I’m not normally the adventurous type, as you may have guessed from reading this blog, so the last few days have been particularly unusual for me. I’ve been off grid, unable to make calls, let alone get internet. I’m finally back on line, and I have some stories to tell. I’ve had to split this into two posts. You’ll have to wait tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!
After Tirana I stayed in the beautiful town of Berat, famous for its old houses that climb high up both sides of an idyllic valley, earning it the nickname ‘the town of a thousand windows’. The town is a pleasure to walk through, and the locals are very welcoming. In the evenings, the main street comes alive with something called a ‘giro’ – all the locals walk up and down the street, socialising and meeting with friends or family. At first I didn’t think much of this – it’s just people walking around – but I think this really shows up my culture. Albanians socialise by going for a walk – Brits socialise by getting so drunk we don’t remember anything the next day!
In the hills above the town lies a massive castle complex, with decadent old churches and mosques. When I arrived I saw only locals who live inside the castle walls, and hoped in vain that I was the only tourist up there. I wasn’t, of course, but the neighbourhood was pleasantly quiet and I was able to enjoy some of the views of the valleys, town, river and mountains for myself.
The real adventure began with an organised hike to a remote waterfall, arranged for us by Berat Backpackers hostel, led by crazy local Miri. This was quite a trek: An hour and a half on a bus and a furgon (a kind of large minivan) to the middle of nowhere, followed by an hour-long hike through the forests, to join a river and follow it upstream to the falls. It was hot; I was looking forward to reaching the water.
The path up the river led to a shallow pool beneath the waterfall. The water was cold, but we changed into bathing suits and lay about on the rocks. Concealed around the corner lay a deep pool surrounded by sheer rock. A path through the undergrowth allowed the intrepid to reach a point above this pool and plunge from a height into the ice cold waters. Having a long-time fear of heights, I had no intention of jumping, but after everyone else had a go I felt obliged. I was nervous as I navigated the foliage to reach the jumping spot. Vertigo really set in from the top – it must have been at least thirty feet. Determined to overcome my fear, I went for it. Sadly I didn’t get photographic evidence, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I wasn’t about to go again.
After lunch by the river and tasting of local rakia (a strong Balkan liquor), Miri and two others started to climb the steep gravel slope by the river, promising an even grander waterfall further upstream. Normally, I would stay with my feet firmly on the ground, but on this occasion I was up for an expedition. The first part of the ascent was easy; I just had to scramble up the slope on my hands and knees. The next part was a little more tricky, involving a slightly steeper climb around prickly buses, but with the help of a rope I reached the top. Even though I was trying not to look down I was getting a severe case of the nerves.
I had to sit and catch my breath for a while. Miri went back down to help one of the girls up, while the other two went on ahead. No wanting to get lost, I followed and caught up with them by the waterfall. The trip was worth it: the water cascaded brilliantly over layers of rock strata that had been eaten away by the torrent. The others had ventured still further uphill but I was content to sit on the rocks by the river and take in the scene.
I was not looking forward to the return journey. Going up is one thing because you can avoid looking down. I don’t think I was in any danger, but irrational fears have a tendency to drown out rational thoughts. I took a minute to take in the view from the top of the falls.