When Catherine Bohne was a child, she took a ferry ride at sunrise from Italy to Corfu with her family. The boat slowly slid past a quiet green coastline, thick with forests and seemingly uninhabited.
“I was standing there, clutching the railing with my nose peeking over,” says Bohne, “and I said to my father, ‘What is that? What is that place?’ And he said ‘That’s Albania. No one can go there.’”
Bohne remembers the overwhelming urge she felt in that moment to leap out of the boat and swim to the mystical and forbidden land across the sea.
She wouldn’t arrive until much later, when a series of fortunate events in 2009 led her from New York City to the hard-to-reach north of Albania, where the Accursed Mountains unfurl in a splendid vista of untouched nature.
The Albanian Alps sprawl across four villages and many farms, and include Valbona National Park, which takes its name from the cold turquoise river that cuts through and the small village on its banks. With thick woods, burbling clear brooks, and rambling mountain passes, the area is an exhilarating place for hiking. It’s one of the last wild mountain ranges in Europe, tucked between the border mountains of Kosovo and Montenegro. Days on the nealy 125 miles of roughly marked trails can take you to the giddy heights of Valbona’s mountain peaks or over to the town of Theth and its Blood Feud Tower.
Albania was inaccessible through much of the 20th century due to its isolationist Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Cut off from the capitalist west as well as their seemingly natural allies in the USSR, Yugoslavia, and China, Albania became one of the poorest and most closed-off countries in the Europe. Hoxha died in 1985 and Communism collapsed in Albania by the end of 1990, but this led to a period of predatory capitalism and pyramid schemes that kept Albania impoverished, unsafe, and unsavory for tourists.
Now, the beaches on the southern coast are a popular draw for people seeking the beauty of a Greek island and the low prices of Eastern Europe. But the mountains in the north continue to tempt adventurous hikers who are willing to make the journey there.
Though Valbona Valley National Park officially became a protected area in 1996, the lack of significant resources, budget, or staff left a void that was filled by locals based out of Rilindja, a wooden guest house perched near the trickling river that was opened in 2009—and by Catherine Bohne, who met Rilindja founder Alfred Selimaj on her first journey to Valbona that same year. The group created their own tourist infrastructure, printing maps, marking trails, updating an informational website, establishing a mountain search-and-rescue team, and setting up a center in the town of Bajram Curri where locals can sell their goods.
“We’re really trying to push tourism into benefitting everybody,” says Bohne. “If you’re dependent on 29 euro a month, then making 25 euro selling some raki doubles your income.”
The area is not easy to access. The options from the capital city of Tirana include long bus journeys that can cut through neighboring Kosovo, or a shorter bus ride 3+ hours north on winding roads to the shores of Lake Koman, which is crossed on a hypnotizingly slow ferry through sloping craggy mountains.
But Valbona’s isolation contributes to the lingering feeling that this is a place removed from time.
“Legends and Albanian folklore have been transmitted generation to generation, and all the legends happened in those mountains,” says Rea Nepravishta, an Albanian activist. “In our collective imagination as Albanians, when we speak about those mountains, they’re the place where most of our stories come from.”
Hiking through the mountains, you might pass through family farmlands, meet weathered Albanian men carrying scythes, or find yourself completely alone with only the rustle and chirp of nature to fill the quiet. The long-distance hikes are still occasionally the most efficient way to travel between villages—though Valbona to Theth takes roughly six hours of hiking through complicated mountain routes, driving between the two still take 10 hours. Day hikes can lead to lookout points on mountain peaks that seem to scrape the sky, or cold calm lakes surrounded by the soft hum of bumblebees.
But the region’s wild habitat is under threat. Controversial hydroelectric dam projects threaten to spoil the mountains’ pristine nature. And an NGO called TOKA (The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps), led by Bohne, is trying to stop it.
“We started fighting the hydropowers in January 2016,” soon after the plans became known in the villages, says Bohne. The initial 14 hydropower plants include 8 that would be completely inside Valbona National Park, and the project as a whole threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of the local ecosystem.
The scope of the project wasn’t initially clear, but the threat was obvious right away.
“We had to get more information and make sure local people were talking to each other and getting information. And if as a community we were opposed to it, then we could fight.” Bohne enlisted locals and Albanian organizations to help suss out the plans for the hydropower companies, searching for the company’s name in Albania’s online business registry. After sending off a formal information request letter to the Ministry of Energy, Bohne received a package from them.
“I looked at it and thought ugh, a whole CD full of legal documents in Albanian… I’ll look at it tomorrow,” Bohne remembers. But that morning, a person who worked for the administration of the national park showed up at her door in a panic about the huge hydropower that was being built—one Bohne hadn’t heard of.
“I said, that’s not the one they’re building, the one they’re building is a little thing. He said, no, this is another one they’re building, it’s being built by Dragobia Energy.” Bohne realized that the package sitting unopened in her house contained the plans for a dam built by that exact company. They had inadvertently requested the plans for a separate company building a heretofore secret hydropower plant.
Bohne and her associates kicked into gear. “We started TOKA, we got support from the World Wildlife Fund, it took us 11 months to find a lawyer who was willing to fight it…It was hard to find a lawyer who was both competent and willing to stand up to the developer, who is one of the richest in Albania. But we did.”
Next came the attempts to navigate the complicated Albanian laws and justice system. “If you want to go to court about something in Albania, your organization has to have in their mission statement that the thing that you’re going to court about is the thing that you concern yourselves with. It says in TOKA’s mission statement that we promote and protect the economic, environmental, and societal interests of the Albanian Alps. Because that’s our statement, we are eligible to make lawsuits about hydropower because we’re protecting the environment.”
Valbona is worth fighting for—not just for the local villagers, but for all Albanians. “When you say Valbona is being destroyed, it touches some kind of feeling in people,” says the activist Nepravishta. “The mountains are wild, and they are some of the few wild mountains left in Albania and in Europe, so people really get angry.”
“All of the legends and poetry of Albania come from the North, and a lot of them from Valbona, so it’s an incredibly important river and valley to Albanians,” says Bohne. “It’s kind of the Shangri-La of Albania. A lot of people couldn’t get here, they themselves haven’t been, maybe before it was scary to come here, but they knew it was up here somewhere, and this is where the fairies and the spirits and the legends and the poetry are. It’s a magical place.”
Protests and demonstrations have been organized by TOKA and other activists to draw attention to the plight of Valbona, including an art protest in May in Tirana called “I AM VALBONA” and a spontaneous demonstration by villagers that blocked the main road into the valley in mid-June. Though a court has ordered that the hydropower construction stop, activists say the building continues and TOKA continues to fight it.
“This phase of the fight, for Albanians, is about this place of theirs that is being threatened. It is a very emotional part of the fight,” says Bohne.
In the wild quiet of the Valbona Valley, heavy with the old magic of Albanian myths, the sharply cold Valbona River cuts through like a turquoise ribbon. Hiking along its banks bursting with wildflower blooms, it’s easy for the legal fights between NGOs and hydropower dams to feel far away. But it also is a reminder that protecting and preserving this splendid natural world is important, and urgent.
“We have to win this,” says Bohne. “The people here are so good, and their wants are modest. They see what they have. The thing that all of the tourists fall in love with… they know what they have. They know that it’s beautiful. They just need to get these private economic monsters off their backs. I do believe we’re going to win.”
“And when the people here win something, anything could happen.”