Feature 06 Oct 14
The people of Shishtavec hope that with their passion for skiing, they can turn their remote hamlet into a tourist winter wonderland.
|Shishtavec Village. Photo: Irena Shabani|
When the war broke out in Kosovo in 1999, the village of Shishtavec in Albania, which is only three kilometres from the border, was inundated by war reporters and representatives of international organizations.
Some representatives from the OSCE – there to monitor the conflict and the flood of refugees coming from Kosovo – noticed that the youngsters in Shishtavec were very keen on skiing but lacked the right equipment to practice the sport.
One year later, by which time the war in Kosovo over, the OSCE brought 200 professional skis to Shishtavec in order to hold a cross-border championship, which is how the Shishtavec Ski Club was born.
Today the club has 20 professional athletes, all members of the Albanian national skiing federation. The local skiing star, Lirim Haxhiu, has been ranked as Albania’s national champion for the last six years.
Lirim’s father, Sami Haxhiu, is president of the ski club. Despite lacking the money to develop the sport properly, Sami says that skiing remains his big passion – as well as offering an alternative for youngsters in this secluded and remote mountain village.
“During the winter here, the snow cuts off everything,” Sami says. “Rather than wasting time at home or at the coffee shop I train the next generation of skiers,” he adds.
Shishtavec is only 27 kilometres from the town of Kukes, but getting there takes an hour-and-a-half by car.
|Children collecting herbs|
Only the first three kilometres of road to the village are unpaved and in winter the route is often blocked by snowfall.
Then, the village can be reached only by SUVs or by vans that transport passengers from Kukes back and forth.
Of the seven villages in the municipality, four are home to members of the Gorani community. One of them is Shishtavec.
The Gorani, which means highlanders, is a Slavic Muslim ethnic group inhabiting the Gora region, the triangle between Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia. They number an estimated 60,000 people, and speak a transitional South Slavic dialect, called Nasinski.
The tradition of skiing in Shishtavec dates back to the 1950s. Under the communist regime, national skiing competitions were held one year in Shishtavec and the other in the southern village of Voskopoja, near Korca.
The tradition in Shishtavec continues to this day and during the winter the village holds a number skiing competitions for youngsters and other athletes from the area of Kukes.
“Without the participation of the ski clubs of Shishtavec and Mborje [another village in the municipality], the national skiing championship would have no meaning,” Ilirian Cule, secretary of the Albanian skiing federation, says.
In Sami Haxhiu’s ski club, most of the athletes are boys. But some local girls share the same passion.
Haxhiu receives a small salary from the national federation for five months every year, but says much more investment is needed to develop the sport, which is quite pricy.
The villagers that greet Sami on the way to his modest home all say that he has sacrificed a lot for his passionate dedication to the local ski club.
Although Sami’s son, Lirim, is the national skiing champion, at the winter Olympics in Sochi, a skier who lives in Italy represented Albania.
“Lirim did not meet the norms to participate at such an event because he only skis in Albania,” Cule said.
Shkelqim Mema, head of Albania’s skiing federation, says that because Lirim does not speak a foreign language he cannot take advantage of the opportunities on offer outside the country.
“The World Skiing Federation offers training for young athletes, but we could not send Lirim because he needed a translator,” Mema said.
Disappointed by the federation, Sami has set his hopes on a fellow villager, Gani Pashaj, who is investing in the sport and in the winter tourism potential of the area.
Pashaj worked for years in Slovenia as an emigrant, where he learned how to turn the sport of skiing into a profitable business.
He brought the village its first snow machine to level ski slopes, a number of motor skis and a small funicular, which skiers use to reach the peak of Kallabak, which is 2,174 metres up.
Pashaj also plans to bring to the village a wooden building, constructed in Slovenia, which will be installed high in the mountain and serve as a restaurant, offering breathtaking views of the valley.
Adem Sokoli, a local tourism expert in the municipality of Shishtavec, says Pashaj’s plans match the local development strategy, which aims to transform the area into a winter tourism hub.
The municipality has already trained 17 families in the village of Shishtavec and eight more in the village of Mborje to run guesthouses, he says. His own house is one of them.