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Writer, translator, interpreter, specialist in Albanian studies

 

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A Passion for Theth:
Albania’s Rugged Shangri-la

by Robert Elsie, Gerda Mulder and Herman Zonderland

ISBN 978-90-76905-35-8
Skanderbeg Books, Utrecht & Tirana 2014
278 pp.

I have travelled a good deal in Albania over the last thirty years, but I must admit that I had never been to Theth. It was simply too remote and difficult to get to. When Gerda Mulder told me enthusiastically about her trips to Theth, I realised I had to go.

Theth is a tiny settlement in the northern Albanian Alps, northeast of Shkodra. It is situated in the Shala Valley of the mountainous Dukagjin region. Although it is not far from Shkodra as the crow flies, Theth is one of the most isolated regions of Europe. It seems centuries away.

Getting there still involves catching a rather run-down van (one a day at the most) that leaves a backstreet in Shkodra early in the morning and makes its way undauntingly over a high mountain pass on a narrow twisty road that does not seem to have been repaired since it was built in 1936.

Many figures more eminent than I had managed to get to Theth in the past. The Austro-Hungarian writers, Karl Steinmetz and Erich Liebert, reached the valley in 1904 independent of one another on their expeditions through the mountains. In their footsteps followed the noted Hungarian scholar Baron Franz Nopcsa who spent several years in northern Albania. He journeyed to Theth and beyond in order to scale and map the mountains and to investigate the reasons behind the notorious blood-feuding among the Highland tribes. His memoirs (forthcoming in English) leave us with a lucid account of his visit to Theth in 1907. The English traveller and writer, Edith Durham, journeyed through the Albanian Highlands in 1908 and so surprised the natives, as a woman travelling on her own, without a husband, that they were convinced she was the sister of the King of England. Her High Albania, London 1909, is perhaps the best book ever written on Albania in English. In 1921, the well-known American journalist Rose Wilder Lane visited the region with her girlfriend Frances Hardy in order to set up schools on behalf of the American Red Cross. The fruits of this journey are recorded in her book Peaks of Shala, London 1922, which was widely read at the time and went through several editions. Lastly, mention must be made of the restless Dutch writer, A. Den Doolaard, who visited Theth in 1932 while travelling through Albania on foot. This journey inspired one of his best-known novels, De Herberg met het hoefijzer (The Horseshoe Inn), Amsterdam 1933, a tale of murder and vendetta that was more real than anyone would have imagined at the time.

For my part, I arrived in Theth in style... on horseback. This was a modest adventure in itself because I had not been on a horse for over forty years. At any rate, my travelling companions and I rode gallantly up the mountains, over a 2,000 metre pass, and then down into the deep and verdant valley of Theth, that distant Shangri La. I, too, had finally made it.

Now, those who hear the word Shangri La, will probably conjure up a vision of an isolated mountain kingdom where the inhabitants live long lives in eternal bliss, harmony, prosperity and wisdom. Theth is, let it be said, none of this. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. It is bitterly poor, backward as only northern Albania can be, and certainly not harmonious. The male inhabitants of the Shala tribe still have the unfortunate tendency, on rare occasions, of shooting one another in longstanding blood feuds (for potential tourist, it must be stressed at this juncture that visitors are never shot!). And, eternal bliss? Well, you are more likely to hear the natives grumble bitterly about their situation and ask you why you bothered to go to Theth when you come from much nicer countries. And yet, Theth is indeed something very special. I can now understand Gerda Mulder's enthusiasm, which has become my own.

This book presents Theth as one of the many beautiful and untouched spots in the mountains of northern Albania. It offers the reader a selection of historical texts written by scholars, explorers and adventurers who got to Theth in years past, including a good number of intrepid women, and a presentation of Theth and the Shala Valley in the early years of the twenty-first century as seen and interpreted by Gerda Mulder. The charm of this rugged Shangri-La can be sensed in particular in the captivating pictures of Dutch photographer Herman Zonderland.

It is to be hoped that this book will inspire more people to visit and cherish the pristine and savage beauty of these remote valleys. A certain spirit of adventure is still needed, as it was a hundred years ago. But that is part of the fun.

Robert Elsie
The Hague, February 2013

 

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