Phew… where do I begin? It’s funny how the previous post about Pirlitor & Kolašin got picked up by some French web climbing directory as the definitive guide. Funny because the one about Tenerife, with arguably more information about areas they don’t already have (and more general interest), only gets hits through Google.
Anyway, I’ve been avoiding it long enough so here goes the part two of our Balkan trip.
From Montenegro we crossed Kosovo from Peč in the west to Priština in the east then turned south towards the Serbian enclaves around Šarplanina. If ever I was shocked and disappointed at careless human attitude towards the environment it was at Brezovica ski resort. I’m sure it’s easy to ignore the mountain of trash under your feet when it’s covered by snow but once it melts… It was very obvious nobody ever bothers with any post season cleanup and painfully obvious nobody bothers to locate and use trash cans. Just throw away at earliest convenience, anything from cigarette butts to bottles and car parts. Everywhere! Disgusting.
But the mountain sure looked nice under some late spring snow and tickets are ridiculously cheap.
There are quite a few choices for sport climbing & bouldering in Macedonia (see guide) but I will dare say nothing comes close to the scenery of Matka. The beautiful river canyon just outside Skopje is hard to beat.
The guide should give you a good enough idea what to expect. From numerous multi pitch routes to a handful of medium difficulty singles on a decent, yet sometimes loose rock. The peculiar feature of climbing in Matka is the approach that involves a 1 minute boat ride across the river for which they will charge you 1€. (Un)fortunately there is no bridge and you are (technically) not allowed to cross over the hydro electric dam.
Once they steal your money for the crossing you’ve got a 20-30 minute steep uphill walk towards st.Nikola monastery where you are allowed to camp for free. Beautiful view, shade if necessary, toilet and drinking water is all you really need. The single pitch routes (all around 25-30m) are just 100m away (multi pitch routes start lower down the path) where we climbed Mary Jane (5a/6b) and either Big Mamma (6a) or Matuf Extrem (5a/6c). Can’t really tell which one it was as we didn’t have a topo and only found a name painted on the rock for Mary Jane.
Mary Jane is a puzzling route if I ever saw one. The guidebook says 5c however… up to the final 3 meters it’s a very comfortable 5a/b. But then there’s the crux from the last bolt to the anchor which is easily a 6b. I was seriously thinking of abandoning the attempt and leaving behind some gear but eventually got through it. It’s misleading for climbers who comfortably climb below grade 6 and I honestly can’t tell why they decided to stretch the route to a very uncharacteristic hard (and ultimately unsafe) finish.
At night we got two visits from a rescue helicopter. A larger group of hikers were obviously lost or stuck within earshot of the monastery. We could just make out their voices but there was no way they could come down directly from where they were. The helicopter crew took quite some time to reach them as the winds were strong and possibly quite turbulent as they were coming in towards the ridge and it wasn’t any easier on the second trip.
From Skopje we drove south towards Prilep (didn’t get a chance to go bouldering but it’s beautiful) and Bitola. For a while we even entertained the idea to drive to Albania via Greece but ultimately decided the detour wouldn’t be worth it as we were getting a bit tired of driving already. So onwards over Galičica NP and through Ohrid we went and into a curious little village of Vevčani which I highly recommend. The architecture is just crazy and a beautiful contrast to the surrounding villages of ugly Albanian style monstrosities. The springs coming out of a cave, running down next to paths are a nice addition as well.
Crossing into Albania wasn’t really as much of a shock as people will have you believe and the notorious roads were anything but a disaster. Perfectly normal, perfectly OK. We’ve certainly seen much worse previously in Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo. What was interesting though is the Albanian obsession with cleaning cars and their way of advertising the car wash “industry”. Set up a hose on a stand next to the road and just let it run all day, spraying anything that drives by. When you see the first one it draws momentary attention. When you see 20 in a row within 1 kilometer it becomes ridiculous. The amount of water wasted is mind boggling.
Sport climbing in Albania is limited to two or three areas near Tirana and only one of them has a published topo. If you need more info go to Climbing Albania page on Facebook and ask. There’s even a few helpful videos to get you started.
Since the Geoquest topo for the routes around Bovilla reservoir is from 2010 there have been a few changes since and you might want to get some local help. The rock itself is perfect limestone, the views over the reservoir (drinking water!) are excellent and you can go for a refreshing swim in the canyon below the dam.
There are a few peculiar features of course. The first is the road up past the quarry which could, to put it mildly, use some care and attention. The second is the strange idea of spray painting the bolts in Lake View Sector. Who came up with that stupidity remains unknown. Although, it does make it much easier to find the routes as the large red circles are visible from far away.
We climbed John’s Idee (5a/4c), Bohrlaub (5a) and Variante (5b) then abseiled down the wall on Toprope for practice as the sun was coming down. All in all it’s a beautiful area with almost unlimited potential for short and long routes of all difficulties. Hopefully it eventually develops into something big. It certainly deserves it. Ceuse, Verdon and Paklenica can’t touch it :)
Albania was notable for another reason, I finally got to see a proper tourist scam. The first time was entirely our fault and I had a feeling it would happen before it ever did. We were only in the country for a short while and had no local currency. It was lunch time and we didn’t drive past any cash machines so we went into a restaurant where they happily agreed we can pay in Euros. I expected an unfavourable exchange rate, I was just wondering how bad it was going to be. Turns out we gave them almost a 100% tip but as it was still very reasonable I didn’t really care.
The second time was coming down to civilisation from Bovilla. Our car was dirty and the roadside lavazh signs were everywhere so we decided to try if they’re any good. As we stopped at the first decent looking one Jonna stepped out to inquire about the price while I stayed in the car. They didn’t speak any English so they quickly gathered a larger group to crowdsource some words together. She had a piece of paper and a pencil so they could write down the amount. I can’t remember exactly but let’s presume it was 200lek which is just over one Euro. We agreed but when she tried to pay with notes they tried to convince us that the 200 is actually worth only 20. That you have to subtract zeros from the note to get the actual value. Now, since I still remember the late 80s in Yugoslavia and the inflation, where you did actually have to add/subtract zeros from banknotes (they didn’t bother to print new ones to keep up with the fluctuations), I gave it about 2 extra seconds of consideration before telling her to get in and we drove off.
We then stopped at the next one, 100m down the road where we quickly got some help from a guy who spoke perfect English. We chatted while the car was being washed (with so much water pressure I was afraid the paint would come off), and all along we actually thought he was the owner of the business and even tried to pay him in the end. In total contrast with the group earlier he simply said he’s there because his own car is being cleaned on the other side of the wall. Oh, and he confirmed that you don’t actually have to subtract any zeros :)