Discovering Albania’s Timeless Vjosa River

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A travel on confederate Albania’s Vjosa River, 1 of Europe’s past undammed waterways, means traversing a scenery that looks overmuch arsenic it has for centuries. Flowing from Greece’s northwestern borderline to the Adriatic Sea, the Vjosa rushes into container canyons and gorges formed by steep forests of maples, oaks and firs. Ancient chromatic bridges link its banks, spanning turquoise water. Sheep graze the vale floor, and vineyards, household farms, orchards and olive groves intermingle with fields of dandelions and reddish poppies.

Earlier this year, Albania took a captious measurement toward preserving this timelessness with the constitution of the Vjosa Wild River National Park, a first successful Europe, and a destination included connected this year’s 52 Places to Go list. The Albanian government, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, nongovernmental organizations from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, and the escapade apparel retailer Patagonia worked unneurotic to protect Albania’s 120-mile section of the stream and its main tributaries. (The 169-mile Vjosa’s root is successful Greece’s Pindus Mountains.) After years of protests against mining and dam projects, and enactment from Leonardo DiCaprio, the park’s designation was a victory.


In a vale  surrounded by greenish  mountains are workplace  fields, a town, and a constrictive  winding stream  of greenish  water. In the foreground are orangish  wildflowers.
The municipality of Permet, above, straddles a crook successful the Vjosa astir 20 miles from the Greek border. Permet’s erstwhile Ottoman commercialized halfway is becoming a hub for escapade travelers.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

“Our enactment for the Vjosa truly stepped up erstwhile we began partnering with the Albanian authorities successful 2021, to bash thing that hadn’t been done before,” said Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s main executive. According to Mr. Gellert, the program is for the parkland to beryllium fully operational, with a visitant halfway and staff, successful 2024.

For some locals and tourists, the park’s designation is simply a boon, if not a lifeline. Communities person depended connected the stream since earlier recorded history. And successful a state already renowned for its food, the Vjosa Valley’s terroir sets the barroom adjacent higher. Hearty fruits and vegetables, trout, upland honey, lamb, wine, veal, raki (brandy), cheeses and herbs are successful abundance — on with Balkan hospitality.

When I arrived successful precocious April, snowfall inactive covered the peaks supra the river. I’d travel to raft, hike and rhythm segments of the caller park, which, including Vjosa’s tributaries, safeguards astir 250 miles of stream and much than 31,000 acres: an ecosystem with astir 1,200 species, 15 of which are threatened. I was besides determination to larn astir tourism’s increasing influence.

“Ten years ago, everyone was moving distant from the villages,” Mirela Kumbaro, Albania’s Minister of Tourism and Environment, wrote successful an email. “Now we person much and much radical who, aft emigrating, are returning to their villages to unfastened guesthouses, agritourism and cultivation farms,” she wrote. “I spot the aboriginal of tourism arsenic affable with the environment, with radical who volition worth quality arsenic a priceless asset.”


The Vjosa River portion is attracting escapade travelers, including hiking, biking and rafting enthusiasts.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

The vale bustled with visitors erstwhile I made my archetypal halt successful the municipality of Permet, which straddles a crook successful the Vjosa astir 20 miles from the Greek border. The 2nd yearly Vjosa n’Fest, celebrating the river’s culture, was successful afloat plaything successful the erstwhile Ottoman commercialized center, called the “City of Roses,” that’s becoming an escapade hub. The festival’s lineup included philharmonic acts, guided hiking, horseback-riding, cycling and rafting.


The stream vale is known for its fertile fields and orchards. A roadside basal sells melons, onions and different nutrient connected a late-summer day.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

As evening fell, locals and foreigners successful outdoor cogwheel packed the streets, listening to the festival’s headlining ensemble: Sazet e Permetit. With each sultry opus — a blend of polyphonic voices, clarinets, violins and accordions — the assemblage locked arms to revel nether the stars.

The adjacent morning, aft a meal of accepted gliko — nuts oregon effect boiled successful sweetener h2o and stored successful syrup — and beardown stove-cooked coffee, I walked from my guesthouse to the main square’s riverside cafes and shops. Old men played dominoes successful beforehand of a nutrient stand. At the offices of Vjosa Explorer, a institution that leads raft tours, I reserved the last spot successful a raft of bleary-eyed festival goers.

We were awakened by the acold river, moving precocious with snowmelt, arsenic it snaked betwixt canyon walls. About halfway into the three-hour expedition, we pulled onto a pebbly beach. One of Vjosa Explorer’s owners, Irma Tako, waited connected the beach.


Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times


Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

“The archetypal clip I visited Western Europe and saw effect truthful shiny and perfect, I was ashamed of our disfigured effect successful Albania,” Ms. Tako said, passing retired apples. “Then I ate that shiny effect and realized it was tasteless. Our effect successful Albania is similar the state itself: not polished, but afloat of flavor.”

Behind us, 8,143-foot Maja e Papingut, the highest constituent successful the Nemercka Range, poked done wispy clouds. Locals telephone the upland by its mythical name: Maja e Drites oregon “Peak of Light.”

“I truly saw my state for the archetypal clip erstwhile I rafted the Vjosa,” Ms. Tako said, handing maine a cupful of upland beverage with linden flowers, sage, citrus and honey. “I’m frightened of wide tourism. I telephone Vjosa the queen, and the mountains are her crown. We indispensable amusement her, and her crown, respect.”


The Lengarica River, above, is simply a Vjosa tributary adjacent the colony of Benja. Thermal springs and an Ottoman span are among the highlights of the area.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

On an infrastructural level, Albania is not, arsenic Ms. Tako mentioned, polished. Where this country, particularly its distant interior, shines is with section guesthouses, section interactions (yes, judge that solid of raki), and unscripted discovery.

“Because we’re earthy hosts and person a varied geography — sea, mountains and rivers similar Vjosa — successful a tiny area, the state ever exceeds expectations,” Gent Mati, the laminitis of Outdoor Albania, which has led escapade tours since 1991, told maine implicit the phone.

This operation of hospitality and untapped imaginable makes the comparatively undiscovered Vjosa Valley intoxicating. It besides creates fertile conditions for overtourism.

Mass tourism and urbanization is simply a risk, said Andrej Sovinc, a protected country adept with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the enactment that classified the Vjosa arsenic a nationalist park. “To code this, we are processing a imaginativeness for sustainable tourism improvement successful and astir the Vjosa W.R.N.P. that puts section radical and the conservation of earthy and taste values astatine the focus.”


The municipality of Gjirokastra, which is adjacent 1 of the recently protected tributaries of the Vjosa River, is overlooked by a centuries-old chromatic castle.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

For the adjacent respective days, I stayed astatine Ferma Albanik, a family-run guesthouse whose owner, Elona Bejo, works with section farmers for ingredients she doesn’t turn herself.

“Farmers present are the caretakers of culture,” said Ms. Bejo, who acts arsenic Albanik’s gardener, concierge, yoga teacher and hiking guide. “It’s important that the families with endurance — those who stayed successful the vale alternatively of leaving — are shown appreciation arsenic the system shifts to tourism.”

My archetypal hike was a mean 1 up to the spring-fed, 65-foot Sopoti Waterfall. The adjacent trek was an hour’s locomotion southbound of Permet to the 18th-century Orthodox St. Mary’s Church successful the hillside colony of Leusa. The three-nave, stone-and-brick church, which has an intricately carved woody iconostasis, is awash with frescoes and murals.

I past met Ms. Bejo, who guided maine into the constrictive Lengarica Canyon, which cradles the Lengarica River, a Vjosa tributary, and a bid of blistery springs adjacent the colony of Benja. We walked past the Ottoman-era Katiu Bridge that frames the largest of the thermal baths, already crowded. We ambled upstream, successful knee-deep water, to much secluded pools. Each of the six sulfur baths has a circumstantial aesculapian benefit. We chose the 1 for rheumatism and relaxed arsenic a rainfall ablution passed over.

The adjacent day, we made a 45-minute scramble from the riverside municipality of Kelcyra to the unmarked remains of a 2,400-year-old Illyrian fortress connected a ridge overlooking the Vjosa. Hundreds of feet beneath the ruins, a circuit of kayakers — orangish boats and reddish helmets against electric-teal h2o — paddled done the Kelcyra Gorge. From this strategical vantage, past residents erstwhile communicated with fume signals to different outposts, informing of invaders: Greeks, Macedonians, Romans.

Between treks, we walked to villages to sojourn families who enactment with Ms. Bejo. In Gostivisht, Flora and Krenar Sali person 150 beehives making chromatic from upland flowers called Bedunica. In the colony of Peshtan, beneath the astir 6,000-foot Mount Golikut, we met Mira Muka, who runs the Bujtina Peshtan guesthouse and campy site. She showed america her postulation of weapons from the Vjosa’s Italian-Greek frontline during World War II. “About 10 years ago, 15 radical stopped here,” she said. “This year, it volition beryllium 1,500. The Vjosa gives america everything: people, fish, water. It is our past and future.”


Gjirokastra is simply a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its “architectural quality emblematic of the Ottoman period.”Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

For my past stretch, I hopped connected the country’s new, 675-mile UNESCO Cycling Route — portion of which rolls done the Vjosa basin to the river’s Adriatic terminus. My thrust (around 30 miles per time implicit 3 days) began successful Gjirokastra, a World Heritage Site inscribed for its “architectural quality emblematic of the Ottoman period.” The town’s slate-roofed buildings are dispersed on the Drinos River, 1 of the park’s recently protected tributaries.

The hometown of the writer Ismail Kadare and the dictator Enver Hoxha, “Stone City” buzzed with visitors roaming its 13th-century castle and its bazaar’s steep, cobbled streets. In beforehand of the GjiroArt Center, a cooperative of section artisans, I joined a radical drinking fire-roasted coffee. “Our thought successful Gjirokastra is to amusement traditions and hospitality matter,” 1 creator said, filling cups.

The way continued northbound on the Drinos, passing the 222-acre Archaeological Park of Antigonea, wherever chromatic blocks outline an past Greek city. The way followed a authorities roadworthy with rolling climbs and sweeping descents opening into valleys. Sheep glided crossed greenish pastures similar bleating clouds.


At Lord Byron Guest House successful Tepelena, the writer dined connected homemade pasta with olive lipid and garlic, a caller greenish salad, and grilled peppers and eggplant.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

In the metropolis of Tepelena, a 19th-century castle stood defender adjacent the confluence of the Drinos and Vjosa. I stopped astatine the Lord Byron Guest House, named for the English writer who visited the municipality successful 1809. In the courtyard, surrounded by effect trees, I sat down for luncheon made with ingredients grown connected the property’s farm: greenish salad, grilled peppers and eggplant, pasta with olive lipid and garlic.

From here, the way shifted backmost to the Vjosa, wherever solitude was breached by villages perched supra farmland. Families looked up from enactment to wave. The people yet took maine past different archaeological treasure, Byllis, and the remains of an Illyrian city.

“Vjosa’s large representation includes the environment, economical growth, and the equilibrium betwixt them,” said Rezarta Bare, a tourism advisor for the German Agency for International Cooperation successful Albania, which supported the UNESCO Cycling Route. “The existent story, though, is astir people. This region’s radical are lukewarm and kind, the epitome of confederate Albanian hospitality. The Vjosa speech is important due to the fact that it sheds airy connected the vulnerability of people, quality and civilization — each intertwined connected this untamed river.”


The Vjosa-Narta Protected Area, which covers astir 50,000 acres betwixt the Vjosa Delta and Narta Lagoon, is simply a captious migratory haven for birds.Credit...Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

The stream ended conscionable northbound of Vlora, the country’s 2nd largest coastal city, founded by Greeks 2,600 years ago. After wrestling postulation present astatine the opening of the Albanian Riviera, which is squeezed betwixt the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, I rode to the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area.

Covering astir 50,000 acres betwixt the Vjosa Delta and Narta Lagoon, the bayou-like expanse is eden for birders; with astir 200 species, including flamingoes, it’s a captious migratory habitat. It’s besides the halfway of a caller Vjosa controversy arsenic the authorities has begun constructing a caller airdrome wrong the protected zone.

Near the rima of the river, I pedaled past brackish flats to Katina Balaj, the Balaj Winery’s edifice and tasting room, and, with a solid of orangish wine, watched the prima settee implicit the delta.

“In biology protection, you person to triumph each time truthful erstwhile you yet person a triumph that is agelong lasting, specified arsenic the declaration of the Vjosa Wild River National Park, it’s important to intermission and consciousness a infinitesimal of hope,” Patagonia’s Ryan Gellert wrote successful an email aft I finished the journey. “It was an unthinkable infinitesimal for each of us, but we are wide eyed that the enactment truly starts here.”

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