If you’re reading this, we assume you’re planning a trip to Valbona? But Valbona is in Tropoja, and Tropoja is . . . so much more. Not that Valbona isn’t enough for a couple of days, or (honestly) several years, but Tropoja . . . Tropoja is MORE.
“And if less is more, think how much more MORE is!” (That’s actually a line from a TV show I saw years ago, but what can I say? It stuck. I suppose even television has rare flashes of funny genius.)
This is where I pause to figure out what I ought to say. I came in 2009, fell in love with Valbona and stayed, thanks to the Selimaj family who adopted me. In 2017 or something, we’d outgrown each other in a funny way – I felt I was turning into something like Edward Gorey’s ‘doubtful guest’ and it was time for me to leave the nest, to find my own place in things. This has a particular sense in Albanian Vendi i vet. The place you belong, the place you belong to, the soil in which your roots rest, and where the rest of you spreads, prospers, the place where you FLY. Your home. The place you would fight for. To everyone’s surprise, I stayed. To MY surprise, I did not stay in Valbona Valley. Though of course I stayed near the river. We all live near the river. The River is the flowing heart of the region. I ended up settling in Dojan, a small village on the outskirts of Bajram Curri. At first I scoffed at the idea. I did not leave New York City to move to BAJRAM CURRI. Perish the thought. But then I saw this house, and I fell in love. It was a crumbling wreck of a seemingly ancient farmhouse, but it had potential. It felt, somehow, like a happy place. So I moved here. Got some sheep. Wondered what I was doing here. And then I fell in love with Tropoja.
So what IS Tropoja?
Tropoja is the land of legends. Of poetry. Of towering mountains and the highest peaks in the Dinaric Alps (running from Slovenia to well – HERE!), of ancient mossy forests heaving with shy bears and bustling wild boar and the rarest of rare woodpeckers. It’s the rolling hills and pastureland of Has and Pac. It’s the mad river rat, wind-in-the-willows water culture of Fierza and Lekbibaj. It’s hidden valleys and a surprise around every corner and an ancient culture based on honor. “We had to have honor,” one man told me, “Because there was no ‘higher authority’ – there was no power to enforce order. So we knew. If we did not have honor, we would live with violent chaos. We chose honor.”
O geraqin mu emri thon
Jam ore i Shqipnis
Dhe po rri atje
Muji and Halili, the Gilgamesh and Enkidu of Albania, stomped around here. The Lahuta e Malesise came from here, the epic poetry of Albanian heritage. The place is haunted by Ora – a sort of female guardian spirit which attach themselves not only to individuals but also to families and villages – as well as Zana, the mountain fairies. You should cough whenever you approach a stream, in case the Zana might be bathing. They don’t like being caught naked bathing, and appreciate the warning. Otherwise they might tear you to pieces. There are also the Shtojcevalle, the river naiads. I’ve heard they can be really NASTY if you irritate them.
There are four major fis or clans. The Bytyci are welcoming and madly hospitable and traditionally inhabit the eastern lands of rolling hills, close to Kosova. This is great land for horses. (Think of them as Rohan, or Hufflepuff.) The Gashi are strong, and I guess would be found mostly around Gashi river and valley, which flows into Valbona river near Bajram Curri, but runs north-south (to Valbona’s upper east-west). I don’t know so much about them, since the whole valley is shrouded in mystery and it’s not so easy to go there, unless someone local takes you (basically because there is ‘SOMETHING’ growing there which is fiercely protected – you know what I mean? ‘High Albania’ indeed. Should you wander in there, some advice: Do NOT take photos. Just don’t. Avoid this temptation and traditional hospitality will kick in, should you actually bump into anyone. I hope.). The Krasniqi are brave, and heroic. They typically center around Valbona Valley. And the Berisha are clever and tricksy. (Think Slytherin, or Loki.) They are generally south of the Bytyci, on the eastern extremes.
That’s the people. But what is the land like? Well, Valbona is most famous for these towering, stupendous mountains. A vicious microclimate with horrendous winters (already somewhat of yore sadly, what with climate change), and short but ecstatically green summers. I can say, after eight years there, that Valbona Valley is the only place where snow ever scared me. Where it ever occurred to me that snow and winter might kill me, might even want to. Albanians will tell you “Oh in Tropoja you can always find four seasons in the same day,” and then beam as if they’ve said something clever and original. This used to annoy me. But it is true. Even in the hottest days of August, when people in the lowlands of Gropa e Tropojes – literal translation: the HOLE of Tropoja, but generally meaning the fertile lowlands around Bajram Curri which are generally about 300m above sea level – er, when we are lying around panting in the heat, and sleeping through the middle of the day – up in the highlands, in the bjeshk or ‘alpine meadows’, there will still be snow in the shadows of certain peaks, and primulas blooming nearby. But what’s the rest of Tropoja like? I DON’T KNOW. Isn’t that exciting? There are still so many places here that no tourist or foreigner has ever gone to. The areas around Fierza and Lekbibaj are weirdly maritime, in that the Valbona River by then is turning into the Drin, and becoming a wide, fat, slow-moving Mississippi kind of a river, spawning river rats and boat culture of all kinds. It’s here that we go kayaking. Where there are herons and egrets and kingfishers and HOOPOES to trip over.
The rolling hills of Bytyci land remain almost entirely unexplored, despite their being PERFECT for horses – and make no mistake you Houyhnhnm sympathizers, the horse has influenced Tropojan culture. “There doesn’t exist an animal more besnik (honorable, loyal) than the horse,” any Tropojan will tell you. “In the old days, if you were setting off to cross a mountain, and your horse stopped, and refused to move, you knew there was an ambush ahead, and you listened to the horse, and turned around, and went home.” Horse influence is even in the language. I knew for years that to call someone “mbrapsht” (backwards) was a fierce insult. But it was only when I was in Bytyci land that I learned why this was. In the past, if someone behaved dishonorably, they were put on a horse sitting backwards, and then paraded around the village, that their shame might be publicly noted. I suppose no one ever asked the horses how they felt about this, and based on my 2 years of living with some, I’d guess the horses could probably care less.
Hm. At this point, it occurs to me that I should probably apologize to you. I don’t think this is a particularly useful or authorative “introduction” to Tropoja. But maybe, just maybe, it will give you a glimpse of what I think is the truth? Tropoja is undiscovered. It is one of those rare, unexpected places, where nature still has the upper hand. Where adventure is around the corner, and curiosity still has food and fodder. I have been here for 12 years, and although I’ve found my vendin i vet, I still wouldn’t say I necessarily know it. I can say that I wake up every morning like a child, full of curiosity. There is still so much to know. So much to love.