Discovering Albania’s Timeless Vjosa River
“Farmers here are the caretakers of culture,” said Ms. Bejo, who acts as Albanik’s gardener, concierge, yoga instructor and hiking guide. “It’s important that the families with endurance — those who stayed in the valley instead of leaving — are shown appreciation as the economy shifts to tourism.”
My initial hike was a moderate one up to the spring-fed, 65-foot Sopoti Waterfall. The next trek was an hour’s walk south of Permet to the 18th-century Orthodox St. Mary’s Church in the hillside settlement of Leusa. The three-nave, stone-and-brick church, which has an intricately carved wooden iconostasis, is awash with frescoes and murals.
I then met Ms. Bejo, who guided me into the narrow Lengarica Canyon, which cradles the Lengarica River, a Vjosa tributary, and a series of hot springs near the village of Benja. We walked past the Ottoman-era Katiu Bridge that frames the largest of the thermal baths, already crowded. We ambled upstream, in knee-deep water, to more secluded pools. Each of the six sulfur baths has a specific medical benefit. We chose the one for rheumatism and relaxed as a rain shower passed over.
The next day, we made a 45-minute scramble from the riverside town of Kelcyra to the unmarked remains of a 2,400-year-old Illyrian fortress on a ridge overlooking the Vjosa. Hundreds of feet below the ruins, a tour of kayakers — orange boats and red helmets against electric-teal water — paddled through the Kelcyra Gorge. From this strategic vantage, ancient residents once communicated with smoke signals to other outposts, warning of invaders: Greeks, Macedonians, Romans.
Between treks, we walked to villages to visit families who work with Ms. Bejo. In Gostivisht, Flora and Krenar Sali have 150 beehives making honey from mountain flowers called Bedunica. In the village of Peshtan, below the nearly 6,000-foot Mount Golikut, we met Mira Muka, who runs the Bujtina Peshtan guesthouse and camp site. She showed us her collection of weapons from the Vjosa’s Italian-Greek frontline during World War II. “About 10 years ago, 15 people stopped here,” she said. “This year, it will be 1,500. The Vjosa gives us everything: people, fish, water. It is our past and future.”