peninsula has always been a bridgehead for conquering nations. After centuries of a revolving door of invasions (Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars, and Slavs), the Ottoman Turks found the combination to unlocking the gate and ruled the Albanians from the 15th century until the late 19th.

Bajram Curri (By-rahm Tsurry) was born in what is now Kosovo (16 January, 1862). He would become a hero for standing up for the Albanians against the Ottomans. He was prominent in gaining independence for the Albanians and in some circles holds the same status as Skanderberg. Alfred pointed out the area above us while we walked along the river looking for a suitable place to fish. Curri had by early 1925 been defeated in revolution and forced to hide in a cave in Dragobi. He was killed by his own friends so their lives would be spared by Zogists (Albanian nationalists). I stood there for a few minutes and marveled at how impossible it would be find someone in this valley of sheer rock torsos and girdles of trees along its waist above the rushing Valbonne i Lumi.

Alfred’s nephew Reuben is the waiter/houseman/gap-filler for Rilindja, and he made a great cup of macciato for me. Reuben did many things and he did them well. He certainly deserves a mention and I am thankful to have crossed his path. He is an affable and sweet soul that I hope I get to see on my next visit. Our meals were nothing short of perfect. Breakfast was my favorite meal of the day. As you can see there was never a shortage of food for a good start. It seemed like I started to lose some of that weight I gained from all the seafood risottos and pizzas I ate on the beach. The photo above was my last breakfast at Rilindja and so my next blog will cover Friday 13 May through to today.