Wild, untamed mountains, poverty, and massive depopulation. In the villages of northern Albania, some resist the temptation to escape to the city and hope for a new beginning, made of sustainable rural development and alternative tourism.
In Mërtur, just before a new sunset, the dense scent of thyme fills the air, almost intoxicating. At the top, the stony heart of the mountain seems to catch fire and the gaze is lost on the lines of the slope, which turn emerald green here and there. Under a gash of sky to the southwest, the sinuous fjord of Koman’s artificial lake shines again.
Many people hope that this strip of Albania, this proud and often bitter land, can be saved by what today condemns it: its marginality and isolation, which make it – at least potentially – one of the last “virgin” destinations in Europe for quality tourism, alternative to the routes of mass tourism.
At the moment, this seems more like an indefinite hope than a real possibility to restore life to a bleeding region. Precise figures and statistics do not exist: according to the data collected by the Agropuka association, about 6,000 tourists visited the area in 2015. These are mainly people who come to visit friends and relatives, but also some actual tourists, looking for relaxation or adventure in the mountains of the region.
There is no lack of issues: few hotels, few agro-tourism facilities. Even from an environmental point of view, isolation has not always meant preservation of natural habitats. The first, chaotic years of transition were marked by massive, indiscriminate deforestation, which has left deep scars on the landscape and created the conditions for a strong erosion of the slopes.
The beauty of the landscapes of this unique land, however, is unquestionable, like the secular tenacity of those who were born and live in these mountains, and are perhaps condemned to love them in spite of themselves.
The odds today are all against, or almost so: it is difficult for tourism to become an important resource without an overall strategy, made of initiatives from below, but also of promotion, marketing, synergies with other regions of Albania and, why not, the Balkans – all things that cannot happen without the intervention and guidance of the national institutions.
Meanwhile, Mërtur, Blinisht, and the mountain villages await, survive, fight, do not give up. They hope not to wither, to regain lymph and vitality, and to come out again after the winter, tender and stubborn, like the “flower that grows on the stone”.
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