Inner Rhythms of Albania | Far and Ride

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Inner Rhythms of Albania

Inner Rhythms of Albania by Laura Phipps

Exploring the inner rhythms of Albania is perhaps not at the top of your bucket list. It’s perhaps not a phrase too often heard in conversation. Perhaps recently you have been exploring the destinations that Far and Ride have to offer in the hope of being inspired into booking your next riding holiday. In choosing Albania you would be doing so much more than treating yourself.  Let the story of Kristina and her husband Aurel envelope you. Their match made a heaven for us all. Their match conjured up Caravan Horse Riding Albania.

A quick glance at the Far and Ride reviews conjures up a host of phrases anyone would be proud of including ‘wonderful equestrian and cultural adventure’, ‘the scenery took my breath away’, ‘great to visit local families and to experience the justifiably famous Albanian hospitality’, ‘ exceeded all my expectations’ and ‘amazing tough horses’. Indeed this ride is littered with landmarks and has a narrative driven by energy, determination and ambition. However such sparse detail ignores the attendant drama it took to bring you such a gilt edged opportunity in a world where horses did not exist for pleasure in a way that is largely unfathomable for most.  Kristina’s rise to the pinnacle of hosting horse trails has been remarkable and irresistible, widespread and deeply felt; not so much a golden highway but a mountainous crossing as she takes up the story “my family always lived in a town and had nothing to do with horses but my grandparents lived in a village far from everything; in another world. All my childhood summers were spent in the village with them. They were weird times when everything was collective and no-one owned animals apart from the public cooperatives. I was amazed by all the horses and mules that they were managing; of course not for riding but for transport. Horses were transporting bread, milk and vegetables. In the eyes of a 5 year old child the small Albanian mountain horses looked big, powerful and a real dream. I remember waiting for hours to see them climbing the hill of the village. A light brown with a long mane and tail leading the group was my hero. This was my first connection to horses and as I got older we had to secretly take the horses from their pasture during the day and bring them back in the afternoon. My grandmother had many problems; horse riding was considered a capitalist sport and all horses apart from the army ones were used in agriculture and transport. The breed suffered many problems due to a lack of proper care especially after the fall of communism. By then I was 12-13 years old and could understand many things including the fact that we could be free to dream, to talk and to build a different future. Things started to look enthusiastic but nothing was easy. I had to continue my studies and immediately after married a school friend, Aurel my husband. I started to work as a journalist and left behind my passion for horses as there were not many possibilities for us to have horses in our lives.”

Renting horses from a local farmer enabled them to explore the surroundings of their town, villages and mountains and in turn this lit the torchlight for Kristina to dream once again. A decision was made. A decision which has created fertile ground for guests to come hurtling in like a comet, enabling them to be dazzled before hurtling back to their own nests once again. Instead of making good with what they had, Kristina, Aurel and a childhood friend Illir ploughed themselves into the unknown as Kristina continues “we decided to stay in the country and try to build something here, first for our pleasure and later as a business. The beginning was crazy as we had no horses, no equipment, lost tradition, no paths, no clients, no one to ask advice from, no riding schools, there was no equestrian setup in the country at all. The first saddles arrived from India; I bought them online spontaneously one afternoon when we took the decision to finally start shaping a trail. With rented horses in not so good condition and Indian saddles, we started to explore the first paths surrounding us. We had to improve our riding skills slowly, learn more about horses, explore their natural life, check their special habits, reflect on the right equipment, change them, plan again and study online. It appeared so difficult and very often felt impossible. For two years every riding vacation agency we contacted to come and visit us either refused or didn’t answer. When hope was nearly lost one of the actual partners decided suddenly to come and visit us. They found the landscape amazing and the horses very strong. The idea that we shaped a trail ride to pass from village to village and mix with local peoples lives made a difference in their decision. They decided to sell the trail and soon the first group arrived. It was so emotional, hard and beautiful at the same time. A group of six people decided to come and ride when the country was so unknown, surrounded by xenophobia. Not one of them knew anything about us and no one locally would believe that this could happen. We were stopped by everyone along the way to be asked why we were doing this and why on horses and not cars. It was a fun ride and very authentic at the same time, a great memory with so many lessons learned.”

Lessons learned and further experience banked, the pair ploughed on with their tiresome development which did not only sweep themselves into ethereal orbit but collected twelve local families in their midst whom now form the bedrock of their trails. This is where your hard earned cash, cash earned to enjoy pleasures of horse riding holidays, is also supporting a community which, without Kristina’s dedication could have been lost as Kristina explains “building the network of local partners was not easy because houses were small, the mountains were forgotten and no one was offering any services up there although people were hospitable and very kind to welcome guests because as we say in Albania ‘the house of an Albanian belongs to God and guests.’ We tried to find, not the most modern houses in the area, but the most authentic and most representative of our culture. The partnership aimed to show the guests the real realities of the families here. And the reality in the mountains was sad. Only old people used to live there and 80% of the population emigrated or moved into the towns. Our guests could see and participate in real life challenges for the inhabitants of the mountains, their everyday activities such as gardening, livestock, milking, cheese making, cooking, baking in a traditional way, distilling Raki our national drink and singing or dancing. The families began to share with our guests their memories, their family pictures, their past and at the same time started to feel hope for their future. Their lives were lonely and they were missing people, chances and reasons to live. So riders were very welcomed. Everybody at the beginning thought we were all crazy but slowly people got used to us. Now those twelve local families in different areas are making a living from the trails.”

It would seems the couple’s unwavering enthusiasm knows no bounds as their magic has weaved a nest that has created livelihoods, created a boost for local businesses and lavishes upon your mind memories to cherish and tell as Kristina continues “apart from those twelve families, six other people (our full time employed team) are benefiting directly from our activity. Many local farmers are contracted by us to provide food for the horses. Hotels, bars, restaurants, parks, museums, small artisans and small producers also benefit from our activity. In general this initiative changed the mentality about tourism in the area and now more people are coming back to restore their houses and are thinking about offering tourism services. A community role is an important part of our strategy. We felt responsible from the beginning to change things for good. We are continuously empowering and inspiring local communities especially in remote mountainous areas not to abandon their traditional life but to build upon their resources for future alternative tourism. We have been advising many host families for years now how to protect and preserve their local traditions in order to be able to show the very original part of Albania’s life to their guests. We are trying to protect and better expose what still remained from the daily use objects, as well as elements of architecture, culinary, agriculture, crafts, local techniques, songs and language diversity. We are motivated to promote and protect cultural heritage monuments along our itineraries and we are trying to help with small donations for their maintenance. Additionally, our trails intend to protect and improve natural habitats. When possible we try to avoid stepping on the same paths and the use of recycled food, water and travel equipment is an objective our guests encourage, like and respect. Villages are cleaner compared to nine years ago when we started our activity. We always keep trash bags in our logistics car to transport waste that we can collect from the mountains. It still needs to improve but communities are more aware of the importance; people feel that they should clean because they are not abandoned anymore. Our paths are greener because illegal tree cutting can’t happen in front of witnesses’ eyes. We are encouraging and promoting the local pride on all the natural, cultural and traditional assets and really believe in it.”

The couple offer four trails; each beguiling, romantic, informative and historic and will sweep guests into a heady fugue. Those aforementioned phrases guests have used are proof if proof was somehow still needed that the fabric of this fabulous offering is indeed woven in silk.

Of course, the catalyst for this alliance is of course the equine. The Albanian mountain horses are thought to have been around for centuries and are a mix of the archaic Tarpan and medieval Arab. They are small animals of about 138cm to 155cm, with an average weight of 400 kg but Kristina prefers not to call them ponies stating that ‘they have a real horse mind, an abundance of stamina for the long trails and are ‘very surefooted, allowing them to be great climbers.’

Two years after the start of their business Kristina decided to buy her own horses who turned out to be the trailblazers for the future as she describes “the first horses we bought were the first explorers. Epir and Aria were the first to test all the trails; both great horses with unique personalities. We learned from them that a leader is born not trained. Epir and Aria improved our knowledge about mountain horses and their complex personality.”

Inspired, a further year later saw a breeding programme of their own emerge. They have bred thirteen horses currently who they hope will sustain the next generation but it seems these homebreds have a lot to do to surpass Epir in Kristina’s affections. This lead horse comes attached with a mythical story. Vivid imagination it is not as Kristina explains “five years ago Epir was stolen from the pasture. It was very difficult to understand the reasons as it is something which very rarely happened. We went everywhere to look for him; we checked all the possible animal markets in Albania, all the farms and all the border villages. Police had so many printed pictures of him but hope was vanishing with the time. He was a very important horse. Three years after losing Epir we lost Aria in a very sudden accident four days after she gave birth to her third foal. We could only save baby Inva but not Aria. Inva was named by a group of French riders. The morning she was born they had just started their trail. When they returned back a week later Inva was alone. We had to hide from the group the fact Aria was not alive anymore. This was one of the worst days of our horse owning life. In a weird twist of fate, a few days later Epir was back to let us live sorrow and happiness at the same time; three years after disappearing I saw his silhouette whilst guiding a group in a ride far away from our path in the middle of a valley. It took only a few hours to solve everything with the ‘owner’ and bring him back to the stable. Hope was back. We have many other leaders but Epir remains the legend. In trail riding a horse becomes your partner and has a special importance in your life. You think together, you decide together and you fight all fears as a team.”

Unfortunately, these heroic warriors who have graced this enchanted land with courage are suffering at the hands of the very bad conditions. Moreover, a legal protection and care of the breed is needed. “We want to lobby for this very indispensable step. We want to keep the horse culture close to our community in urban and rural areas as a sport and activity. We aim to bring people closer to nature and raise their esteem and respect for the animals” said Kristina. This couple have wielded and hunted down every dream. I wouldn’t want to be the one to bet against them conquering this next quest.

If you are interested in the rides that Caravan Horse Riding offers, please do check out their offering on Far and Ride here: Medieval Albanian Trails.

Article by Laura Phipps. 


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