The rain is slowly clearing, and veils of fine mist drift across the landscape at the head of the Ropojana Valley. This mountain valley is tucked away in the remote border region where Montenegro and Albania meet.
I pass a white Land Rover belonging to the Montenegrin border police, parked at the end of a rough track in the lee of some low trees. But no one approaches to check my cross-border permit, and the mist sweeps back in, so I continue downhill slightly and strike out across the bed of a seasonal lake, which is now empty, despite all the rain — a level, elongated oval of particularly lush green grass, through which my soaked boots swish between the occasional click of walking poles against a hidden rock.
The route I am following is the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, an epic long-distance hiking route which weaves its course for a little under 200 kilometres through the Prokletije mountains — the jumbled sprawl of peaks and valleys which form the rugged borderlands between Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. Despite the daunting aspect of an evocative name (Prokletije, or Bjeshkët e Nemuna in Albanian, translates as ‘Accursed Mountains’ in English), it’s a spectacularly beautiful region, a landscape of jagged limestone summits, sinuous ridges and jaw-dropping rock faces, gently sloping high pastures and broad, steep-sided valleys connected by a succession of high passes, all peppered with a scattering of unspoilt villages and summer settlements.
I first visited Prokletije more than a dozen years ago, when the only people to be encountered hiking up the Ropojana Valley were a few children, their hands and smiling faces stained red from collecting berries. The lake was full then, though the weather was not much kinder. Since then the Montenegrin side of Prokletije has been declared a national park — the country’s fifth, and still its least visited — and the development of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail has prompted a steady increase in hikers to an area which was, until quite recently, pretty much off limits to foreigners.
Climbing steadily uphill from the Ropojana Valley, I pass a couple of low-roofed shelters at the edge of an area of rolling pasture, where shepherds spend the summer months while their flocks graze on the surrounding grasslands — a familiar sight when hiking through this part of the Balkans. Continuing up beside a ravine I pass the domed roof of a small concrete pillbox, poking up above the grass and lichencovered rocks — one of the half a million similar bunkers built all across Albania at the command of Enver Hoxha between the 1960s and 1980s. This refuge, designed to afford some protection in the event of invasion — but never tested — is now long abandoned, the empty eye of its loophole overlooking the silent sprawl of rock and scree below.