Czech enthusiasts help boost tourism in remote Albanian village

Photo: archive of Jan Balák and Robert Dobra

A group of adventure lovers from the Czech Republic has launched a project to boost tourism in a remote village in northern Albania. Around one hundred volunteers travelled to Curraj Eperm in the Albanian mountains over the summer to build a bridge, reconstruct a local church and mark more than ninety kilometres of tourist trails. All of that out of sheer enthusiasm and for free.

Photo: archive of Jan Balák and Robert Dobra
I spoke to the head of the project, Jan Balák, a few weeks after his return from Albania and first asked him how he had discovered the hidden village:

“Three years ago I organised an expedition to Montenegro but in fact we spent most of the time in Albania. We discovered a beautiful country full of hospitable people and a year ago, we decided to return there and find a place which no tourist had visited before us.

“We found the Valley of Ceres, which is just a stone’s throw from Curraj Eperm. We reached the village from the Koma lake after a three-day journey. We were very surprised by the region, because it is absolutely isolated from the rest of the world. There is no electricity and the people are very hospitable. It is a beautiful place for tourism, but no one actually goes there. So this is how I got to Curraj Eperm.”

Why have you decided to help this particular region? Why have you decided to launch the Albanian Challenge project?

“As soon as we returned from Albania last year, we started to discuss our plans. There are actually two valleys lying approximately twenty kilometres from Curraj Eperm, and they are crowded with tourists. Curraj Eperm lies in the middle of them, yet no-one knows that it exists. It really has a big potential to become a tourist destination but none of the locals are able to do anything about it. So we decided to help them a little bit to improve the state of the village and to advertise it.”

How many people actually live in the village?

“Today we are living in a very safe and regulated world and I think people want to experience some adventure, without any limitations.”

“In the summer there were approximately seventy people, some seven families. We have very good relationship with all of them. When we arrived, all the families except one became our suppliers. They provided us with cheese, donkeys, grilled meat, yoghurt and so on.”

What about young people? Do they still live in the village or do they move into bigger cities?

„Young people visit their families during the summer. During winter, almost no one stays here, because without accessibility to civilization and without electricity, it is really difficult to live there. But during spring and summer, people come back, look after their sheep, grow corn and invite young people from the cities to help them.”

What did the locals think about the project? Did they welcome your activities?

“In fact they were very surprised. They always tell me: no one has helped this village for the past ten years, why do you want to? In Albania, there are no donations like we know from the Czech Republic. There was a power plant in the village, but when it broke, no one repaired it, because there was no money for it. There was a bridge, but it broke apart. So they are very happy about the project and they are kind to us because they know that we are helping them.”

You have already said that you had several priorities, such as building a bridge, a power plant and reconstructing the local church.

Photo: archive of Jan Balák and Robert Dobra
“Yes, we did, and we are very proud of it. The bridge was erected approximately twenty kilometres from the village. We managed to mark 97 kilometres of tourist trails. We prepared a photovoltaic power plant. And we managed to repair the church, which proved to be the biggest challenge.

“We expected it would be quite an easy job but it was in a very bad state. We couldn’t really afford not to be successful because in Albania, only two churches survived the Communist era, and this is one of them.”

Some of these projects, such as building a metal bridge, must have required the presence of experts. How long did the preparations take place?

“This is actually the best thing about Albania. You don't need any permissions, papers and qualification to do something like that. We had a bridge engineer who determined the safety of our bridge, but the rest of the work was done by us, mostly by students of mechanical engineering.

“The church reconstruction was like reconstruction of an ordinary house except the logistics, which was very difficult, because all the building material, especially cement, had to be transported by donkeys. It took one day to get one bag of cement from the nearest city, so it was really challenging. We needed five donkeys and three horses to transport all the cement and sand.

“We managed to mark 97 kilometres of tourist trails. We prepared a photovoltaic power plant. And we managed to repair the church, which proved to be the biggest challenge.”

“The bridge was tested in the Czech Republic and we built it within two hours, but erecting the bridge took around twenty hours, because it weighs around one tonne. Also, we didn’t have any electric tools, we only had hand tools.

Albanian Challenge is based on a voluntary basis. How many people participated in the project? And was it easy to find them?

“Approximately one hundred people participated as volunteers and around thirty or forty people came as tourists and most of them helped us with our projects as well. And it wasn't difficult to find the people. I did several presentations about Albania, where I presented my plans, and some of the people who attended the talks applied to take part in the project. So it wasn’t difficult at all.”

How did you finance the project?

“We didn't accept any Czech or European or Albanian funds. We don’t accept any public money from the governments because we want to be independent and we want to avoid any possible corruption in the Czech Republic and in Albania.

“All the money that we have is from our volunteers. We decided that every one of us will put one thousand crowns (which is about 40 euros) into the project. We also found some private sponsors, we organised a beneficial concert, we launched public fundraising on the Internet and this way we got enough money for financing the project.”

Photo: archive of Jan Balák and Robert Dobra
So how much has the project cost so far?

„The project had a budget of around half a million crowns. Some 100,000 was used for food and another 250.000 covered the transport of the people to Albania. So we were only left with around 150,000 and 200,000 crowns.”

Were you surprised by people’s interest in the project? Why do you think they supported it?

“Today we are living in a very safe and regulated world and I think people want to experience some adventure, without limitations, without electricity, without mobile phones and so on. And here they can. Also, this project was really cheap for those who participated in it.

But it wasn’t only about work. We created a community and we really experienced adventure there. In Curraj Eperm, there is a large cave system, there is beautiful nature, there are very hospitable people and very beautiful mountains, you can swim in the waterfalls or ride horses - something that you cannot do here. So I think these are the reasons why people joined the project.”

Aren’t you worried that by bringing a large number of tourists into the place, it might lose its charm?

Photo: archive of Jan Balák and Robert Dobra
“I am really not worried about bringing a large number of people here, because there is something that we call nature filter. Curraj Eperm is surrounded from three sides by mountains more than 2,000 metres high and there is a lake on the fourth side. You have to take a boat and travel 45 kilometres to get here, so I am really not afraid of large crowds of tourists. Maybe several hundred per summer, but that’s not a large number.”

Are you planning to carry on with the project?

“We definitely want to continue because the local people were very happy about the project. It was the first time someone connected them with the rest of the world, so the locals definitely support it.”