Monthly Archives: September 2013

Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 2

Fushe-Studën on a sunny day in late August. You can just see Hotel Hasa in the centre of the shot, more or less

Fushe-Studën on a sunny day in late August. You can just see Hotel Hasa in the centre of the shot, more or less

My last post covered the first day of my brief stay at the village of Fushe-Studën, on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park to the north of Librazhd. This time I’ll tick off Day Two, which involved a lot of faffing about in the mountains, and an awful lot of raki.

And this time I’ll add a gallery of photos, which you can see here.

Anyway, picking up where I left off…

The bed at Hotel Hasa turned out to be extremely comfortable, or maybe I was just tired. Anyway, I woke up early and was out the door by seven. After a quick espresso I strode off manfully down the road, much to the amusement of the inevitable bunch of languid Albanian men at Hasa’s café, who found my combo of khaki shorts, skinny pale legs and bulky Salomon boots a cause for merriment.

Not much happens in Fushe-Studën.

Enver Hoxha

Enver Hoxha

Anyway, the plan was to find the track taken by Brig “Trotsky” Davies and Enver Hoxha after they crossed the Diber-Librazhd road on Christmas Day 1943. Hoxha, whose chronology and geography is slightly dodgy, wrote in The Anglo-American Threat to Albania

We crossed the Librazhd-Dibra road at Studa Flat and began the climb up Letëm Mountain. Night fell when we were in the forest on Letëm Mountain where we slept huddled together. We and the British had one tent. They ate chocolate and biscuits while we ate maize bread, a morsel of cheese and an onion, but even those supplies we had were running out. They drank whisky to warm themselves up; we melted snow and drank water to quench our thirst.

The following day we moved in the direction of Qarrishta. Another long march through the snow and the biting north wind. During the march I frequently gave a word of encouragement to the General who was red in the face and from time to time took out a small flask to drink a mouthful of whisky. At no time was he generous enough to say:

«Have a mouthful to warm yourself up, Mr. Hoxha!» He and his colonel were continually munching chocolate. By way of a joke I said to him: «Don’t eat it all at once, General, because nobody knows how long the partisans’ road may be. See, we don’t eat on the march.» In fact we had nothing to eat. When we reached the forest of Qarrishta, the vanguard informed us that we could go no further towards Çermenika e Vogël in the direction of Mokra or towards Bërzeshta, because reaction was extremely strong there. The Ballist çetas of Aziz Biçaku and others were on the alert and had blocked all the roads, passes and tracks. We had no option but to turn back towards Okshtun.

(Hoxha has a real bugbear about Davies’ meanness. I used to assume it was nonsense, like so much else he wrote, but discovered recently that the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha described Davies as a “Uriah Heap” in his unpublished memoirs, so who knows. The British officers munching chocolate thing is a recurring obsession of Hoxha, however. He has Billy McLean doing it all the time, and McLean didn’t even like chocolate…)

Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, wrote in his diary at the time (which sadly I’m not allowed to quote from due to the Imperial War Museum’s scary legal team) that the party was spotted as it crossed the road and came under fire about halfway up a ‘saddle’ in the mountains to the east. They took a sharp right off the track to avoid ambush, scrambling up the mountainside, finishing up almost on their hands and knees. On top of the mountain, as dusk fell, they found themselves in ‘terrible’ crater-pocked terrain, with no sign of a track. They spend a freezing night above the village of Khorishte, and in the early hours are told they will have to go back the way they came due to a heavy German and Ballist (anti-communist) presence.

Looking back on Fushe-Studën. Davies' party would have arrived from Okshtun on the ridge centre right

Looking back on Fushe-Studën. Davies’ party would have arrived from Okshtun on the ridge centre right

Being an optimistic chap I assumed I would simply walk up the track, hook a right at a likely point, skip to the top of the mountain and find myself in crater-land. So naive.

It took me the best part of two hours to find the track. Although you can clearly make it out from the ridge on the other side of the valley, finding where it starts is another matter entirely. Eventually a bemused chap with a large hunting rifle pointed me in the right direction. Once on the track, which supposedly twists over the mountains from Fushe-Studën to the village of Quarrishte, it’s hard to go wrong. At least till the track ends, randomly, about an hour’s walk uphill. I tried pushing my way through the bushes but decided I really needed a machete, a pair of long trousers and a local guide – I’m sure the track continued further ahead but the chances of my finding it were roughly nil. Trouble is, no one uses these tracks any more and they have a disconcerting habit of tapering out without warning. I really didn’t want to spend the next week wandering lost in the forest.

This I think, is as far as Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies, Enver Hoxha et al got before coming under fire

This I think, is as far as Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Enver Hoxha et al got before coming under fire

I wasn’t too concerned as I was convinced by then that I had found where the “ambush”, such as it was, happened. I doubled back and investigated more thoroughly. A rocky gully, with plenty of cover, and a clear line of fire to an exposed stretch of the track. If I was in charge of a team of nervous Ballists trying to prevent anyone breaking out of the German encirclement, I’d sit tight here. A few men with rifles could hold off a superior force with relative ease.

I walked back down the track a hundred yards or so and, lo and behold, there was a perfect escape route going up the mountain side. Steep, but do-able. I headed up figuring that to find my way back I just had to walk downhill till I hit the path. It was tough going, and got a lot steeper. Too steep for me, and surely too steep for Davies and the others, who were by then in a very sorry state and at the limits of their endurance.

The mysterious earthworks that ring the mountain top

The mysterious earthworks that ring the mountain top

I hooked left and skirted the side of the mountain, soon finding a very faint path heading up through the trees. I took it, and climbed higher till I came across some inexplicable earthworks – a horizontal path, or what I thought might even be a primitive acquaduct, that appeared to sit just below the summit. I walked it for about an hour – it led round to the other side of the mountain, facing Macedonia, where its purpose became clear. It was a defensive structure, almost certainly from the communist period when Hoxha spent most of Albania’s limited wealth building bunkers and fortifications against an invasion that never came.

It got pretty overgrown here, so I walked back to where I joined it, and decided to scramble up to the top of the mountain. Only about 100 yards or so, but tough going. And, dammit, no craters. My legs were pretty badly scratched up by this stage, and I didn’t fancy pushing on through the undergrowth. It was also well into the afternoon and the thought of getting caught on the mountainside in fading light wasn’t attractive, particularly when I was finding poo like this –

Evidence that bears really do crap in the woods. There's nothing to give a sense of scale here - take it from me, it was one big poo

Evidence that bears really do crap in the woods. There’s nothing to give a sense of scale here – take it from me, it was one big poo

So I began the descent back to Fushe-Studën.

It felt like a day of achievement, so I decided to stop for a beer at a roadside shack-cum-car-repair-spot. The owner of the shack was delighted to have a customer, particularly an English one, so sat with me. He spoke no English, I spoke no Albanian beyond the booze-and-food-related vitals. After a beer, my new friend suggested a raki, from his hip flask – “Special raki!” It would have been dull not to. Soon the hip flask was empty and a fresh supply was produced from inside the shack. Weirdly by this stage either my Albanian had improved dramatically or Arian (for that was his name) had miraculously managed to learn English. Either way, we were communicating pretty effectively. Such is the power of raki.

Arian's 'special' raki went quickly so we moved on to the normal stuff...

Arian’s ‘special’ raki went quickly so we moved on to the normal stuff…

As the presence of a foreigner is big news in these parts, we had been joined by an assortment of local types, all eager to know what the hell I was up to. At one point there must have been a dozen or so men of various ages gathered around Arian’s picnic table, one of whom was horrified to hear that I’d spent the day in the hills by myself “Orsa!” he said. “Lupo!”. To illustrate the point he bared his teeth and made claws with his fingers. I was pretty relaxed about bears and wolves at that stage, taking the view that a skinny Englishman isn’t a great delicacy; I’m slightly less sanguine now having discovered that no local will wander alone in the more remote parts of the Çermenika without serious artillery.

Eventually Arian and I decided it was time to eat. I offered to buy him fish at the Hasa Hotel which excited him greatly (“Peshk! Raki! Mere!” – “Fish! Raki! Good!”). We walked to his car, a VW Sharan which turned out to be a right-hander from the UK. Arian insisted that, as it was an English car, and I was an Englishman, I should drive. After a dozen or so glasses of raki this seemed like an excellent suggestion. So in we hopped and a course was set for the Hasa Hotel (about half a mile away, hard to miss seeing as there’s only one gravel road through Fushe-Studën). Arian had fitted a DVD player and killer sound system, with a small TV screen pretty much in the footwell. He put on a semi-pornographic Bulgarian pop video (all Bulgarian pop videos seem to be semi-pornographic), cranked up the volume, and wound the windows down to spread the joy.

We had a slight setback on arriving at the Hasa Hotel to discover that Hasa had gone to Durrës on business, so there was no fish or food. Luckily Arian had a back-up plan – mesh! Turned out there was a small shack selling char-grilled lamb back the way we’d came. More raki was drunk, and we were joined by a very nice mute who disappeared after ten minutes or so, soon to be joined by Arian. I found them outside, changing the from tyre on the VW. Seemed I had managed to run over a nasty stone and give it a puncture, and they had hoped to switch tyres without my noticing (they didn’t want me to feel guilty).

Caught in the act: Arian and the nice mute chap attempt to change the tyre I burst without my noticing

Caught in the act: Arian and the nice mute chap attempt to change the tyre I burst without my noticing

After filling up on truly excellent lamb, cheese, bread and salad, accompanied by Tirana beer and raki, to my dismay a bill was presented. I didn’t have the required funds (2,500 lek for the three of us, I seem to remember – it felt right to treat the tyre-changing mute to a feed), as I hadn’t anticipated any shopping opportunities in the hills and had taken only a few hundred lek. No matter, Arian, the mute and I jumped in the car and headed over to Hasa Hotel, where we had a beer (I tried to order more raki but was told that we needed beer to refresh).

The meat man and his grill

The meat man and his grill

Arian and the mute asked to see the food bill and had a small fit. Apparently the avuncular meat-griller had inflated the prices in honour of my Englishness. A crowd of local men gathered round and with great ceremony each price on the bill was crossed out and replaced with a lower figure. “Tourist price!” declared Arian, shaking his head angrily at the grill-man’s villainy. There was much tutting from the onlookers. The ceremony culminated with Arian tearing up the original bill and casting the pieces theatrically over his shoulder. In the end I think he took 1,500 lek off me to pay the poor chap on my behalf (about €11).

With much shaking of hands and declarations of undying raki-based friendship, Arian, the mute and I parted. The next morning I snuck onto the Librazhd minibus at 7am, wondering if in the cold light of day Arian might be less relaxed about my having burst one of his tyres…

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Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 1

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls' diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls’ diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

I’m told that regular posting is the essence of good blogging, so apologies for the protracted gap. My excuse is that since the last instalment I’ve visited most of the key spots on the route of next year’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, along the way being savaged by a pack of terrifying Albanian killer hounds. So I have a lot of catching up to do…

Let’s start with my first trip to a village called Fushe-Studën, to the north of Librazhd (remarkably it has a Facebook page).

Davies and his team, along with Enver Hoxha, arrived here on Christmas Day 1943, as they attempted to break out of German encirclement. The main Librazhd-Dibër road (currently gravel but due for asphalt within a year or three; current traffic about a dozen vehicles an hour) runs through the village and, frankly, there’s not a more exposed spot to cross for 20km in either direction. The Brits were not happy, according to the diary kept by Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, now held at the Imperial War Museum London. With good reason – the party was seen, and came under fire as they walked the trail up the mountains on the other side of the road. They went off-piste, and ended up spending a freezing night at an altitude of about 1,800 metres, before being forced to turn back the way they came. Two weeks later Davies was in the bag.

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a bit of an accommodation issue in the Çermenika region. Fushe-Studën, remarkably, has a hotel – Hotel Hasa (thanks to UNICEF honcho Detlef who blogs at Palm Tree Productions for tipping me off). So I decided to stay two nights. If the hotel was any good, I figured, it’d be an interesting option when the trek happens for real.

Well, the location isn’t bad – Fushe-Studën is right on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park, which stretches to the border with Macedonia to the east. The park is beautiful (pictures to follow in a few posts) and has forests in which lurk brown bears, grey wolves and the famously elusive European lynx. As for the hotel… Well, it was a mixed experience. The owner, the eponymous Hasa, is living the Albanian dream – he owns a gas station, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a hotel. It doesn’t get better than that. But he’s not going to be profiled in Condé Nast Traveller any time soon. The room itself was clean (though a trifle bizarre in layout and more than a trifle brown), the bathroom less so. In fact whatever had last been deposited in the loo had clearly tried to climb up the side of the pan in a forlorn effort to escape before finally losing its battle with the flush. A few spots of congealed dark yellow urine had been left on the seat as an artful flourish. Of hot water there was none.

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn't

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn’t

What there was, was a lot of puzzlement from the usual collection of espresso-and-raki drinking men in Hasa’s coffee bar as to what I, a tourist, was doing in Fushe-Studën. Luckily I had a rare Albanian copy of Davies’ memoir, Illyrian Venture, which brought some clarity to the situation. Raki was poured and the jokes began as to who was a communist and who a Ballist (Albanian nationalists, mostly liquidated after the war by Enver Hoxha). The idea of walking for pleasure, though, remains alien to 99.9% of Albanians.

But walk I did. It was afternoon by now, so rather than strike out into the hills I circled the village and tried to get a sense of the landscape and figure out where Davies et al would have arrived from, and where they would have headed. Now, this is where I got a little bit confused. My main source for pinning down the route, as well as the diary kept by Nicholls, is Enver Hoxha’s memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania. Hoxha, a city boy, did not know the Çermenika – in fact he apparently developed such an aversion to the area that he never visited again after he came to power. Some editions of Hoxha’s works include a map of the route. At the time of my visit I assumed the map was right, more or less. But when you walk around Fushe-Studën, it doesn’t make much sense.

This, I think, is the 'saddle' mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

This, I think, is the ‘saddle’ mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

The communist-era map has the group reaching the village from Okshtun (which I visited a couple of posts ago), then making an anti-clockwise circuit as far as the village of Qarrishtë, on the other side of a tributary of the Shkumbini river. The Brits have the group arriving at a ridge above Fushe-Studën and making for a ‘saddle’ in the hills opposite before heading over the highest part of the mountain. No river is mentioned, not that this means they didn’t cross one.

I’m 99% certain I stood on the same ridge as Davies. As far as I can see, there’s a shortlist of one, assuming you’ve arrived on the mule track from Okshtun. You can see the ‘saddle’ opposite. There’s even an old trail that leads up it (which I walked the following day). But the communist maps had the party striking off to the right (west, really), which would have them climbing the track over the hills behind the Hasa Hotel. The circuit would then have them re-crossing the road to the east.

Trouble with this is Nicholls’ diary says when they re-cross the road they were forced to climb an almost impossibly steep mountain. And the steep stuff is to the west of Fushe-Studën, not the east.

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You'll notice there's not a lot going on there

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You’ll notice there’s not a lot going on there

Does this really matter? Well, it does to me. Thankfully, I’ve since been lucky enough to spend some quality time with the unpublished memoirs of Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), a local partisan leader who was guiding the group. His beautifully rendered map has the group arriving at Fushe-Studën, and making a clockwise circuit. They never crossed the river; instead spending several freezing hours lost in the woods on the mountain that separates Fushe-Studën from the river. This ties in with the topography and the Nicholls diary. The simple explanation for the confusion is that Enver Hoxha’s memory was slightly dodgy after three decades of absolute power (he wrote The Anglo-American Threat in the Seventies).

Why didn’t Enver’s minions ask Kadri’s advice? Probably because he spent 40 or so years after the war in the slammer as a suspected British spy.

Anyway, with light fading and confusion reigning I headed back to the Hasa Hotel, looking forward to a big plate of mish (lamb), pilaf (rice) and një gotë verë të kuqe (a glass of red wine). “No mish,” Hasa told me quite definitely, after a bottle of red had been opened. “Peshk“. So peshk it was – turns out the Hasa Hotel’s redeeming feature are several large fish tanks fed by a fresh-water spring. Hasa’s wife produced a truly delicious fish supper that would make put a smile on any tired trekker’s face. With strict instructions on the importance of bathroom hygiene, and an enquiry into the hot water situation, the Hasa Hotel might just find its way onto the Endurance Vile Trail itinerary after all.

Delicious fresh fish - the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

Delicious fresh fish – the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

More on Fushe-Studën to follow…

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