“It’s really amazing how country people know weather!”
— Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound
When is a good time to come to Valbona? ANYTIME! (Well, except maybe April.) Below is a brief, entirely subjective description of what you might expect to find at any given time of the year. Don’t ask me for anything sensible like average temperatures because we still don’t own a working thermometer (despite the best attempts of some very nice Belgians to bring us one). If you want to check what’s coming up for yourself, we usually look at Accuweather. It’s generally ballpark pretty right, although less so about predicting thunderstorms (which it claimed were going to happen every day for most of last September, and they didn’t – bursts of rain, yes, lions-and-tigers-and-bears? not so much).
January: This is the month when, typically, it starts to snow in all seriousness. I’m not saying it can’t snow earlier, but in January begins the 40 days of Arbein, when local people say the wolves are hungry, and you shouldn’t leave the house without a gun. Being of a curious and pig-headed nature (called kok-fort in Albanian: literally, ‘hard-head’) I have tested this, wandering through the woods making limping, whimpering noises and I have to say no wolf has ever accosted me. I have a small fantasy of knitting myself a red cape and hood . . . . maybe this would help? At any rate, it’s a nice time to visit for: skiing, snowshoeing, sitting by the fire, reading all day, eating silly amounts, learning to knit or spin or cook and visiting homes. I wish some ethnographers would come to collect stories, as I think that would be a grand way to pass some days . . . . although maybe not so much like File on H (which is hilariously set here). Seems like (in 2017) this is the month most likely to get snow, in which case here’s the trailer for a video made a couple of years ago by a bunch of guys who came to do ski-touring.
February: Much like January, but even more snow. It’s pretty much dark by 4:30 in the afternoon, and doesn’t brighten up until 7:00 in the morning. Men go mad with boredom and play endless games of dominoes (actually a game of immense strategy here) and chess – which explains why Alfred is a Grand Master. The electricity often craps out for days at a time. It is very peaceful and nice, and a good time to visit if you are thinking of writing a novel. (PS: In the picture to the right, the windows of the house you see are actually on the second floor – and those are just the tops of the trees poking out!)
March: The beginning is much the same, but there may be bright days of bizarre good weather. So far, this is the time when the ski-tourers descend (or to be more accurate, ascend and then descend all over again). Perhaps, since I can’t think of anything else to write, this is a good place to mention that since 2013 a lovely man with a fadrom (an enormous sort of tractor) has kept the road open enthusiastically, non-stop. Even when it barely snows at all, he’s out at all hours, racing up and down, so there’s really very little chance of getting stuck here. In 2016 they even started salting the road (not sure how environmentally sensitive that is, but it makes driving a lot easier). In case you were worrying.
April: April, it must be said (or at any rate, I’m going to say), is pretty much the most dismal month in Valbona. Snow in the valley is melting or melted. The world is grey and brown and tired-looking. Chilling rains fall. Tourists make reservations and then cancel them at the last moment, when they hear the local weather. We are racing around trying to begin-and-finish pre-opening construction projects, which are constantly hampered by electricity outages, random snowstorms, depressing rains and general lethargy (on the part of simply everyone else. hmph.). Nonetheless, there are heartbreaking days of sudden good weather, when warm breezes flutter the trees which have themselves a suspicious hue of . . . . bud-i-ness about them. The valley is full of mud, and above much more than half an hour walk, you run into snow again. Despite whatever may be (or not be) happening in the valley, there is still plenty of snow in the passes so walking to Theth (for example) is still a very bad idea, unless you’re an experienced arctic hiker. Please read this letter from tourists who crossed on 29 April a few years ago, and don’t forget the tragic death of one woman who fell in April 2016. WITH THAT SAID! What April IS good for is watching woodpeckers! They are breeding and at their most territorial, so banging on trees (like David Attenborough) actually WORKS, and you can draw black, green, grey, lesser spotted AND the incredibly rare white-backed woodpeckers to you! Seriously! Wild peonies and iris are blooming above Kukaj.
May: May is NICE. The valley goes green. Beech trees explode into thousands of millions of identical juicy little leaves. Saxifrage and other rock plants burst into life and bloom. The woods are full of anemones, primulas and violets. Wild strawberries are blooming. The snow is receding up to the passes, and while it’s still difficult to cross to other valleys (and impossible for a horse, whose pointy little feet sink in the snow) it is not impossible. Spring advances up the sides of the mountains, so by the end of the month when it’s full on summer in the valley, it’s still spring up above, and you can walk on snow in short sleeves and admire the snowbells. School isn’t out yet, so the valley is still quiet. Late May is one of my favorite times in Valbona: The strawberries are ripe, and the endemic Albanian Lillies are blooming above Kukaj.
June: Still lovely, and great for flowers. The passes clear, and you can start doing longer through hikes.
July: HOT. Really hot this year. Still, never as hot as it is everywhere else. We were hovering around 38°C (90sF) most days. Accu-weather frequently predicts thunderstorms – sometimes every day for more than a month, but what this means really is that there is often a brief shower in the late afternoon, which is actually nice and refreshing. There’s almost never actual thunder and lightning. Still snow on Jezerca though, and other north-facing slopes.
August: Same. Ugh. Good for hiking at high altitudes, although there probably won’t be any water. Locals hiking high pastures get by by breaking chunks of snow off known permanent ice fields, and leave them on rocks to drip into bottles (in case you were wondering).
September: Yay! We got a thermometer! Thanks, Nicole Farnsworth! In 2015, the first half of September was alternating between still really hot days where you can’t find a sun dress small enough (and still keep within Northern Albanian bounds of modesty) (or, I suppose Gender Roles) and then 3 day stretches that had you scrabbling for a jumper (pull-over, sweater). Anyhow, it was very nice weather for walking, but bear in mind that most of the water in the Valley has disappeared by now. Nothing in Liqeni i Xhemes, no Waterfall, and no snow left for the shepherds in many stans (their usual water source). The last week of September has been damp and chilly, with temperatures around 15°C (50°F) during the day.
October: Generally threatens to be overcast and/or drizzling in the beginning. Thermometer was at 10°C (30°F) this morning (1 October). The mountains are shrouded in mist which hasn’t lifted in several days, and it will probably start snowing up there soon. Generally pretty unpredictable. I’ve known it to snow, and I’ve also gone on (cold but not-unpleasant) camping trips as late as the end of the month. Frequently very nice atmospheric weather for curling up with a book by a fire, and doing short walks in the afternoon. The hours change over somewhere towards the end of the month, and suddenly you find yourself in deep night by 5pm.
November: This is one of the more unpredictable months. Some years we get torrential rains which can swell the river and make for interesting landslides and things (don’t worry, these generally get cleared away in an hour or two). It hasn’t snowed in the valley yet for the past few years, although there starts to be snow on the heights. We officially don’t recommend making the hike to Theth after the 1st of November. It’s not to say you can’t do it, but it’s definitely more dangerous. As with many/most of the hikes here, although the hikes themselves are fine, there’s usually a stretch somewhere with a 0% tolerance of error – as in, if you slip and fall you may very well die (and tragically, people have on the Theth hike, in the snow). Thanks to Tom Battaile who visited in late November 2016, we now have this very nice video to share, which demonstrates what hiking is like here in November. Thanks Tom! Don’t forget that daylight lasts from about 7am until 4:30pm.