Balkans                                          2016

Balkans 2016 Albania Kosovo Macedonia

Balkans - Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia - 2016


Despite a fairly late night to bed last night, we set the alarm for 6:15am this morning.  The reason was to undertake what was described in online reviews as “the best boat trip in the world”, and just a little more modestly in the brochure as “one of the greatest boat rides in the world, passing through magnificent and rugged fjord-like mountain scenery”.

When we booked our tickets yesterday afternoon, the office manager described our destination, Komani Lake, as the most beautiful place on earth that God had created.  I knew that this claim, at least, must be at least a slight exaggeration, because Komani Lake is an artificial lake, created not by God, but by the Albanian Communist Party under the leadership of Enver Hoxha.  Actually, at the time, Enver Hoxha was regarded as God in Albania, so maybe the claim had some perverse peripheral validity.

After a very good breakfast at the hotel, we took the short five minute walk to the Komani Lake Travel Office, located across the road from the Millennium Cinema to meet our guide and minivan driver at the appointed time of 8:00am.  There were to be two others in our small group, a young man from Toronto (Canada) and a young woman from Yokohama (Japan).  After finishing our complimentary thimbles of Very Strong coffee, we boarded the minivan and began our two hour journey to the east of Shkodër.

The road twisted upwards into the mountains, clinging to the sides of obviously unstable slopes in this earthquake-prone region.  The road surface had not been renewed in decades, but we eventually reached the destination of our road journey — and starting point for our boat journey — a small landing immediately upstream of the Komani Dam.

Completion of the Komani Dam, which was constructed between 1958 and 1970, created Komani Lake.  One of Enver Hoxha’s showpiece engineering works, the dam was built to supply water to the hydroelectric power station just downstream of the dam site.  When the lake filled, it flooded 15 villages, each of which had between 150 and 200 people, and the old city of Kukës, which was relocated and rebuilt from scratch on higher ground.  Apparently, the residents of Kukës and the flooded villages were all provided with new housing for free, but that didn’t mean they were thrilled to see their ancestral villages flooded.

At its deepest point, near the dam wall, Komani Lake is 163 metres deep.  The lake is indeed beautiful, although whether it merited the claims made about it in the online reviews is perhaps debatable.  Most of the area of the lake is steeply tilted limestone rock, so the appearance of the lake is indeed fjord-like, with steeply plunging valley sides.  It reminded me of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River as I witnessed them in 1982, before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.  Compared with the Three Gorges, I felt that Komani Lake was less grand in scale, but contained more variety.

Our group size of four expanded suddenly when a large tour bus arrived at the boat ramp and disgorged a group of some 45 Belgian tourists.  The trip on our small boat was going to be less intimate, and considerably more crowded, than we had first thought.

As we left the boat ramp to begin the journey upstream, we noticed a large cave in the limestone rock with a statue of the Virgin Mary positioned on a ledge near the top.  We learned that this part of Albania is uniquely all Catholic, and the cave was used during the Communist era when religion was illegal for underground worship (please excuse the pun).  Access to the cave was made impossible, except by boat, when the lake formed, so ironically, the cave is no longer used for worship even though such worship is now quite legal and widely practised.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s sunny weather had disappeared overnight, and we had fairly solid cloud coverage all day today.  This probably detracted a little from the scenery, but it still looked great.  We were treated to a passing parade of steep slopes, frequent evidence of rockslides and landslips, interspersed with isolated farming houses.

At one point, we passed an island in the middle of the lake, marked by a white cross.  This was “Peace Island” (formerly Peace Peak before the valley was flooded), marking an agreement to end a long-standing, often violent dispute over territory between two villages that faced each other across the river — Berishë to the east and Kllogjen to the west.

A little to the north of Peace Island, we turned into a smaller tributary section of the lake that was formerly the Shala River (‘Shala’ meaning ‘washes away sins’).  The water quickly became a beautiful, bright turquoise colour, the result of fine, powdery silt washing into the lake from the surrounding mountains.  Our boat stopped at a small farmhouse at Nanplep owned by the family that owned the boat.  This was the only house in the area, but despite its isolation they provided a wonderful lunch for the visitors, comprising only ingredients they had grown themselves.

After lunch, there was an opportunity to explore the farming fields and the surrounding area, a somewhat risky enterprise given the steep hills and narrow pathways of loose soil that traversed them.

At 1:45pm, it was time to take the return journey back to the boat ramp at Komani Dam, and then the minivan back to Shkodër.  The clouds grew darker and, at a little after 4:00pm, the rain that had been forecast began to fall in earnest.  It didn’t matter; we had enjoyed a great day of seeing rural Albania, meeting some great fellow-travellers, and participating in the allegedly ‘best boat trip in the world’.

Not a bad day’s work!

Day 3 - Komani Lake, Albania

Wednesday 1 June 2016