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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More on Fushe-Studën to follow…