In the afternoon, the pace slows to a walk as my horse No Name tackles the narrow paths of the mountains, grunting resentfully as his hooves slither for grip on shifting stones or slide perilously over rock.
Unexpectedly, Albania comes second to Finland in Europe’s per capita hydro-electric tables and much of that power is generated in this often rainy and densely wooded area. The villages, built into the hillsides with walls and roofs hewn out of rock, are almost invisible until you ride into them. Often the first sign of habitation is a communal water trough fed by natural springs, a moment of intense relief for horses and riders. “Perfectly safe to drink,” says Auron briskly, brushing aside any potential whimpers about purification tablets with obvious contempt. Thankfully, he is proved right.
Elaborate Orthodox churches, often in poor repair but with icons lit by naked bulbs glowing in dark interiors, hint at a prosperous past, but there is no disguising the impoverished present or the bleak future. Summer is the time for subsistence activities, meticulously tended vegetables, a cow and a goat, a rabbit hutch, a rampant vine, but in snow-locked winter, there is absolutely nothing to do. The inevitable result is depopulation, with the younger generation heading south to earn a living and the older one toughing it out in homes they cannot bear – or afford – to leave.
As the sun goes down, an octogenarian, one of five year-round residents in a hamlet that has clearly seen much better days, welcomes Auron with smiles and hugs. As we sit on her shady terrace, she heats the coffee pot while her son, on holiday from his construction job in Athens, breaks out a bottle of rakia. “Many of the people I grew up with are in Greece,” he says. “Not that there’s much work down there, but we’re finished here.”
Mournful thoughts, but he does not allow them to spoil a merry cocktail hour.