Skip to content

Cookies 🍪

This site uses cookies that need consent.

Learn more

Zur Powderguide-Startseite Zur Powderguide-Startseite

Language selection

Search PowderGuide

adventure & travel

Ski touring vacation in Albania and Kosovo

A winter trip through Albania and Kosovo

by Lea Hartl 02/08/2012
Catherine has a stuffed wolf in her living room. Alfred had to shoot him because he was sneaking around the house too often and had probably realized that rabbits make better hooks than dustbins. Catherine would like a dog, preferably a puppy. Alfred doesn't want a dog because sooner or later the wolves would eat him. The compromise is a self-confident rabbit that is not allowed outside and gets on very well with the stuffed wolf.

Catherine has a stuffed wolf in her living room. Alfred had to shoot it because it was sneaking around the house too often and had probably realized that rabbits make better hooks than dustbins. Catherine would like a dog, preferably a puppy. Alfred doesn't want a dog because sooner or later the wolves would eat him. The compromise is a self-confident rabbit that is not allowed outside and gets on very well with the stuffed wolf.

Catherine often went to Italy with her parents as a child. They sailed in the Adriatic and when Catherine asked what that was over there, that coast in the east, so dark and without any friendly lights like in Italy, they told her "That's Albania. No one is allowed to go there."

In 2011, the backpack romantics at Lonely Planet declared Albania the destination of the year, because of its dream beaches, exciting capital and the hint of adventure that still exists. Tourists have long been sunbathing on the Albanian Riviera, kayaking in turquoise-blue rivers and hiking through untouched nature. Foreign guests come almost exclusively in the summer and especially to the traditionally cosmopolitan, Mediterranean-influenced south of the country.

Catherine and Alfred, on the other hand, live in the north, in the Valbona Valley in the Albanian Alps. The mountains here are rugged, the climate is harsh in winter and the power supply is unreliable. Gent Mati, who organizes outdoor trips throughout the country from Tirana, had recommended the area to us as a ski tour destination and made sure that we didn't get lost on the way to Valbona. We are staying at just under 1000 m above sea level in the highest accommodation in the valley, the Fusha e Gjes, a kind of wooden chalet that accommodates hikers in summer and usually no one in winter. A little way up the valley is a tiny deserted village of gray stone houses, down the valley an inhabited one. There is a bar, a school, no store and various communist concrete ruins. The road is washed away by the river every few years and is almost impossible to negotiate in winter without an off-road vehicle and snow chains. Catherine came here for the first time three years ago.

She had a bookshop in Brooklyn next to a wine store, they often received opened bottles as gifts after closing time and Catherine spent her nights comforting lovelorn book sellers. After the September 11 attacks, the store became a collection point for relief supplies for a while and Catherine served coffee to firefighters and volunteers. The many years without a vacation, the money worries, the hustle and bustle of the city - at some point it was all too much and she took some time out. With the miles she had accumulated, she flew to the mysterious land without lights, where anyone who wanted to was now allowed to go. In the mountains, she found Alfred, whose family has been rooted in the Valbona Valley for many generations and who was one of the first to take tourists hiking and open a small guesthouse. He had a young, beautiful laugh and pitch-black eyes and Catherine stayed. She gave away the bookshop and has been living with him in Valbona for two years, sometimes with electricity, sometimes without, but recently with a cell phone network. The mountains enclose the valley rather than frame it.

We have come in the dark and the days are sinking behind a curtain of snowFlurry. Fragments of the landscape appear between endless billowing clouds. Where we thought there was sky, there is mountain. The less you can see, the longer the climbs in the dense forest seem. We are a long way from what the ski tour guides in the Alps like to call ideal skiing terrain. You have to climb a good 800 meters before you reach the tree line and open slopes. At first glance, rocky ledges seem to block the way up. Frustratingly slowly, we wind our way up the flat hairpin bends of a forest road. The heavy, wet flakes collect on backpacks and in hoods and work their way through Gore-Tex membranes.

The road ends and we climb on through dense deciduous forest. Many trees bear dates, 1985, 1986, and the initials of bored soldiers who guarded Albania's borders on hard, hungry marches for an increasingly paranoid dictator. People here say that Hoxha could have built a road in any remote valley with the concrete from his bunkers. Ghent has astonishingly accurate old secret service maps; where they didn't know their way around, they were artfully hatched to fit the overall picture. We walk a little way down the valley, climb over many fences and ascend into a side valley. Just under an hour's walk above Valbona lies Kukaj, a small farmstead with a few disgruntled horses standing in the snow in front of it. Ghent had told us to say hello to the family here and also told us how to do it in Albanian. Of course, no one noticed and we had to resort to grinning helplessly at the skeptical-looking children in front of the house. Kellie, the American in the group who enjoys contact, bravely breaks the ice: "Okay?" the children nod, "Yes yes, okay!"

Mother and father appear and talk to us, it takes a while before we understand that we are being invited in for Turkish coffee and freshly baked bread. A holey wood-burning stove smokes in the low living room. The conversation slowly gets going. Father Dahir, 44, bushy black moustache, mottled gray hair, explains knowingly: "Montanista." We confirm, "Yes, Montanista Ski!" Have we already been to the highest mountain in the area and the country? "Jezerca?" No? Then the Montanista can't be that far off. Kellie uses her iPhone to communicate and shows us photos of her home in Alaska. As we set off, Fadlum, 13, and Florian, 10, show us their skis: lovingly shaped wooden slats with a binding made of adhesive tape, perfect for slipping into with rubber boots. Motivated, they march ahead of us up the valley, always concerned about our well-being: "Okay? Tired? Okay?" "Not tired! Okay!"

At some point, the wooden skis reach their limits and we leave the children behind us. We make it to Montenegro, a windy, uncomfortable ridge forms the border. Kellie wants a photo of herself pointing at Montenegrin clouds. There are no ski tours in Alaska where you can cross national borders. On the way back, we meet Dahir in the dusky, snow-covered forest. He is hunting hares with an old shotgun made in Russia and his two dogs and, apart from his Lady Gaga ringtone, seems to have stepped out of a public television drama about poachers in the 19th century. We leave the children chocolate and wax for their skis and think of discarded equipment that is gathering dust in our cellars and would be a lot of fun here.

More photos in the gallery

Winter sports in Kosovo

As usual on such trips, the day we leave is the first really sunny one. Wistfully cramming our ski luggage into an old Land Rover Defender, we make our way to the nearest ski resort: Brezovica in Kosovo. Thanks to the new highway, it takes four hours to get there from Tirana. Albania, a country without ski resorts, is outsourcing its ski culture to neighboring countries.Brezovica is located around 20 kilometers east of Prizren as the crow flies, in a Serbian enclave near the Macedonian border.

The lifts and pistes are located above the village of Strpce in the eastern part of the Sar Mountains, a long mountain range that looks like a beached whale in a sea of fog from an airplane. If there hadn't been enough snow for the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo, they would have moved to Brezovica. The ski resort is completely overcrowded at weekends. The one or two running chairlifts groan under the onslaught. There are other similarly old and rickety lifts, but they are not running. Nobody knows for sure whether they are broken or whether they just don't feel like switching them on and staffing them. The entrance to the lift is a hive of colorful, chaotic activity. Numerous vendors have set up their range of cookies, coke, beer and chocolate on fruit crates, and you can also hire various pieces of equipment for sliding on snow - from skis to homemade sledges and small plastic bobsleds. Beginners struggle with the unfamiliar equipment and move downhill in long queues behind ski instructors or try, with little success, on their own. An astonishing number of astonishingly good skiers avoid the clusters of beginners. Children try to sneak past the lift staff and are relieved of a few coins before they are allowed to go up. Skiing is a popular sport.

From the highest point of the ski area, we walk along the ridge of the Whale, Macedonia to the left, Kosovo to the right. Open firn slopes beckon on one side, steep, rocky terrain on the other. We enjoy the sun, it's amazing what good visibility can do for your skiing ability. After the war, it didn't take long for the skiers to return. Today, Brezovica serves as a model for the rest of the country. The community around Strpce is traditionally Serbian, Albanians have always come here, people get along and understand each other. The Albanian bar sends hungry customers to the Serbian pizzeria next door, there have never been any problems and everyone is proud of that.

The only thing that hasn't worked out yet is the privatization. Serbian lifts on Kosovan soil, that's complicated, the bureaucracy is stalling. Investors are urgently needed to renovate the ailing facilities, perhaps even to expand them. Where old ski associations and their officials are failing, freeriders and new schoolers are fighting for their ski area. They have founded an association, Scardus, as their mountains were called in ancient times, and are campaigning for reconciliation, environmental protection and the young extreme sports scene. Luli is neither young nor particularly extreme. Nevertheless, he is a big name at Scardus and in Brezociva. He pushes a considerable belly in front of him, his skin is gray from a long life of smoking, his white beard yellowish. We meet him in Braca, a cozy Serbian pub. Scardus invites the foreign guests to eat and Luli pours schnapps, the mood is buoyed by the snow and sun. Photos and videos are shown and everyone speaks the same language, at least when it comes to sport.

After a few days we have to go back to Prishtina, the plane leaves for home tomorrow. Luli comes by as we are loading the Landrover and wishes us a safe journey. We promise to eat at his restaurant in the city in the evening and he jumps on his skidoo with satisfaction and speeds off with a roaring two-stroke engine.

Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, with over half a million inhabitants, half of whom are under 25 and 40% of whom live below the poverty line, is a beautiful, ugly city. A couple of the Scardus boys have come along to show us the pedestrian zone, which is buzzing with street cafés in summer, with chic bars and clubs sprouting up from the concrete on every corner and in every other backyard. Luli's restaurant, Tiffanys, is not, as expected, a kind of dive for greasy spoons, but one of Pristina's top addresses with top-class, traditional cuisine. Politicians and diplomats come to socialize, the expat community present is surprised at our colourful group and asks what we are doing here. They are delighted with the answer: tourists without a political agenda who want to get to know this country and its wonderful people - that's what Kosovo needs. We should definitely advertise! After Tiffany's, the night in Prishtina begins. Our friends from Scardus are well known in the local clubs and as they wear muddy snowboard clothes, it doesn't matter that we don't fit in with the leather jacket and stiletto image. With every hour after midnight, the venues get darker, the music louder and more bass-heavy. The future of Kosovo dances around us in flashes of strobe light. Yes, of course we will advertise.

More photos from Kosovo in the Gallery

Interesting links

Gent Mati, Outdoor Albania

Catherine and Alfred's Hotel in Valbona Valley and information about the region

Brezovica Ski Resort

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

Show original (German)