Travel back in time following the medieval Zagoria caravan pathways into a land of myths, tales and ballads. Starting in Gjiroksater, the circular mountainous route passes through ancient ruins of the Illyrian civilization, medieval villages and many remote churches and monasteries. You will soak in rural Albanian traditions by staying with local people and riding through vibrant, unspoilt natural landscapes.
The horses used on this ride are a local breed mix of Tarpan and Arab horses. They are small but perfectly suited to the rocky terrain being surefooted and accustomed to trekking long mountainous routes, allowing riders to feel confident, relaxed and free to enjoy the stunning views.
You will meet friendly locals and learn about their traditions while enjoying accommodation as guests in local homes. Your luggage will be transported by car with the most necessary things in saddle bags on your horse. The guides are professional and good company. The main objective of this ride is to celebrate the harmony between humankind, horses and nature.
Please Note: The opinions expressed in these reviews are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unicorn Trails Ltd. These reviews are "directly from the horses mouth" and unedited. Unicorn Trails may make additional comments for clarification clearly identified in red.
Review received from EK of London on 26/04/2019
Plan your flight to arrive at Tirana airport ideally in the morning, but no later than 15:00 - this leaves time for the transfer and to be able to visit the town of Gjirokstra. Driving to Gjirokastra will take round 3-4 hours. Settle into your hotel, 10 minutes walking from the centre of historical Gjirokastra .You can have a walk around the historical town and the old Bazaar before dinner. Riders can also visit Enver Hoxha’s house, Gjirokastra castle, the church of the Old Bazaar, the mosque of the Bazar and Skenduli house representing an ideal sample of Gjirokastra traditional life. Dinner will be served at a traditional restaurant. During dinner your guides will be able to speak to you about the trail: possible requests or needs, advice and things which are good to know. We recommend that you buy a map of the area before dinner in order to gain a good understanding of the itinerary.
After breakfast at the hotel and allocation of horses, we will start to ride through the countryside towards the medieval village of Karjan. This village is traditional, a rural stop of the passing caravans with its small churches and old roman bridge. The road to reach this destination passes through a rural environment; small houses, gardens, traditional farming and cultivation of the land. The route combines hilly landscapes, valleys, small water streams and cliffs. This path also passes along the view of River Drino, “Tree of Life” river. It is the most important water basin in the area and part of ancient pagan beliefs. Along the route you will meet the ruins of the castle of Santa Triada reconstructed during 1809-1810 by Ali Pasha, a strategic point to control all the caravan itineraries. The castle ruins were used later during the time of socialism for military issues. We will stop for a picnic lunch just near the village of Erind. After around 4-5 hours riding we will reach Karjan village where a traditional dinner and accommodation will be hosted by a local family. In the afternoon you can be part of the family activities and also help to feed, clean and water the horses.
After breakfast we will continue further north to the villages of Small Labova and the valley of Cajupi. We will follow the ancient merchant’s coble stone road of Zhapa with its mountain panorama, wide view of the hills and valleys. The first break will be in Small Labova, a village well known all over the south for its wonderful Church and the big houses belonging to the merchants which are now mostly ruined. Labova is the birthplace of Vangjel Zhapa, the organiser of the first Modern Olympic Games. Zhapa was a well-known businessman and philanthropist who lived around 200 years ago. After visiting the church a very unique medieval building you will start riding up the mountain. You will be impressed by the mountain's rare vegetation such as mountain tea, oregano, wild rose and other endemic plants like digitalis or 'Dig–Dag' as it's known locally. We follow the mountain path to the valley of Cajupi where we stop by a cattle of 1000 sheep to visit shepherds and spent lunch with them. You will have the chance to taste the Brati famous spring water, a typical station of the old caravans with its small tower “karakoll”. After a nice gallop through Cajupi valley, the trail will follow the medieval Caravan pathway with its famous bandit hideout 'Hija e Mallkuar' or 'The Cursed Shadow'. From here, medieval thieves could rob the caravans passing through Zagoria. The final destination of today will be the village of Nderan, placed in the heart of Zagoria region. We will stay with a Vllah linguistic minority family and this will be our destination for two nights. Dinner will be a delicious mixture of local products, raki and wine. You can join the local life and accompany the family during the milking process, dinner preparation or have a look at the families, farming animals and garden.
This morning you will wake up feeling the effect of the mountain air. Breakfast will be traditional mountain food; fresh homemade bread, cookies, butter, jam, eggs, cheese, honey and milk. A cup of mountain tea is very typical for this region. On your way to Lliar, Hoshteva, Koncka and Nivan villages you will encounter various terrain combining hard cliffs, rivers, woods and rolling hills. The beautiful scent of flowers, mountain fresh air, wild landscapes, shepherds and animals will also be part of your day. You will continue riding to the most important horse pathway of the XVII and XVIII century which used to connect the biggest commercial centres in Southern Albania. A very beautiful natural monument is the Rock of Zhej that can be seen along the way. We will stop for a short break at the water spring of Lliar, reconstructed by Ali Pasha in the early XIX century. We will take a challenging downhill route to the ruins of a medieval stone bridge (the bridge collapsed in February 2018) where it is possible to take a refreshing swim during summer months. Hoshteva, a unique church which was initially built in 999AC and last restored in 1866 has a very particular style with lots of pagan elements in the wall paintings. We will also pass by the byzantine church of Lliar and the monastery of Nivan Saint Mehilli, built in 1702. We will ride over the medieval bridge built in the same period to connect the monastery with Nderan village, one of the famous centres of medieval livestock fairs and which again will be your overnight residence. You will spend the night at the same Vllah family house.
This morning will be a really exciting equestrian experience. After a fresh country breakfast we will ride through a mountain valley, perfectly suited for gallops, passing small remote farms, wild cliffs and many historical small routs off the tourist trail. The route through Pogoni region is a true travel in time. We will be passing by ancient ruins and mythical natural wonders. Our picnic lunch will be near the most famous stone bridge of Hllomo or Kacarello’s, which is the most isolated construction of the merchant’s period and can only reached by horse. In the afternoon, after 5 hours of riding we will reach the centre of the Pogon region. The mountain village of Polican is populated by a Greek minority. You will spent the night with a Greek minority family. In their company you have the chance to explore some very particular cult monuments of the medieval period. Later in the evening you will enjoy local gastronomic delights. This village is one of the most important territories of mountain honey in South Albania and it offers nearly 10 different tastes of honey as per season and bee pasture.
This morning you will leave the Greek minority behind to reach the town of Libohova. The route will pass through demanding but beautiful mountain landscapes with a vast finish at the Swallow Rock, 500m over the river of Suha. Our picnic lunch point will be either Suha river depending on the weather for swimming or the Church of Labova of the Cross. In both cases we will visit this rare monument representing the oldest church in Albania, built by Justinian the Great in 554. Justinian married Teodora his wife at the small chapel of this village and the villagers inherited her wedding dress for centuries. This church is decorated with an old wooden iconostas full of floral and symbolic animal scenes.
Later in the afternoon we will ride to Libohova, a small town nestled at the foot of the Bureto Mountain. The archaeological evidence indicates a very ancient settlement which reached its zenith in the 17th-century when it became an important commercial centre. During the afternoon is possible to take a long walk and visit Libohova’s castle, a Bektashi cult object and to the tomb of Ali Pasha’s sister, Shanisha. You will overnight in a local family house and will taste delicious local food. You can participate in the farm life by helping, cooking, feeding the horses, enjoying local music etc. This day is a 5 hour ride.
Today will be a short riding day of 3.5 hours. This morning you will ride through rolling hills, Drino’s valley and few water streams before climbing a steep hill to reach Antigonea National Park where we will stop for a visit. Antigonea was built by King Pyrrhus in 295 BC and named after his first wife Antigona, daughter of King Ptolemeus of Egypt. After the break we will ride for 1 more hour to the stables where you can enjoy the experience of letting free your horses. A picnic lunch will follow in the village close to the stables. You will be accommodated at the same hotel in Gjirokastra. The afternoon is free in order to prepare your leave, visit museums or buy souvenirs. Your farewell dinner will take place in a small restaurant in the old Bazaar. Later in the evening we can have a drink in a popular bar.
After breakfast at the hotel you will be transferred back to the airport of Tirana or the port of Saranda.
It may be possible to pay for a single supplement on the first and last night of the trail, but riders must be prepared to share accommodation on the other nights. The single supplement is payable on-site.
Small Group Supplement
Please see 'Detailed Prices' for the small group supplement price. This is applicable if only 2 riders are booked onto the ride. If, at the time of departure, more than 2 riders are booked, the small group supplement will be refunded.
Meeting-points: Tirana airport (TIA) or Saranda Port - fly to Corfu and take the boat to Saranda (CFU).
Tirana airport to Gjirokastra: two transfers are organised from the airport every Saturday, the first one at 12 o’clock and the second at 15:00 pm. Flights that fit the normal transfer schedule should be planned to arrive no later than 15:00 pm and departures not earlier than 12 o’clock (midday).
Riders that arrive in Tirana one day in advance will need to plan to arrive at the airport for the transfer of 12 o’clock or 15:00pm. We can’t organise group transfers from Tirana. It is very easy and cheap to reach Tirana airport by bus. There is a bus every hour starting from the center of Tirana (behind the opera palace)
Note: riders can book a private transfer if it is impossible to book flights that fit normal transfers schedule. Private transfer from or to Tirana airport: 1 person - €100 (one way); 2 people €120 (one way for both); 3 people or more €50pp one way.
Saranda port transfers:
Transfers can be organised based to the ferry timetable for 2021. This is usually once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Please note: All itineraries are given for your guidance only and it may be altered on the ground and in accordance with the prevailing conditions by the organising team.
The horses are a mix of Arab and Tarpan cross horses. These breeds were mentioned in the ancient chronicles from the time of the King Skerdilajd. The horses are up to 14hh tall (145cm) and they can be ridden very easily by both English and Western riders. Although small, the horses are very strong and surefooted - they know their way round mountainous paths, this rocky landscape is their natural environment.
A typical riding day of 5 hours will have a minimum of 2 stops, one of them will be for the picnic lunch delivered by car or in the saddlebags depending on the riding day. The first break will usually be for around 10 minutes and the lunch break is usually around 1 hour. The usual distance covered in 5 hours is around 30-35km km. The ride combines all paces of riding from walking, climbing steep hills and riding downhill to trotting over old stone routes and cantering in wide valleys. The trails are considered to be fast. The riders must be prepared for changing landscape and pace - trusting the horse and letting him decide is very important about riding in this area.
Every riding trail has two guides if there are more than 4 riders, one in front and the other at the back. The guide at the back is responsible for everything technical; saddle fixing, noticing riding problems, looking after the weakest riders etc. The front guide is responsible to lead, explain, translate and choose the pace. Our guides are knowledgeable in terms of horsemanship, First Aid, history, archaeology and biology. They also speak English, Italian and Greek.
-Ilir, a biology graduate, is a calm and polite person. You won’t see him ever doing something that is not enough safe and protective. He likes to share thoughts but is very interested in listening too.
-Aurel, a history graduate, is a funny energetic person who likes laughing and joking. He makes the trail interesting by motivating everyone in the group.
-Kristina, a History, Archeology and Finance graduate, is a talkative person full of energy and fond of fast riding. You can learn a lot about many historical details and points of cultural interest if she is the guide of that week, sometimes more than necessary!
-Blendi is mostly shy and calm but very effective in helping and solving any kind of technical issues. He has a very good knowledge in local experience of first aid in nature.
Riders must be able to walk, trot and canter and ready to spend 4-6 hours in the saddle everyday over varied terrain and landscape. Being generally fit and having an adventurous nature will also help on this trail! Help to mount or dismount can be provided by the guide.
There is no age limit but there is a strict weight limit of 90 kg. On difficult paths every rider should be able to walk beside their horse but for no longer than 10 minutes and this is only most likely to be during the 3rd and 4th day. Riders participation with grooming and tacking up is not obligatory as help is provided all the time by the guides.
The weight limit for this ride is 198 lb/90 kg, please enquire if you are an experienced rider exceeding this weight.
Accommodation is in twin bedded rooms in family guesthouses with a shared bathroom.
Night 1: Babameto Guest House in Gjirokastra. This is a traditional hotel. Twin rooms with private en-suite toilet and communal showers, free Wi-Fi. N
ight 2: Family house in the village of Karjan. 2 beds per room, shared toilet, hot shower, TV.
Night 3: Family house in the village of Nderan. 2 beds per room, 2 shared toilets, hot shower, TV.
Night 4: Same family house in the village of Nderan. 2 beds per room, 2 shared toilets, hot shower, TV.
Night 5: Family house in the village of Polican. 2 beds per room, shared toilet, hot shower, TV.
Night 6: Family house and family hotel in the small town of Libohova. 2 beds per room, 2 shared toilets, hot shower, TV. If the riding group has more than 4 riders, the rest of the group will be accommodated in a small family hotel nearby.
Night 7: Babameto Guest House in Gjirokastra, as on Night 1.
Brief description of typical meals: Breakfast: Home cooked breakfast with pies, cookies, butter, jam, eggs, milk, mountain tea and coffee.
Lunch: picnic lunch can be packed by the riders themselves in the family houses (bread, cheese, vegetables, eggs, pies, water) except the first riding day in both trails (cooked traditional meal and drinks alcoholic or canned)
Dinner: rich traditional dinner with different meat (calf, pig, chicken, goat and fish), vegetables, pies, chesse, salads, wine and raki. Wine or raki (traditional alcoholic drink ) are included during dinners with the food.
Tea, coffee or milk are also available with breakfast and dinner. Lunches represent picnic food prepared by the hosting families and packed by the riders themselves each morning.
Vegetarian or other dietary requirements can be accommodated with advanced notice. Please contact Unicorn Trails with requests.
All travelers will need a passport valid for at least 90 days following your departure date from Albania.
Most destinations, including Albania, require that you have adequate un-used pages in your passport, allowing for any necessary stamps upon arrival and departure. For British passport holders, please consult the FCO website to check if this destination is suitable for you https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/albania
For US and Canadian citizen travel advice please see https://www.usa.gov/travel-and-immigration
The best months to visit Albania are from April to September. Although precipitation is quite high in Albania there is less rain during these months and because of the continental air mass, most precipitation is over the central highlands. Albania has a high number of climatic regions relative to its landmass - the coastal lowlands have a typically Mediterranean climate; the highlands have a Mediterranean continental climate. This ride takes place in southern Albania which is around 5 degrees warmer than the rest of the country. You will experience different types of weather on the trail; from cooler mountainous air to a warmer climate down on the coast.
See your GP for information on any vaccines you may require before your trip.
Please take along sun cream and anti-allergy medicine for possible insect bites.
Sockets in Albania are of the two round pin varieties.
Electricity in Albania is 230 Volts, alternating at 50 cycles per second. If you travel to Albania with a device that does not accept 230 Volts at 50 Hertz, you will need a voltage converter.
Internet access will be difficult during the ride. Riders can buy an Albanian sim card/phone number for around €12 and have free internet access and around 30 minutes of free calls with most European countries, including England.
Access to electricity is possible every evening and the whole area is covered very well with signal.
Normal riding clothes: riding hat, long sleeved shirts (please avoid packing your favourite or expensive clothing due to risk of damage), riding trousers and chaps, gloves.
Good mountain shoes - with a grip for walking but not too thick as you will need to ride in them too. Normal riding boots with a smooth sole are not recommended as they can be slippery when walking on foot.
Casual clothes for the evening
Sun cream, sunglasses, hat
Anti-allergy medicine for possible insects bites
Camera - please bring small cameras as large professional ones are very difficult to transport on horseback.
Copy of passport
Personal saddlebags are welcome if riders would like to bring their own. Small saddlebags are provided by the ride but just for food and water. Travel Caravan encourage riders to bring their own water bottles to reduce plastic usage.
This is an 8 days/7 nights programme with 6 riding days available on set dates
2021: 27 Feb; 6, 13, 20, 27 Mar; 3, 10, 17, 24 Apr; 8, 15, 29 May; 12, 26 Jun; 3 Jul; 14, 28 Aug; 4, 18 Sept; 16, 23, 30 Oct; 6, 13, 20, 27 Nov; 4 Dec.
If available, €20 per night on Night 1 and 7, payable on-site.
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Books: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/708124.Chronicle_in_Stone http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6588364-i-humburi http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1036877.Biografi http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1866273.Women_Who_Become_Men http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/797635.The_Palace_of_Dreams Movies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slogans_(film) http://www.ranker.com/review/the-albanian/62789813
The riding area of this trail is also the natural habitat of wild goat, wild pig, deer and mountain bears (it is very rare to see a bear on the trail). You might also spot foxes, rabbits, eagles, turtles, lizards, snakes and a variety of birds.
Flora and Fauna: If we refer to the Albanian species, of which are 3250, 13% belong to Gjirokastra´s territory. There are lots of medicinal and curative plants. The number reaches up to 50 kinds of such plants. The most widely spread animals are hares, deer, wild boars, martens, bears, wild cats etc. Different kinds of fish like trout, eels and many more lurk in the rivers.
The trail is not suitable for non-riding companions.
Gjirokastra, the first and last destination on this trail, is a wonderful town in south Albania and is recognised for its history, heritage, culture and cultural monuments. Known as “the city of one thousand steps”, Gjirokastra has been under the protection of UNESCO since 2005 and is nominated as a World Heritage Site. The castle, the traditional ottoman style buildings, Enver Hoxha’s house and the New Bazaar are the main objects to visit. The town itself is surrounded by charming villages, old byzantine churches, Sufi monasteries, ruins of antique towns, historical mountain paths, nature monuments, rivers and springs, woods, hospitable families and organic traditional foods.