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FRONTIERLAND

Make your way to the remote borders of Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo to set foot in a once-forbidden mountain wilderness where, today, walkers are warmly welcomed
Previous page: Descending from the Qafa e Pëjes pass towards the village of Theth, Albania

God took six days to create the earth, the sea and the sky. But, so a local legend goes, the devil took only 24 hours to create the Accursed Mountains. It was a full day’s work. He would have scored deep ravines with his pointy tail. He would have sculpted spires of rock with his evil little claws. And, long after he finished the Mountains, the curse remained, for this range has always been synonymous with bandits, blood feuds, avalanches, and miscellaneous misfortunes for anyone foolish enough to visit

Today, the Accursed Mountains straddle the borders of three nations: Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Setting out on a morning stroll in early summer, you suspect the Almighty would be impressed by his rival’s handiwork. Because, with devilish deception, it is a place of radiant, intense loveliness.

Setting of from Vusanje, a village in Montegro with a substantial ethnic Albanian population.

My walk starts in the village of Vusanje, Montenegro, near a timber minaret carved with crescent moons and petals. Before long, I am far from settlements, walking through wildflower meadows where the ground itself seems to move with the fluttering of thousands of butterflies. There are mighty limestone mountains crumbling into wind-scoured boulder fields, and stone shepherds’ huts, their chimney stacks toppled and slumped in mimicry of the peaks above.

‘IT FEELS LIKE A SECRET LAND THAT HAS EV ADED THE ATTENTION OF THE OUTSIDE WORLD’

Most of the time, there are few hikers. It feels like a mini-Yosemite in the Balkans – a real back-of-the-wardrobe secret land that has somehow evaded the attention of the outside world. There are clues as to why. Four hours’ walk from Vusanje, I cross the Montenegro-Albania border, where derelict military bunkers watch from above. Beyond them lies the village of Theth, Albania. It is roughly 14 miles from Vusanje but, until 1991, it might as well have been the far side of the moon.

‘If you were caught walking in these mountains in those times, you would have gone to prison,’ says Pavlin Polia, leaning on a fence post in the afternoon sunshine. ‘Or worse.’ Pavlin is a mountain guide and guesthouse owner in Theth, where he was born in the nave of its tiny Catholic church. When he was a youngster, Theth was part of Communist Albania, a regime unrivalled in Europe for brutal oppression and crippling poverty. Its paranoid dictator, Enver Hoxha, built more than 170,000 of his bunkers across the country, partly to repel enemies – but as much to make sure citizens stayed put.

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