THETH – ALBANIA
Theth is located about 50 kilometers to the southern western side of Kopliku, at the head of the Shala river (See rivers in Albania). Theth is the name of the national park named after its largest settlement, the charming village of Thethi. The area was a tourist resort during (and, before) the communist period and its attractive, traditional features were accordingly maintained, while in other parts of highland Albania they were destroyed either on purpose or through neglect. Edith Durham visited Thethi in 1908 and described her stay there in her book High Albania. “Life at Thethi was of absorbing interest”, she wrote. “I forgot all about the rest of the world, and . . . there seemed no reason why I should ever return”. The modern visitors reaction is likely to be similar – Thethi seems to have changed little, except for it now has electricity, running water and western style toilets.
There are 200 houses scattered across the valley, although only a handful of families live there all the year round. Most people who have not left for good spend the winter in either Shkodra or Kopliku, and return to Thethi in May to work their fields; they leave again in October, after the harvest and before the harsh winter weather sets in. The houses are built of the local grey stone, and roofed with shingles (wooden tiles). They are designed to be easily defensible – these mountains were once the heart of blood feud territory and every family needed to be able to defend its menfolk against revenge. Of special interest is the “Lock-in-tower” the only one remaining of its kind which is easily accessible to visitors. The tower was used when a family was in blood – that is, when the family was involved in a vendetta. The men of the household locked themselves in and lived in the tower until some other unfortunate relative had been killed or the blood feud had been reconciled. Women were not in danger of being killed in a blood feud, which is just as well since the men would otherwise have had nothing to eat.
The village of Thethi is predominately Catholic, the area is so remote that the Ottomans left it largely to its own devices and the villagers had no reason to convert to Islam. The shingled church, in the center of the main village, was there when Edith Durham stayed in Thethi (it dates from 1892). There are several other traditional buildings which can be visited during a day trip. A longer stay in Thethi will allow you to explore further afield and see the many beautiful natural phenomena in the park, there are also many longer treks for the fit and well equipped, including the popular hike across the Valbona pass to Tropoja.
Getting to Thethi
The main road to Thethi, form Kopliku, goes through the villages of Dedaj (the administrative center of the Shkreli commune, with a couple of nice cafes and a tourist information office) and Boga which was photographed by Marubi in the late 19 century, and looks almost identical today. The photograph is on display at the Phototheque in Shkodra, it is a lovely photograph in its own right, but it is even more interesting once you have seen the real thing.
After Boga, the road begins to climb. It is not asphalted as far as the main settlement in Thethi, although this does not make the gradients any easier. A series of increasingly steep and alarming hairpin beds up to Qafa e Terthores or “Twisting Pass” (1.630 meters), is followed by no less hairpin bends descending towards Thethi. A 4×4 vehicle is preferable although in summer, the trip can be made with caution and in dry weather in any car. The views on the way are outstanding on a clear day, with the forbidding peaks of the Accursed Mountains ahead and the valley of the Dry Burn behind. As you get higher, you can see peaceful Alpine meadows here and there. There is a memorial to Edith Durham at the pass.
There are several ways to tackle this journey if you do not have your own vehicle, the most comfortable and most expensive option is to hire a jeep with a driver in Shkodra. Your accommodation in Shkodra may be able to help you to contact an experienced driver with a reliable 4×4. You should expect to pay about 100 Euros for the return trip to Thethi, plus the driver’s food and – if an overnight stay is involved – his accommodation there. The journey in a 4×4 vehicle should take no more than 3 hours each way, which makes a day trip to Thethi possible if you do not have time to stay over night.
In the summer, a mini bus runs up to Thethi from Rus Maxhar, in the northern outskirts of Shkodra. It is supposed to leave at around 7.00 although there is no guarantee that it will operate every day; the fare is 5 Euros is way. The Thethi bus driver will sometimes collect foreign tourists from their hotels, ask the receptionist at your hotel. The taxi drivers in Shkodra are usually quite reluctant to go to Thethi, because they are worried that their cars will be damaged. You might have better luck with a taxi driver in Boga.
The 25 kilometers from Boga to Thethi are very steep indeed with gradients averaging about 10%. Cyclists might want to pull themselves and their bikes on the back of one of the lorries which run supplies up to Thethi from Shkodra. These lorries are known in Albania as the “IFA” after the East German make which was once ubiquitous in the country, although nowadays they are as likely to be manufactured by Iveco or Mercedes. Travelling by IFA is a dusty, bone-shaking experience; it is also an option for non cyclists, although probably only suitable for those who are not dead set on comfort. This trip takes about 4 hours from Shkodra and should cost about 800 lek per person – less, obviously from Boga.
In the peak summer months, even if the mini bus is not running for some reason, it should be possible to hitch hike back to Kopliku from Thethi, although not necessary on the exact day that you had hoped to leave. Outside July and August though, so little traffic leaves Thethi that you might remain there for several days before finding someone who could take you as far as Boga. If you can hike to Boga, you will be able to pick up a bus or mini bus from there to Kopliku or Shkodra. The footpath called the sheep track is a much shorter route that the road; ity takes the locals 6 hours. There are guest houses in Boga where you could spend the night.
Snow and ice close Qafa e Terthores for between 4 and 6 months every year. The only way out of Thethi then is south, along the Shala and Kiri rivers, to approach Shkodra from Drishti and Mesi. This road is in a bad condition than the Boga road and the local people rarely use it exept in emergencies. They stock up on essentials in Shkodra before winter sets in and hope they do not run out of flour or cigarettes before the thaw. However if you are travelling in a 4×4 vehicle or by bike, you could return from Thethi by this route, by way of variety. It is about 130 kilometers back to Shkodra.
ACCOMMODATION IN THETH OF ALBANIA
ACTIVITIES IN THETH OF ALBANIA
SIGHTSEEING IN THETH IN ALBANIA
The road into Thethi winds down the hill, through beach forest, passing meadows, farm houses and the lovely Gjecaj waterfall, which tumbles from its cliff only meters away from the road. A kilometer further downhill is the main village, with its fascinating traditional buildings. The first of these is the church, originally built in 1892 and re-built and re-roofed in 2005 by the Parishioners. Crossing the style roughly opposite the church entrance will take you across a field to the traditional tower house which is, according to the sign on its wall the Dukagjin Ethnographic Museum. This was the house of Lulash Keqi, which Rose Wilder Lane visited in 1921 and which she describes in the peaks of Shala. The architecture of the building is particularly interesting because it is built into the natural rock on which it stands, as a way of enhancing its defensive structure. The entrance to the living quarters was up a narrow staircase with a “right hand” turn just before the door as an extra defense. Unfortunately, the building is in such poor condition, due to earthquake damage and neglect, that it can only be viewed from the outside.
It is now possible, however, to gain access to another of Thethi’s historic buildings: the Lock-in tower. Apart from the huge, heavy door, there are no other openings at all on the ground floor. The first floor is accessed by a ladder and is also windowless. The men who locked themselves into the tower to hide from their avengers pulled the ladder up behind them and used it to climb to the second floor. There, they would live, sometimes for months at a time until a besa freed them from the obligations of blood feud. Each wall on the second floor has three tiny vertical slits in it for surveillance and to let in a few rays of light, with two horizontal openings beneath them, angled downwards so that any approaching stranger could be shot. These slits are further protected on the outside of the walls by a kind of stone cage. The men locked in this tower must have had a truly dreadful existence.
In the past, such towers were relatively common in northern Albania. King Zog had many of them destroyed as part of his campaign to modernize the country (and indecently to punish the Catholic clan who opposed him). During communism, those which remained were used as silos or barns until they fell apart from lack of maintenance or were dismantled so that the stone could be used for other buildings. Only a few now remain, in very remote parts of the high mountains. They are all designated as Cultural Monuments now, but it is thanks to the areas status and the tourist resort that the one in Thethi has been preserved in reasonably good condition.
Below the “Lock-In” tower is one of Thethi’s watermills where the villages bring their maize for grinding. The mills are owned communally by the families who live around them. When access can be gained, the mill wheel can still be seen; at other times you can clamber around to the side and look at the outer mechanism.
It is a short drive or an easy walk along the road from here to the Grunas Canyon, a spectacular gorge 2 kilometers long and 60 meters deep. Above it is the Gerla Bridge, more than 30 meters above the river. Below the bridge is an excellent spot for trout fishing, although you would need to bring your own rod as there are none for higher locally. In 2007, archaeologists from the interdisciplinary Shala valley project discovered a large bronze Age site near the Grunas Canyon; walls made of huge stones can be seen at the site.
Three or 4 kilometers further along the road at the settlement of Nderlysaj, the force of the river has carved spectacular formations out of the rocks. A wooden bridge enables visitors to get a good look at these falls. There are natural pools which are good for swimming although the water is very cold even in the summer.
HISTORY OF THETH – ALBANIA
Local tradition asserts a single common ancestor for the community (one Ded Nika) and suggests that the population moved to Theth some 300 to 350 years ago in order to preserve their (Catholic) Christian traditions.
Visiting Theth in the early 20th century, the traveller Edith Durham said:
I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world.
Durham described Theth as a “bariak” of some 180 houses and also observed that it was almost free from the tradition of blood feud (known in the Albanian language as Gjakmarrja) which so blighted other parts of the Albanian highlands.
Theth remains remote. It is most easily accessible by a 25 km unmade road from the village of Boga which is impassable during the winter months and is not generally suitable at any time of the year for motor vehicles without off-road capabilities.
Although the Kanun (traditional Albanian law) remains influential, Theth has not suffered from the recent (post-Communist) reappearance of the blood feud which has troubled other areas of Northern Albania. Ironically, Theth boasts one of the very few remaining “lock-in towers”, an historical form of protection for families that were “in blood”.
Depopulation represents a serious long-term challenge for the community. The population has been greatly reduced over the past few decades and the majority of those remaining occupy Theth only during the summer months. However, the community has a nine-grade school and recent efforts have been made to stimulate tourism. A number of local families offer board and lodging to visitors who come to Theth to hike in the National Park – or merely to admire the mountain scenery.
Apart from the lock-in tower, other attractions include spectacular waterfalls, a working watermill (still used to grind the local inhabitants’ corn) and a modest ethnographic museum.
There are now two projects working in the vicinity, aiming at improving and helping the tourist infrastructure in the area. A Balkans Peace Park Project is working towards the creation of a park extending across the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo and has taken a lead in recent years in encouraging sustainable and ecologically sensitive tourism in and around Theth (for example by funding the marking of footpaths). Project Albanian Challenge has built a new bridge, which connects Theth to the nearby Grunas waterfalls over river Nanrreth. The project has also improved the marking of the trail to Curraj i Epërm, and has marked another approx. 80 kilometers of brand new trails in the nearby valleys, and created an opensource, free map of the area.
USEFUL INFORMATION ABOUT THETH IN ALBANIA
UNIQUE CULTURE OF ALBANIA
The Albanian culture is an exotic blend of traditions that have evolved over thousands of years. From the ancient Illyrians and Greeks to the Romans and the Ottomans, the language, music, arts, and cuisine of the Albanian people are a rich and vibrant mix of many civilizations. Once you discover our culture, you are bound to fall in love with this new destination on the Mediterranean.
Hospitality is in our nature. Welcoming guests and ensuring their comfort is a hallmark of Albanian heritage and is epitomized by our very own Nobel Peace Prize recipient: Mother Teresa. The spirit of cooperation and friendship thrives in Albania, and it is not uncommon for guests to be invited to eat and drink with curious locals wishing to learn more about you.
Besa is a concept related to the Albanian code of honor and is an idea that is very important to the Albanian people. In the Kanun (a set of traditional Albanian laws), Besa is described as the highest authority, so essential to personal and familial standing as to be virtually a cult. Besa has been the subject of some stories and novels by Albania’s foremost modern novelist, Ismail Kadare, a Nobel Prize Candidate for Literature and winner of several international prizes. Kadare’s work has been published in over forty countries and translated into more than thirty languages, making Kadare the best ambassador of Albanian literature worldwide.
If we are speaking about the food and drinks of Albania, then we must mention the country’s deliciously-unique cuisine. It has many similarities to Turkish and Greek dishes, but offers a healthier, Mediterranean twist. Come try our wide variety of phyllo dough delicacies, including a melt-in-your-mouth sensation called byrek, or the original sweet treat known regionally as baklava.
Albania also has a long tradition of wine craftsmanship, which is lately being revived to its former glory. While you’re here, taste a sampling of our wine, produced from a rich soil that has been under cultivation since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Regardless of your culinary inclinations, we guarantee that our rich history and culinary traditions have created a menu of mouth-watering specialties for you to try.
Each region of Albania likes to specialize in its own brand of music, thus giving the music aficionado an incentive to explore the entire country in search of each community’s sense of style. For example, UNESCO has classified a type of music from southern Albania, known as Iso Polyphony, to have tremendous cultural value to humankind. Our music has even given rise to a few prominent artists of global acclaim, including opera lyric soprano, Inva Mula, and the distinguished violinist, Tedi Papavrami.
In regards to style, when you arrive in Albania, you will notice that the men take great pride in their appearance and will often don a suit and tie when in public. Even if their errands only involve a short trip to the grocery store, the men will dress to impress.
Depending upon the type of festival or time of year, you might even catch a glimpse of Albanian men in traditional folk attire. The National Folk Festival held in Gjirokastra is a prime example. This special autumn event is held once every four years and attracts artists from around the world.
The women of Albania also share a flair for style, especially at traditional Albanian weddings. At these events, the families of both the bride and groom will gather together in their finest dress and celebrate with great fervor. Weddings are often the ideal opportunity to witness the best of Albanian culture all in one event, and if you’re invited to one, the experience will undoubtedly be extraordinary.
Albanian culture is unique in many ways and we hope you’ll visit us to see it firsthand. We say ‘yes’ by shaking our head from side to side, both men and women greet each other with a kiss on either cheek, and our conversations are loud and passionate in an effort to entice others to join in. Visit Albania and discover why our culture is a new Mediterranean love.
MAP OF ALBANIA
PHOTO GALLERY OF THETH
MAP OF THETH