The Vjosa in southern Albania is called a "wild" river, even the largest and last of its kind in Europe outside Russia. But actually, the Vjosa and its tributaries, the Bënça and the Shushica, the Drinos and the Khardiq, are tame, untouched rivers that do not cause deadly destruction during floods such as the man-made Ahr in 2021.

Matthias Rüb

Political correspondent for Italy, the Vatican, Albania and Malta, based in Rome.

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Since Wednesday, the Vjosa, along its entire 272 kilometers in length, from the upper reaches on the border with Greece, where it rises in the Pindus Mountains and is called Aoos there, to the delta on the Adriatic Sea near the port city of Vlora, is designated as a national park. Thus, it enjoys comprehensive protection against human intervention.

It is a milestone for Albania

In the morning, Prime Minister Edi Rama of Tirana came to the castle of Tepelena, the massive residence of Ali Pasha (1741 to 1822) on the banks of the Vjosa, to sign the government decree. The Ottoman ruler of Albanian descent was called the "Lion of Ioannina" because of his bravery and nefariousness.

If Edi Rama of the Socialist Party of Albania, head of government since 2013 and mayor of the capital for eleven years before that, were to be called the "Lion of Tirana" today – he would certainly not dislike it.

In any case, the establishment of the Vjosa National Park is a milestone for Albania, for the protection of rivers in Europe and all over the world, and also for the development of sustainable tourism in the Balkan state, which can no longer be considered an insider tip. According to Environment and Tourism Minister Mirela Kumbaro, 2022.7 million visitors came to Albania in 5. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, there were 6.4 million.

"Beaches are not unique to Mediterranean countries," says the minister. The special thing about Albania is the undiscovered, untouched nature in the mountainous hinterland, says Kumbaro, whose constituency includes large parts of the Vjosa. South of the port city of Durrës, not far from Tirana, you can see what the uncontrolled development after the end of "Stone Age communism" under dictator Enver Hoxha in 1990 has done: densely packed concrete castles besiege a narrow strip of sandy beach, on which the dirty water of the Adriatic, which is hardly suitable for bathing, hits.

The river and its banks are a unique habitat for endangered species

The new national park on the Vjosa covers an area of over 12,700 hectares. The park is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a Category II protected area, according to which the Vjosa and some of its main tributaries must be granted comprehensive cross-border protection according to the highest international standards.

In the broad middle reaches of the Vjosa alone, where the river meanders and has created a bed up to three kilometres wide with huge boulders and pebbles, there are more than 1100 plant and animal species, including more than a dozen that are on the IUCN red list of threatened species. A few years ago, a team of scientists led by Christoph Hauer from the Vienna University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences documented the flora and fauna of the Vjosa, which had hardly been researched until then.

The river and its banks are a unique habitat for many endangered animal and plant species, fish and mollusks, birds and insects. Migratory fish such as the European eel, the Ohrid stone biter and the Pindus loach, as well as the trout, the salmon and the sturgeon are native here. No barrage and no dam stand in their way during the hike to the spawning grounds on the upper reaches of the Vjosa. Conversely, the river can transport its enormous amounts of sediment from the mountains and grind it into sand as far as the alluvial land and the beach of the delta.

The new Vjosa National Park is the result of miraculous developments. A good three decades ago, the "gorges of the Balkans", once described by Karl May as romanticizing as the wild "land of the Skipetars", were objects of a very unromantic desire for electricity and private profit. This supposedly sustainable energy policy was and is also promoted by European institutions and credit institutions.