Përmet

Vjosa - the Queen of European rivers

16 Aug 2022
The marvellous Vjosa river valley, recently declared a protected Natural Park, is southern Albania’s natural jewel, strung from east to west with the towns of Përmet, Këlcyra, Tepelena and Memaliaj that form good bases to explore the river and the towering mountains all around. The region offers incredible variety, and in a few days you could see ancient sites, Ottoman fortresses and hump-backed bridges, serene Orthodox churches and Bektashi tekkes, go on a hike in the national park or join a river rafting adventure - ending every day in a hospitable village guesthouses serving fantastic local food and drinks. Just 2,5 hours drive from Tirana on the beautiful route to Gjirokastra and with many newly resurfaced roads, it’s now easier than ever to explore the upper Vjosa river valley and its traditions.

Emerging in Greece’s Pindus mountains as the Aoös and rushing 80km northwest, the river that is the wet thread though this travel guide turns into the Vjosa at the border near Çarshova and continues its winding way through southern Albania’s mountain landscapes. It twists for 192 kilometres past Përmet, Këlcyra, Tepelena, Memaliaj, staying shy of further towns - except perhaps for ancient Byllis - before it empties into the Adriatic in the grand delta area north of Vlora. 
The Vjosa is an unusual river, one of the very last in Europe that is allowed to run freely, meandering where it pleases, without any artificial obstructions over its length. Hydroelectric dams have been built in great numbers along other rivers in the Balkans in the past decade, providing much-needed energy but also causing extensive ecological destruction whereas Albania’s potential for unintrusive solar power generation is still underused. Some of the Vjosa’s tributaries have already suffered irreversible damage; for example by an Austrian-built dam just above the Langarica river canyon which diverts most of the water into tunnels. 
Activists have been campaigning and suing for years, well aware of the threat to this unique chance for Albania to preserve something extremely precious that could benefit the region and the country more than more hydropower. In 2020, the Vjosa was declared an official Nature Park, with some restrictions on economic activity affecting the ecology of the river. In June 2022, this was followed up with a pledge by the Albanian Prime Minister, the Minister of Tourism and Environment and the Patagonia outdoor gear company (which had already added Balkan Blue to its textile colour options), to work towards giving the Vjosa extra protection with a full status as National Park. This will create Europe's first wild river park, linking the Vikos-Aoös National Park on the Greek side all the way down to the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape at the river delta, offering unique chances for tourism development in an area that has historically seen much emigration. 
Just travelling through the region you’ll see the idea of a protected, truly wild river has already caught the imagination of many locals and visitors, with new investment in village tourism projects, guesthouses, tour companies and sellers of local produce and crafts leading to increased interest in this beautiful region.

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