Has it really been nine days?!? Although I've uploaded some photos and sent two brief updates, it's been that long since my last substantive post. To put that in perspective, in that time I've crossed two international borders and one time zone and venerated the relics of two saints.
When last I wrote, I'd arrived in Prrenjas, just west of the border with the Republic of Macedonia. The next morning, I got an early start and headed towards the mountains. The Via Egnatia guidebook indicated that the trail branches off from the road at the first hairpin turn. The weather was brisk, but the snow I'd encountered in Librazhd was on the other side of the pass I'd crossed on my way to Prrenjas. I could see the snow on the peaks ahead of me, but the description of the trail in the guidebook sounded pretty straightforward, so I decided to take it and cut off several kilometres of walking along the looping road.
It was easy going until I passed the last of the houses. The "trail" I'd been expecting turned out to be goat tracks in the mud - literally! Fortunately, this was on the west side of the range that runs north-south, so the bright morning sun hadn't yet thawed the frozen ground. The goat prints made for very good traction up some fairly steep slopes. I was very grateful for my walking stick! "Two legs good, three legs better!" As I continued to ascend, the mud was replaced with snow, but the goat prints continued to help me. During the previous afternoon (or two or three), the snow cover had slushified in the sun and then froze solid overnight. I removed the rubber cap of my walking stick to expose the sharp metal point that dug right in instead of skittering across the rather thick shell of ice and carried on. (The view back over the valley was stunning, and the photos I posted to Flickr just don't capture it. There are times I regret mailing my camera home.)
I took a break at a snow-covered alpine meadow which had a large rock at a convenient height for sitting. (I put my accordion-folded foam sleeping pad on it for insulation.) After having a quick snack and some water, I headed off again. The thing is, there were no more goat tracks to follow. Instead, I picked up a trail that had been beaten into the snow by several different doggish critters. The paw prints ranged from medium to ginormous, so I figure I was tracking wolves. (My sharp pointy walking stick has multiple uses, but fortunately the stabby function wasn't required.) The trail ascended the slope in just the way I would've chosen to go myself, so I was content to keep heading up.
Finally the valley the tracks had been following became too steep, and the clearly defined trail dissipated in the low scrub. The slope was too steep for me to see how far I was from the ridge, so I started slogging up. By this time, the snow had been exposed to the morning sun for several hours, so instead of walking lightly along the top, each step I took sank at least ankle deep, and sometimes to my mid-calf. This was challenging, to say the least.
Although I still couldn't see the top of the slope, there were telecom relay stations on two peaks to either side of me, and they were steadily nearing. I knew that the road to the border was on the east side of the slope, but I didn't know how far below the crest it was. Still, I reasoned that there had to be a service road of some sort between the two stations, so I continued up the path of least resistance. When I finally cleared the ridge, Lake Ohrid lay far below me, and across the lake, the city itself. Seeing that brought me almost as much joy as finally spotting the road below me, with a set of footprints to follow.
Hmmm, I seem to have neglected to mention the wind. And the bitter cold. It's really quite amazing how much difference a few hundred metres in altitude can make. By the time I reached the road (and yes, it probably would've been faster to stay on the plowed paved surface), I had my scarf wrapped around my head and my hat pulled down against the wind, so there was very little exposed flesh. My eyes, upper cheeks, and the bridge of my nose was all that was showing. Small wonder that a car coming into Albania from across the border slowed while the passenger aimed her smartphone at me. Just as on my approach to the Great St Bernard Pass, that made me feel very manly and heroic.
The border crossing itself was uneventful. I got another stamp in my passport and continued on my way. (Again, it was a pretty good feeling to be waiting in line at the border ON FOOT, with cars on either side of me.) I knew that shortly after the border, a road led down to the shore of Lake Ohrid - with plenty of switchbacks. I'd hoped to take that and then walk through the small towns (i.e. places with cafés) to Struga, but my guess is the road hadn't been plowed. I was watching for it, but there were no breaks in the solid bank of snow to my right until I was long past the point where I could've turned.
Although the road had been well plowed at the border, as it gradually descended towards the plain, the road conditions grew worse. By the time I reached Struga, the entire road was covered in a sheet of ice ten centimetres thick, with ruts worn through to the pavement from the slow-moving traffic. The narrow twisty streets of Struga were even worse, and it was not at all unusual for pedestrians to be moving more quickly than (although just as carefully as) the traffic.
The first two hotels I tried had nobody at the reception desk, and no bell or other way of signalling my presence save hollering. (No response.) The third hotel had a restaurant on the ground floor, so I entered that way. The room was fantastic, the shower was delightful, and the WiFi signal was good enough for me to listen to the gold medal game between Canada and Russia online. I'd gone to bed early, with an alarm set for the 2:00 AM (local) start time. With only 14 kms to cover to Ohrid, I could afford to sleep in the next day. I only wish I could've watched it! (On January 11, a waiter at a café I stopped at told me he'd watched the game on TSN.) I went back to sleep at 4:30, very happy with the result.
This seems like a good place to end this update. On crossing in to Greece today, I lost an hour with the change in time zones, so it's later than my body realises. I should probably just say my prayers and head to bed, but I'll probably start composing my thoughts on my time in Ohrid before I go to sleep.