How to Ride in Albania
Ashley P. and Quentin B.
In 2019 Ashley & Quentin embarked to ride the Trans-Albanian Trail, inspired by the route of English Long Riders Robin and Louella Hanbury-Tension. Over the course of two months they purchased horses and trekked almost 800 kilometres from the south to the north of Albania. Their route followed 4x4 tracks through the mountains and national parks of the country’s interior.
Finding Your Horses
We should start out by saying that horse culture in Albania is rustic. During communism, riding horses was viewed as a capitalist pastime and therefore forbidden. People were also not allowed to travel between villages, and horses were mainly used to deliver goods and work the fields. The Albanian horse breed suffered under this regime, and even today it is very difficult to find horses with much under saddle experience.
We contacted a horse tourism company in the south near Gjirokaster. They put us in touch with a breeder further south, where we eventually found all three horses. At the same time, we were spreading the word with whomever we met that we were looking for three horses. The Albanians are a naturally helpful people, though we didn’t see any horses appropriate (size or temperament-wise) until we met Ulsi in Konispol. He did not speak English, only Albanian and Greek. He is a very honest horseman and has a big network of people he trusts. We ran into some of his contacts as we trekked north, and they never failed to help us out or invite us for a coffee.
For the three horses, we paid €2500. People were often very curious how much we paid, and their reactions were always that we got a good deal. That said, horses in the north cost less than in the south. Furthermore, horses in the south are a better quality of mountain horse (in my opinion). And finally, regardless of where you buy your horse in Albania, we found that price of horses in Albania was high for the quality of horse; with the respect to the cost of living, the horses were expensive. We think this is because horses of high quality are not common.
Vet checks in Albania consist of a heart and respiration check, so you are better not to waste your money. Just do it yourself, and check for lameness, eye troubles, hearing troubles, etc – if you’re buying horses for a trek you should know how to do your own vet check anyways.
We rode our horses four times, on
longer and longer trails before agreeing to purchase them. We paid via bank
transfer. The sellers laughed that I was so serious to write a sales contract –
it’s true in Albania not much is “official.” I never needed to produce this
contract, but it was nice to have.
We had the horses transported to Gjirokaster for €100 to the horse tourism company. There we spent one week to gather the equipment, have the horses shod and ride them a few more times fully equipped before setting out.
At the end of the trek, we resold the horses, with the equipment included for €2500 to a local entrepreneur who will be using them for horse tourism in the north. This made us really happy because we met the guy before the trek, knew his background of working with horses in Italy, and knew they would be under further surveillance by our dear friend who lived nearby. We get frequent updates and photos. Otherwise to sell your horses there are some big markets in Shkoder, Peshkopi, and Korce.
Planning Your Route
We planned our route initially based
on the cities Robin and Louella passed through in their 2008 trek. However, we
began further south than their end point, and often chose more mountainous
paths. I used the application “MapOut,” to trace a path. It is a super
application because it tells you the elevation gain and descent of each section.
We also used a Garmin GPS watch to track the kilometers and elevation change
each day, to not overstrain the team.
Our route was separated into 6 legs. Before each leg, we would use Google satellite to highlight where we should turn on the 4x4 roads and mountain paths. This was useful because nothing is marked. We ended up riding 170km more than we originally planned – this was due to normal “getting lost”, one day where we had to circle a mountain, adding on 35km, and deciding to ride the long way to Valbona, via Montenegro and the Accursed Mountains. The Accursed Mountains were amazing and we highly recommend.
Asking locals for advice is important because the satellite cannot tell you if a bridge is out. They can also indicate a more beautiful route, or one that’s easier for the horses. We asked everyone we met about the route to come. We wrote an introduction letter explaining our trek and including a few key questions. It was not very useful, many people seemed to struggle to read it, although it was written by an Albanian whose language skills we were sure of. Finally, showing Albanians your map is pretty useless because they know the area because they grew up there, not because they’ve studied the map.
We left at the end of May. In the mountains it could still be chilly at night, but our summer sleeping bags were for 10° C and we never felt too cold. During the whole trip we only had two days of real rain. They were long rainy days, with wind in the face and hail, lightning and thunder. During that week there were also a series of small earthquakes. Occasionally we had afternoon showers. By mid-June it became very hot, and even though we were almost always at least 1000m up, it was best to rise early, ride through the morning and into the afternoon, and take a long lunch by a shady water source until about 4pm. Water was plentiful, as was grass.
Gear & Tack
We shipped our pack saddle from France. It got stuck in customs, and it took us going to the head office with an actual body guard by our side to get it out without having to pay the requested €300 importation tax. The tax is invalid on personal affairs but they were unconvinced the saddle was ours. If you enter the country by car with your gear you will not have this problem. It is recommended you bring your own gear, or ship your gear to Greece and pick it up there. There is not a market for English/long distance riding gear in Albania. We were able to buy two used saddles that fit our horses from the horse tourism company in Gjirokaster. The rest of the gear I purchased in Greece. We used our cycling bags as our saddle bags on the pack saddle. We carried with us: riding clothes, sleeping clothes, tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, food, farrier kit, vet supplies, and about 10-15kg of grain, repartioned between the three horses.
I mentioned we carried grain – there was enough grass to feed the horses, but when we bought them they were mostly fat and had little muscle. To help keep them weight while they built muscle we began the trek with lower kilometers per day and fed them grain 2x a day. Our goal was for them to finish well-muscled AND fat. Knowing they were getting fed in the morning also kept them around the tent (we like to think).
You can cross Albania without giving grain. We fed barley, which I rinsed before feeding and gave unlimited water after to avoid colic. It was very difficult to find, and we purchased it during our recovery days near cities. It cost about 1000lek for 25kg. Oats are out of the question. In the mountains, grass is plentiful and varied. The horses could get everything they needed from it.
During our rest days we would choose hotels with space for the horses. We were never charged for the horses, and the hotel owners always refused money for them, though we tried to pay 1000lek/night for them. If you find yourself needing to buy hay, in summer you shouldn’t pay more than €4-5 a bale.
We brought our own vet kit from France. This was a good idea – several local vets we crossed actually wrote down everything I had in my kit to try to get import permits for the medicines. They have a very limited stock of dewormers, and it is used for all types of livestock.
The horseshoes in Albania are handmade. They are flat across and have clips at the heel. You will not find another type of shoe. We had no problems with the shoes. You can find factory made shoes in big markets, but they are of lower quality. Everyone shoes their own horses with a “Skenderknife.” Also, everyone will tell you they know how to shoe horses – ask to see their work first. Make it very clear that you will not tolerate abusive methods like gagging or twitching the horse before you let them touch your horse.
I mentioned earlier that water is very abundant – it depends on the time of year and location. Outside of the mountains, things start to dry up after mid-July, so bear that in mind.
Learn from the Locals
Locals know the best paths!! But watch out which kind of local you ask – if it’s someone who drives a car often they will not be able to give you a good idea on how long it will take on horseback. Shepherds are the best, as they know where livestock and horses can pass.
Hospitality and respect for the guest is one of the cornerstones of Albanian culture. Camping within sight of a village or a house is a guarantee that you will be invited home for dinner, to shower, to stay the night or a week. Accept this hospitality with grace – often we were told we were the first tourists to ever come to the village. It was a huge privilege for us. The people were often very isolated and thrilled to have some foreigners come visit. Even at the end of the day when you’re exhausted, it’s worth it to put on a happy face.
At the beginning of the trip we spoke almost no Albanian, but by the end we could respond to the typical onslaught of questions, “Where are you from? Why are you here? Where are you going? Are you married? Where is your family? Do you have brothers/sisters/children?” Also heads up – if you’re a female, the women are very tactile and cuddly! Quentin could get away with just quietly drinking raki with the men, but I was always thrust straight into the arms of the closest grandmother who would fret over how thin I was and feed me sweets, coffee and raki. No complaints there!
Sometimes we felt like our hosts would appreciate payment, and only a few times did they accept it. We did not always offer payment for two reasons: the first being not to insult them: their hospitality was freely given. The second so as not to set a standard of, “there is a tourist, let’s invite him home because he will give us money.” We saw this mentality towards tourists on the coast and it was really unpleasant. If we’re looking for a hotel or service we’re happy to pay, but if someone chases us down to come home with them, it doesn’t seem fair to ask us to pay. If you’re unsure of your host’s expectations, make sure to clarify this before you take off your horse’s tack.
That said we were not ungrateful! We tried to have a stock of small gifts from the city – simple things like bars of nice chocolate or cookies went over very well. We also had a Polaroid camera in which we took portraits of the family and gave as a gift. Facebook has arrived in Albania, and people were THRILLED to add us and we still get messages checking on us and our families daily. We love this type of hospitality, gift giving and staying in touch friendship – we feel like we really got to exchange and create a bond with people that we wouldn’t have gotten had we been on a guided tour or with a translator (though it would have been easier for communication, it would have felt less authentic!).
Though I just spoke about not paying for hospitality that is freely given, we did always try to pay for groceries from villagers. I say we tried to pay, because this money was refused 99% of the time. In the mountains there were very few cafes/grocers. We would buy pasta or rice in the cafes/grocers. The other things they carried were often single packaged junk food. This is because mountain-folk are self-sufficient and don’t need to buy bread, cheese, veggies at the grocer. Often we were sent away with more food than we could eat before it spoiled. A race against the clock to drink all the yogurt..
In the mountains, shepherds keep sheep, goats and cows. We ate a lot of yogurt, fresh milk, eggs, homemade bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. That was about it actually. If we were in someone’s house for dinner there was usually a meat dish, frequently in a stew. Albanian soups and stews are phenomenal. Fruits in summer include strawberries, cherries and plums.
When we were in cities we could buy a few kilos of breakfast oats, dried fruits and nuts for our breakfasts.
We quickly developed a taste for raki, the local homemade alcohol. This was a good thing, because it is rude to refuse it and raki is served at all hours of the day alongside coffee. Even at 5am when you first wake up.
Despite its “mobster” reputation, we never once felt unsafe in Albania. Thieving is very poorly viewed, and thieving from a guest even more so. Combine that with the fact that everyone knows everyone else’s business, and we really felt protected by the locals. Once though we stayed in a hotel in Vithkuq and the son of the owner tried to insist on us keeping our horses within sight of his security cameras overnight. The problem was that “in sight of the cameras” meant pitching the horses on a dirt football field. We asked why he insisted and he said, “mafia.” Trying to keep back our giggles at the idea of Albanian mafia stealing two tourists’ wet horses in the middle of nowhere, we convinced him to let us move them further up the hillside where there was grass. In the end, we could see all three horses from our bedroom window.
If the Albanian people are welcoming and adorable, the natural landscape is more difficult. There are bears and wolves in Albania. We never saw either, though we followed behind fresh bear tracks for a few kilometers one afternoon. Albania is also the home to the most venomous snake in Europe. This sounds scary but in reality, it is not venomous enough to kill a human and it is panic and shock that kill anyone bitten.
Overall we felt very at home in Albania. Between its friendly and curious people and the stunning natural landscapes we found ourselves in a real happy place for the trek. We totally recommend it for future riders and encourage anyone interest to contact us for more details, the GPX file of our route and whatever contacts you may need.