Meeting the sky in Korça

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 29, 2017 08:01

Meeting the sky in Korça

Story Highlights

  • The extreme winter adventures of Albania’s undiscovered southeast

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By Sidonja Manushi

“Kiss your phone, radio and 3G signal goodbye once we’re up there,” Juli Bejko, sociology professor and part-time professional paraglider, said at the beginning of the trip, still in messily urban Tirana. His tone held a bit of a fair warning mixed with the satisfaction of someone speaking from experience.

The destination was the picturesque, mountain-hidden town of Dardha, in the Korca County. Positioned in the south-west of Albania, it takes minimally two hours and a half to drive there on a good day with minimal traffic. It took six hours and a half this frosty December Saturday, with Korca being a favorite destination for Albanian families during the winter holidays and the route going through some of the most Instagram-worthy winter landscapes of the country, making any nature lover step on the car breaks every other half hour.

Albania’s diversified natural beauty – from its turquoise sea-line to its deep mountains and ancient castles – comes to full force upon seeing unmoving, crystalized rivers giving way to small cafes in the edge of villages which in turn reveal the magnificent Ohrid Lake and, later, the Morava Mountain, host of the stone-tiled roofs of Dardha.

The first to go was the radio signal. In return, with the altitude rising, the signs of clean, sparkly, coated snow started to appear on the sides of the narrow car road, on the surface of leaves, and on the entirety of the evergreen conifer trees covering the mountainsides in the distance. Shortly after, the small lines on the top-left corner of the phone signaling it’s reachable disappeared one by one, as the road became a slithering path following the scarcely populated mountainous villages. By the time a wooden sign welcoming people to the touristic village of Dardha appeared, and another warning littering is strictly forbidden, Juli’s prediction had come alive – the middle of nowhere was positively signal less.

“It is a great place to emotionally prepare to paraglide, get in touch with nature and really experience the Albanian holiday spirit,” Juli said once the car was parked, and we were wandering around Dardha’s narrow, ascending and descending, stone-covered streets looking for our lair for the night in the midst of the town’s small, similarly old and traditional houses.

Wherever there was a view to behold, people were already there, taking pictures of it. The contrast between locals and visitors couldn’t be any more visible – with the temperatures showing minus, visitors, ourselves included, were walking dressed in layers, red-nosed and obviously perplexed to be witnessing so much snow, probably the rarest winter sight in Tirana and other central Albanian cities. The locals, on the other hand, could be spotted in porches and front yards, feeding chickens or doing end-of-the-year chores, sometimes amusedly staring at us, with nothing but light jackets on.

“You are young girls,” an old, wrinkled but overly energetic woman joked while we passed her house. “Don’t shake from cold, let your blood flow.”

And then she continued making filo pastry in front of her house’s ornamented wooden door, in the most traditionally Albanian scene possible.

“They don’t get enough tourists to be annoyed by them,” Juli explained as we got closer to our house and saw the owners subletting it waiting on the steps, waving with hospitality. “Dardha is this crowded only during December, with the winter holidays and the ski resorts opening up. It is forgotten during the rest of the year, and the locals are left with one another again.”

Indeed, the owners – and the first locals to really have a chance to talk to – seemed genuinely glad to be meeting us, the woman hugging us despite the lack of previous familiarity and the man replacing traditional greetings with exclamations of “don’t hesitate to call us for whatever you may need, we are right next door!”

Another trade-off for letting go of all the shortcuts that make life easier in the city, such as the internet and phone signal, besides the mountainous views and oxygen-filled air, I soon realized, was the celebrated Albanian hospitality, magnified in these small, time-forgotten villages where the chaos of every-day life has yet to settle in.

The woman,Rovena, showed us the way inside excitedly, asking if the trip to Dardha was tiring and whether all four of us girls were planning to paraglide in Korca tomorrow. Once we all crossed the front door, however, she paused and let us take in the house, surely aware of the impression it would cause from all the previous guests they had hosted.

The beautiful and uniform façade Dardha’s little houses create on the outside left little doubt their interior was just as impressive, and yet imagination can only do them little, if any, justice.

The house we would spend Saturday night in, waiting for the air currents to make the extreme sport of paragliding possible the next day, seemed as if taken out of a fairytale. The walls were stony, and the stones looked as if they were slowly placed one by one on top of each other many years ago, and remained in place by sheer force of magic. The house had a hall that led to two spacious rooms, each with an old, black stove in the middle – the ones now only found in old Albanian houses; the ones that need real wood to make fire and attract people around them on cold winter nights to tell tales and roast chestnuts, drink wine and safely look at the cold snow falling outside.

Where normal houses have nightstands, this one had hang stands – natural pieces of wood hanging from the walls in thick chains, with melting candles sitting on hand-knit traditional Albanian clothes called centro, transmitting a feeling of medieval beauty and mysticism. Most importantly, where normal houses have balconies facing other houses, this one had a balcony for each room, and each balcony had a breathtaking view of the mountains from all sides, unending, snow-covered and with a myriad of stars playing as the sparkling lights of the most stylishly decorated Christmas tree.

“I know it’s difficult to believe but yes, all houses do look like that here,” Juli, now having officially turned into this trip’s tour guide, said looking at our awe-stricken faces.

Rovena nodded behind him. After letting us walk from one room to the other astonished for a few more minutes, obviously satisfied with our positive impressions, she started giving us tips for survival: where to find woods for the stove, how to put them inside, how to handle the sink so the water doesn’t freeze during the night, where to shop and what to see…after an unanimous request, she also agreed to make us dinner: Korca’s traditional lakror, made of special pastry that melts into your mouth like homemade traditional dishes only can.

By the time she left to make dinner, the Christmas tree was lit, the wood inside the stoves was happily crackling and none of us could even remember why we needed phones and internet in the first place. It was real novelty, to have your lungs expand with fresh air every time the balcony door opened and to step out and feel the dry cold give you goosebumps that could so easily be rid of once you rushed back next to the stove that, along with the heat, released the joyous smell of burning wood.

A bit later, while waiting for dinner time in a tavern just as traditional and warm as the house we’d just left, Juli introduced us to the basics of paragliding over a glass of grape rakia.

“For starters, no drinking is allowed 24 hours prior to flying,” he said, but immediately smiled seeing our panicked faces at the mention of the word ‘flying’. “Since you need it to loosen up a bit, I will allow it in this case, but only if you promise to get a full 12 hours sleep tonight.”

Talking to beginners, he had to explain a lot of things, from what got him to paragliding in the first place, to how long it took him to learn, to the popularity this sport has gained lately in Albania among tourists to what was expected of us, planning to fly over Korca the next morning.

“I dreamt about flying since I was a little kid,” he told us, and the fire behind his back and burning rakia in our throats made him look like the most appealing tale-teller in the world. “And when a rational person gets caught up in a fiery passion, he will go to great lengths to make his dream true.”

He told us how, in order to get a bank loan, he had to give up another thing he loved – smoking cigarettes. Flying stood higher in his hierarchy of needs than smoking ever did. The bank loan did not go towards flying lessons, or hiring an instructor, but only to buy a flying set on e-bay. After that, Juli taught himself how to fly, every day, for three months in a row.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he admitted. “Normally, I should have crashed into tiny little pieces on the first day, come back in a coffin on the second, get utterly lost on the third. But this is the psychological-spiritual experience that is more important than the technical method of learning.”

“Since then,” he said, “it has been nine years, 1300 solo and double flights, endless pleasures and adventures and the constant feeling of going to sleep and waking up in complete peace with the universe.”

Despite the inward panic, understandable fear of the unknown and doubt whether repeatedly telling Juli I was ready to paraglide was the right thing to do, hearing him talk about his passion, which he has been professionally practicing with Fly Club Albania since 2008, gave everyone present a rush of happiness and confidence, as well as the ability to see beyond fear and straight to the vitality experiences like paragliding offer.

Then, he told us we didn’t even have to jump from the mountain slope – an element particularly terrifying for two of us girls scared of heights – and we breathed with ease again. Paragliding, with its light, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft that has no rigid primary structure, only takes running down a mountain slope for a few meters and the right wind direction to get you flying, while the pilot, who sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing, simply needs to direct you and make sure you don’t chicken out in the last minute.

“Well that’s easy then,” Lorena, who was to fly second the following day, said with ease. “I can run better than I can jump.”

“You say that now. But a lot of people get weak knees on the last moment, especially women. They see the view, the extreme height and the thin piece of fabric that will keep them on the air and loose it,” Juli warned.

But his speech had set the wheels of excitement going, and that was obvious in everyone’s faces. The anticipation followed us that night, making the lakror and home-made wine tastier, the roasted chestnuts sweeter, and the conversations livelier. It was the atmosphere, the feeling of having stepped in a parallel universe of enjoying the simplest pleasures in life…but it was also the knowledge of a great experience pending, one countless tourists now pay to experience in Albania every year.

Anticipation was still with us the next day, from the forty-minute car ride to Korca all the way to the time it took us to climb to the top of the Morava mountain-peak from which we would run off into the air.

There was an orthodox church on top of the mountain, and with fear slowly raising its ugly head again now that the moment of action was so close, I thought its location was ironic, as if paragliders had chosen to fly close to the church so that people could say their last prayers. The amateur Bulgarian paragliders already there, however, did not seem to share my insight. They simply run the moment they were ready, looking nowhere but ahead, no traces of fear coming from their postures, down the mountain slope and then afloat, like gigantic birds. Seeing them go one after the other gave me courage, while Juli strapped my sit around my body and placed the helmet on top of my head.

“No going back now buddy,” he said and hit my helmet playfully, as if to give me courage. Seeing the returning fear however, he got into a mode of admirable professionalism.

“Hey, you just need to run. I don’t want you worrying about anything else. We will have enough time once we’re in the air to think about the rest, but for now I only want you to run; don’t stop, don’t jump, run. We have only one chance with the air current, so let’s make it count.”

He did not talk anymore while waiting for exactly the right time to begin from fear of creating confusion in my head. I did not talk either, from fear. With the words run, run, run, flashing in front of my eyes like neon signs, the ten minutes we had to wait seemed like ten seconds and, before realization kicked in, Juli was shouting “run!” in my ears with the excitement of a little kid on a roller coaster. The rest was history.

It would take repeating the experience of paragliding several more times, in different locations and seasons, to fully describe its grandiosity. It is a highly individual feeling, one each person should experience at least once to understand. Time ceases to exist once you’re flying, just like the petty feelings of worry, stress, anxiety, or joy, excitement, curiosity. What remains is content and the deep-seeded desire to see and experience all life has to offer.

And it seems Albania has to offer a lot. On the way back, we reluctantly regained our contact with the outside word, while our minds and hearts were still dwelling in Dardha, the cleansing snow and tasty food, the welcoming people and warm, beautiful rooms and the magical landscapes available both from the ground and, especially, up in the air…and,in the meanwhile, I thanked Juli, time and time again, for deciding to bravely go after his passion and enable me and thousands of others to experience one of the highlights of existence.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 29, 2017 08:01