Albania is part of the Dinaric Arc Parks project funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs through WWF-Norway. I am on a project mission to see two of the national parks in the portfolio. Valbona National Park in the Albanian Alps is one of them.
This is my first time in Valbona National Park and in Albania for that matter, and I am overwhelmed by breathtaking scenery. We stop for lunch at one of the guest houses in the Valbona valley. It is called Kol Gjoni after its owner, a quintessentially Albanian man of proud stature, a mischievous smile through big moustache and a most sincere hospitality. First thing we get offered is a glass of raki but since I am not a big fan of it I get a glass of fresh goat milk which tastes delicious.
We then talk to him throughout our lunch and learn lots of interesting facts about him and his guest house.
When did you start your guest house?
– I started about seven years ago. Before, I used to cut trees illegally for a living.
Who do you employ in your guest house?
– It is a family business run by me and my wife and our three boys and a daughter. Children mainly help during the summer when they are free from their studies. And if I need extra help I employ my neighbours.
Do you get tourists both summer and winter?
– Yes, mainly in the summer but for the last two years tourists have started to come in the winter as well. They come for skiing and snowshoeing.
How much does it cost to stay at your place?
– A bed, dinner and breakfast with packed lunch costs 20 euros. We have no menu here and serve food that is seasonal and locally produced. I myself own goats (a local breed called Caporja) and make cheese and can offer goat meat to guests. I also have beehives. If I need extra produce I buy it from my neighbours but make sure it is of top quality. For example, I give them a sample of the cheese I make and explain that I will only buy the same quality cheese from them.
When were you most happy – as an illegal tree cutter or as a guest house owner?
– Dealing with tourists can be stressful as I always worry whether I will make them happy. But in the end of the day I feel satisfaction when I see that I have managed to make them happy. I would not do anything else now, I enjoy it. I once told a journalist that if he offered me to be prime minister of Albania I would refuse. And he published it. But I really mean it. I would rather be my own boss and run my guest house.
It should be mentioned that lunch was absolutely delicious! The goat meat was the most tender I have ever tasted and the selection of local dishes was beyond praise. Afterwards we have a bit of a tug of war to make him accept payment. Kol says that some Catholic nuns taught him that he should charge his guests but it still goes against his instinct.
As far as I know, Valbona valley has a number of local guest houses. If they all offer such an authentic experience, I have no doubt that more and more tourists will visit the national park in the future. Pesonally I would love to return here again.
For more on my project mission to Albania, see previous blog post: Discovering Albania: