The Mystery of Shpella e Dragobise, the Cave of Bajram Curri

The Mystery of Shpella e Dragobise, the Cave of Bajram Curri

Bajram Curri, after whom the town is named, was a Kosovar who played some sort of large role (of which I am admittedly ignorant) in wresting Albania from the Ottomans. Unfortunately (fatkeqsisht), being Kosovar he was interested in reuniting Kosovo with Albania, which somehow brought him into conflict with King Zog. In 1925, he famously took refuge from Zog’s pursuing forces in the Shpella e Dragobise, the Cave of Dragobi, where he died on March 29th from gunshot wounds. The Official Line is that he killed himself, rather than face being captured. The understood truth is that Zog had him killed. The fact of the Cave has never been in question.

A path to the cave is marked on standard maps, as well as showing up on the Albanian Geo-political Base Map that somehow found its way into my GPS. Alfred included the standard trail without a hesitation in our list of possible local walks. The people of Valbona refer to it cheerfully – knowingly, even. It is to be found, if it is to be found at all, on the lower slopes of Mount Pecmarres, my beloved bete noire.

Today I have returned from my fourth (failed?) attempt to find this damn cave.

I should begin by explaining that this repeated expedition is one I indulge in when odd hours of liberty appear from my responsibilities at Rilindja. It takes about half an hour from the hotel to cross a little wooden footbridge and meander along the river, past a few hidden stands of willows growing in bright white pockets of Valbona River sand up to a hillside bursting with wild strawberries in early summer, raspberries in late July and Thona bushes in autumn. Along the way one strolls past an abandoned farmstead and a grassy bank with three melancholic little graves layed out with neolithic splendor in precise rings of small white stones. No one has told me the story of these graves yet. It took Alfred two trips to admit they even were graves.

According to my maps, the GPS and local advice, the path to the Shpella is parallel to this walk, just a little uphill and quite clear. The first time I set out to find it I got tired of walking along the river looking for a side path that never appeared, and just bashed away uphill through the young (therefore tangled, impenetrible and irritating) beech forest, trying to connect with the footpath that Alfred had clearly marked on his chart of local walks. This was the day I got stuck on top of Pecmarres and spent the night sitting up wedged between the trunk of a tree and a cliff face with my feet dangling in space while I waited for the sun to rise. That is not the subject of this narrative (ahem). The next time I set off, I decided not to follow Alfred’s map, encouraged by the fact that the same path to the Shpella was clearly marked on the Albanian Geo-political Base Map (aforementioned) on the GPS. I don’t really like the GPS, but this is the sort of thing that makes me feel hopeful about it. After crawling over and under, and being poked by, quite a lot of a different section of young (and therefore tangled, impenetrible and irritating) beech forest, I did not find anything even faintly resembling the path that the GPS assured me I was on. I did find a lovely bit of mouldy forest floor absolutely crawling with enormous stag beetles which I spent a very nice 45 minutes playing with. I then set off to climb up a steep bit of forest and was just hanging from one sturdy young beech tree when I heard a weird sort of snuffling banging noise coming along the path (I mean route) I’d just myself traversed. Clinging to my chosen limb, I watched the bushes and trees and bush-like-trees quiver and shake. I listened to and thought about the weird snuffling sort-of-slurping noise I heard. Definitely not a wolf, I thought. Wolves are more subtle. And probaby not a bear, as a bear would be big and therefore visible. I thought about doing something sensible like climbing a tree, thought about Jaberwockies, and then climbed back down to follow whatever it was that was following me. In fact, this is not as silly as it sounds, I don’t think. Anything making that much noise couldn’t seriously be stalking me. I assumed it was just something as noisy as me, out for a bush-rattling afternoon stroll. I stalked hopefully after it. I got a bit turned around in the bushes, and the noises stopped. I never did manage to glimpse it. Consultation with Alfred and some other knowing elders lead to the conclusion that in must have been in fact a Wild Boar. That explains the (most un-wolf-like) snuffling noise. Not surprisingly, that was enough of the so-called Path to the Cave for me, for that day. I went off to pick strawberries instead. When I got back to Rilindja, I told Naim that there was no path to the cave (the depressing idea that there might in fact be no cave not having yet occurred to me). No, he said, probably not. What?! Well no one’s gone there for years and years, he said. It’s probably grown over. Phooey.

My next attempt consisted of walking parallel to the overgrown trail, looking for hopeful spots, like small streams, to cross up to it. I made a lot of notes and waypoints in the much-maligned GPS. There were however an awful lot of strawberries ripening just then, as well as some truly staggering crops of bright metallic-green beetles sunning themselves on something called Rrushqeni (Dog-grapes) here that I think are what British people call elderberries, and I contented myself with planning expeditions for another day. Alfred, looking at my map of where I’d been that day, helpfully (if somewhat contemptuously) informed me that the cave was just a little bit up the ridge from where I’d just been.

Hence the expedition of today. Today, will me nill me, I was going to find the damned cave. I would not be waylayed by beetles bugs or berries. I would not take up my vorpal blade. I would just circle around in the woods by the line of trees on the ridge where Alfred assured me the cave most certainly was. And so I set off. From the strawberry fields I simply turned up hill, and climbed up the ridge and into the forest. Well, simply . . . . this included something less than an hour of dragging myself through clinging and unwilling vines of sullen raspberries, then a scramble through a steep bit of the forest, mercifully free of underbrush, but weirdly silent and carpeted everywhere with thick, bright green moss. It is the sort of place where you don’t really want to make any noise. Not a sound. A twig snapping sounds like an insult. The GPS assured me that the cave had to be on this side of the ridge, and so I wove back and forth, convincing myself (mostly) that the outcrop of rock I discovered had to be the only possible one. I started making my way in a circle around it, discovering a wealth of strange crevasses and odd corners including one that, when photographed, disclosed a strange blue cloud hovering in the air that certainly wasn’t there when I peered in for myself. Trick of the light, of course. Of course.

Solemn green hush. That’s what I found. And a myriad of strange rock hidey-holes, that I couldn’t imagine anyone taking refuge in, in winter but even less, if they did, could I imagine anyone ever finding them. In the end I did what I always do, and grew impatient, and climbed up the rock (thinking as usual: I probably shouldn’t be doing this . . .) to emerge into bright sunshine and a gorgeous view of the valley and the road to Cerem. I ate my lunch, and wiggled my feet at the view. On the way down, I found signs of a bear. You know . . . . signs! Poop, and moss I certainly hadn’t torn. And then, when I was finishing my circuit just for the stubborn hell of it, I think I maybe found the cave. I’m not sure why I think it was – is? An extra quality of stillness, of sadness? A slightly less unbelievable quality? It’s not a cave, really – not like a Flintstone cave. More a particularly deep shelf with some extra shafts that you could just about imagine wriggling down into backwards. Of course I have no idea if it was or not.

I turned to work my way back down to the friendly fields of berries. It would be dark soon and people would start worrying. The woods were still perfectly silent, as I suppose they have been for a long time, and will be for a while yet.