Sunday, May 16, 2010


Great news today!  The road to Thethi has finally been opened. An unbelievable winter of snow has kept the village and valley of Thethi blocked up tighter than a ham sandwich in Mama Cass' windpipe. Newspapers across Albania have heralded the tidings that the valley is now open for tourists to explore this pristine corner of the Albanian Alps.  Yes!  We can finally gain access to all those Alpine peaks of unparalleld grandeur and Heidi-ish beauty.  Joy overwhelms the adventurous mountaineers of southeast Europe.

Yet, further south, small tears trickle down the faces of the "other" peaks of Albania.  How sad.  Remember how you felt when your big brother or sister monopolized the familial limelight with their superlatives?  "Oh look, Johnny has his first adult tooth!"  "Jenny got straight A's this semester!"  All the while your younger heart thought "Whoop-de-doo... what about me?"

I imagine that's the same way the mountains of southern Albania must feel about now.  The local press trumpets the opening of the Accursed Mountains like the second coming of Christ, but the southern peaks have been there all along.  Just as rugged.  Just as awe-inspiring.  But somehow neglected. 

In an effort to correct this monstrous injustice, I present the "Hirushjat (Cinderellas)" of Albanian peaks.  Often overshadowed by their more renowned siblings up north, these proud mountains deserve a little more respect and investigation. 

We begin with Tomorri. How could anyone overlook this majestic massif?  It sits in central Albania, to the east of Berat.  Rising out of the foothills and plateaus in glorious solitude.  No other peaks nearby to distract the eye.  Not part of a chain or a lesser peak on a sprawling ridge.  Tomorri stands proud more than 2000 meters higher than any other hill in the visible vicinity.  Majestic is the only way to describe it. 
          "Yes, I am all that."

Not only is Tomorri an impressive pile of dirt, it is a holy mountain.  A Bektashi teqqe sits on the southern shoulder of the massif which is the site of a pilgrimage at the end of August.  When I say pilgrimage, you probably have visions of the Hajj with devout Muslims circling the Kaaba or Lourdes with droves of crippled believers struggling up to find salvation and a cure.  On Tomorri, not so much.  During a one-week period, over 50,000 Bektashi believers ascend to the teqqe of Helvetive and conduct the proscribed rituals.  I've never been, but I have seen pictures and heard stories and as far as I know, these rituals involve killing and roasting a huge flock of lambs while drinking every last drop of raki in the vicinity. 
                                                Like this, only in vast quantities.

So it's tall, holy, easy on the eyes.  What else?  Well, it has its own myth.  Seems that eons ago, there were two giants who lived in the area: Tomorr and Shpirag.  They both fell desperately in love with a local maiden from Berat and began to quarrel over her.  (As you do)  Shpirag plucked boulders from the earth and heaved them at Tomorri while Tomorri slashed at Shpirag with his sword. 

You want some of this, Shpirag?

Tomorri's wounds were huge holes and Shpirag sustained deep slashes along his flanks. The two killed one another, fell to the ground and became the mountains that bear their names. The maiden, slightly upset that her suitors were now dead, cried herself to death and her tears became the river Osumi which flows to this day between Tomorri and Shpirag.  Ah, what a typically Albanian tale.  Love, conflict, and eventually everyone dies.  
                                                Damn! Shpirag, you been cut!

To add insult to injury, Enver Hoxha decided to have his name emblazoned on the hillside above Berat and chose Shpirag as the likely place as the "sword cuts" divided the mountain into equally spaced sections. 
                                             Like salt in the wounds.
The mayor of Berat pointed this graffiti out to the American Ambassador in 2000 and lamented that the government had tried everything to erase the hated name of Enver.  They covered the whitewashed stones with dirt, planted grass over the area, and even bombed the hillside with napalm.  To no avail.  Sadly, the mayor concluded, "We thought about changing the name of our city and adding a 'D' to the mountain so we could explain that the sign was the name of our town ... Denver!"

Further south, there is a peak which not only has to live under the shadow of its famous relative up north, it has to suffer the indignity of being overshadowed by a mere road.  Mali Cikes is nearly 2000 meters tall, rising on one side directly from the Ionian sea.  Its imposing ramparts were the first sight to greet Julius Caeser when he landed at Palassa in pursuit of Pompey during the Roman civil war. 
 You WILL remember me!

Does anyone care today?  No, they are too busy marvelling at the road which ascends Qafe Llogara and trying not to blow chow from the twisty ascent of this remarkable pass. They remember the five switchbacks.  They remember the flag pine.  They remember the paidhaqe.  The peak above?  What peak?
Hey!  Up here! I'm up here!

Finally, tucked away in the deep south of Albania is Mali Nemercke.  South of Permet and just north of the border with Greece, you can find the third highest peak in the country.  And what a peak it is!  From the west, it seems to be just another bump in the range of mountains across the valley from Gjirokaster - tall and snowcapped, but nothing special. 
                                                What a cute, tiny, snowcapped mountain.

Only when you travel to the other side in the valley of Permet do you realize what a treasure the peak is.  Why waste words when a picture says it all. 
                                                     Climb me.  You know you want to.

So, when you find your road to the Dinaric Alps blocked by snow, or if you want to get off the beaten track and see a little more of Albania, give pause to the neglected little sisters of Mali Jerzeces.  These peaks are easier to get to, are surrounded by history and architecture that spans the ages, and are just as impressive as their more famous elder siblings.  Like all younger brothers and sisters, they'll appreciate the unexpected attention and reward you with unforgettable memories.


Beyond Belief said...

Glad to have rewarded you with unforgettable memories. ;-)

xhasti said...

I was PC Albania 4 in Permet and always loved the bus ride to Korca because of that beautiful mountain valley all the way from Permet to Leskoviku. It's beautiful country down there. You're privileged to have seen it! Thanks so much for the pictures.

Justin Parmenter

M said...

Beautiful! Great writing, too.