• Adam

The Accursed Mountains and leaving the car behind

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Albania, being a mountainous country, has many hiking opportunities. In the north are the "Accursed Mountains" a.k.a. the Albanian Alps. When researching for my trip, the journey I came across again and again was the hike between Theth and Valbona, two small mountain towns that are only connected by a hiking trail across the mountain range that separates them. What also makes the journey fun is that it involves a 2.5 hour ferry ride on a man-made lake through a pretty incredible and picturesque canyon.

While you can do the hike in either direction, I chose to hike from Theth to Valbona. There are other hikes in Theth, and I wanted to do these before the "big one". And the ferry ride returning from Valbona would be a relaxing reward after the tough hike.

I did not make reservations in advance, but prices are pretty much set for tourists regardless of how you plan it. In Shkoder I stayed in a hostel (my only hostel stay for the entire trip) called the Wanderers Hostel. A bed cost 8 € and included breakfast. They had a courtyard to relax in, too. The staff was very friendly and organized a van to pick me up at 7am the following morning to drive me to Theth. The van ride was supposed to take 3 hours and cost 10 €.

Sure enough, shortly after 7am the van picked me up. Now, here's where I was reminded that I wasn't in the US anymore. It was a 15 passenger van, but at first I was the only passenger. We start driving around Shkoder picking up various groceries to take with us to Theth. Then, we pull up to a market and several middle-aged Albanian men hop in. One is smoking a cigarette out the window, the others are talking loudly, in close proximity and without masks. (Remember, in September 2020 COVID-19 is still a concern.) I move myself towards the back of the van in my own row, put on my mask, and keep my head by the open window. We pull up to another market for more groceries, and wait. By the time we were on the move again, still not having left Shokder, it was 8am.

Pandemic? What pandemic?

We drive a bit and then stop at a convenience store where everyone gets out to buy beer, including the driver. They hop back in, drinking their beer at 8:30am (including the driver!) and around 9am, we stop again! This time the driver asks me if I want to come outside with everyone else, but I decline. I planned a day of hiking and didn't want to spend any more time on the van than necessary. We spent a full 25 minutes on the side of the road so these guys could enjoy another beer before we started moving again.

My driver and fellow passengers at 9:30am in no rush to get to Theth

The road to Theth is narrow and winding. Worse, they were doing construction on the road and in several places we had to stop and wait for the construction equipment to finish what they were doing, and move out of the way so we could pass.

Traffic Jam #1 Traffic Jam #2, 3, 4...

By the time I finally arrived at my guest house, it was nearly 11:30am, 4.5 hours after leaving my hostel and 1.5 hours after I had expected to arrive. (Now you can see why I preferred to drive myself!) Also, the Albanians were paying a fraction of what I had to pay, but that's how it goes.

Eager to get moving after so long in a van, I checked in at my guest house and then set out. There was a hike to a fresh water hole call the Blue Eye that I could have done, but I was intrigued by a hike I had read about to a place called Denelle. It was described as a steep but "moderate" hike, and would end in a meadow where a family lived who can give you fresh water and apparently let you take selfies with their family. Well, I can tell you that it was one of the most difficult hikes I've never done. The incline was big and relentless. It was about 5 km (3mi) each way and took me nearly 6 hours to do. (I also managed to lose the trail for a brief period on the way back.) The worst part was that when I finally made it to Denelle (GPS: 42.365021, 19.814851), I found an abandoned settlement, where I assumed the family I read about had lived. Nobody was living there and there was no fresh water. However, the views were stunning and I think that the trail is worth it, even though you don't need to hike all the way in. As a bonus, I didn't see another hiker on the entire trail!

Theth. A quiet place amid beautiful scenery.

I started down there in Theth, and I've been hiking uphill for an hour by now

Looking southwest into the valley

The abandoned settlement in Denelle

I stayed at the Shpella Guesthouse, which had good reviews that spoke of a large communal dinner each night. Of course, in the age of COVID-19 there were to be no communal dinners. To my surprise, I was the only guest that night! I had the place to myself, which was peaceful, if somewhat awkward. When I told the owner I grew up near Boston, I was surprised when he responded that alot of people originally from Theth now live in the Boston area. When the communists came to power and closed the borders, many people there (being close to the border with then-Yugoslavia), simply escaped by crossing the mountains.

In the morning I spoke with the owner about what time I wanted breakfast, and when I showed up he was still asleep! I'm on Albanian time, I guess. But the next morning I set out for the epic 18km/11 mi hike up over the mountains and down the other side, to Valbona. I got a bit lost finding the trailhead, it is north of town.

Ferges - an Albanian dish of peppers and cheese.

For both hikes, I strongly recommend downloading MAPS.ME because it has hiking trails and works offline. Much has been written about this hike so I won't bore you with too many details, but I will share a few photos. To my pleasant surprise, I had the trail almost completely to myself; I only passed a few people during the entire hike.

The trail goes up steep terrain (left) and the trees turn themselves upright after growing perpendicular out from the steep ground (right)

At the mountain pass crossing from the Theth valley to the Valbona valley. It was pretty special, and I had the whole summit to myself!

Descending below the tree line into the forest. It was warm but fortunately the sun was not beating down on me.

I stopped paying attention and ended up at a dead end on someone's farm before turning around and back to the real trail....Oops!

By the time I arrived in Valbona, I was pretty beat. Valbona isn't so much of a town as it is a collection of guesthouses in a natural park set in a valley surrounded by mountains. There are few restaurants, you order a meal at the guesthouse. Which, at 700 lek ($7) for a plate is pricey by Albanian standards, but given the location it was fine for one night. My guest house arranged the van to pick me up and take me to the Koman ferry the following morning. 700 lek for the van (pickup 10am), 800 lek for the ferry (departed 1pm), and 700 lek for the van from Koman back to Shkoder (arrived around 5:30pm).

The ferry was beautiful! Mountains and cliffs and small villages that are only accessible by water.

The ferry is fully loaded when it showed up

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