Author: Niki Baker & Martin Webb
To be exact, this is actually the tale of a hike that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the weather closed in and the Albanian Alps are an environment in which those who are blasé about bad conditions tend to get very lost or very dead. But there’s a reason why we’re writing about our non-hike, and why we’ll be returning to Albania’s far northern highlands one day to finish what we started: even in the rain, these beautiful mountains cast their spell on us.
The locals call them Bjeshkët e Namuna, the Accursed Mountains. Sitting astride Albania’s borders with Montenegro and Kosovo, they’re sufficiently inaccessible to be among the last truly untamed areas of Europe, which makes them a rare thing indeed. And yet it takes surprisingly little time and money to visit this wonderland, certainly if you’re based anywhere else in Europe. The main requirements are a sense of adventure and a definite hankering for the path less travelled.
There are a number of ways to get to the Accursed Mountains, and plenty of hikes to choose from when you reach them. We’re not talking about modest strolls in the hills, either. Many of the routes are only recommended for well-equipped, experienced hikers with the assistance of a local guide, or at least a GPS. Some involve walking alongside sheer drops, scrambling on scree slopes, climbing near-vertical cliffs, and possibly even encountering bears. Don’t expect footpaths and handrails. We’re talking waymarked trails, at best. This is proper stuff.
Our vague aim was to tackle the hike that is starting to crop up increasingly on the ‘to do’ lists of outdoorsy types worldwide: crossing the Valbonë Pass between Valbonë and Theth, bridging the tantalising gap on the maps where single-track roads come to an abrupt end in each of the two villages. The pass is only traversable on foot or by mule, and the hike takes about six or seven hours to complete.
Those who simply want to tick it off generally do a well-established three-day loop (in either direction), overnighting in Valbonë and Theth either side of the trek over the pass, although there are plenty of other tempting options as well if you have more time. (And if you happen to have a couple of months at your disposal, this hike now forms part of the much-lauded Via Dinarica long-distance mega-trekking route that stretches some two thousand kilometres across the western Balkans.)
But wait. Any true traveller knows that it’s all about the journey, not just the destination, and here in particular the journey to the start point of the hiking routes is a huge part of what makes the whole experience so magical.
The Adventurous Journey to the Trailhead
We set out somewhat bleary-eyed at 6:30am from Shkodër, the largest city in the north of Albania. Public transport here – mostly in the form of minibuses called furgons – is cheap, entertaining, and reasonably reliable (contrary to what some internet reports would have you believe) but it does help to plan in advance and get up early.
Heading out of the city as the first glow of dawn blushed behind the distant ranges, we watched as the rising sun painted warm colours on some peaks and left others in shadow. The road became narrower and rougher as it wound ever higher, clinging to the steep slopes above the Drin valley. Taking in the changing views of lakes and mountains is a pleasant distraction from the absence of roadside barriers; the health and safety bureaucrats have yet to wave their clipboards too enthusiastically in Albania’s direction.
Our destination for this leg of the journey was the village of Koman, but our furgon climbed on beyond it, leaving the river far below and then disappearing into a winding rocky tunnel. We popped out of the mountainside and found ourselves quite literally at the end of the road: a small loading area, chaotic with locals, right beside the placid green waters of Komani Lake and next to the dam that formed it.
In peak season there are several tours available and additional tourist boats, but we were here in autumn and, besides, we preferred the less glamorous, more authentic experience of the small public passenger ferry that serves the isolated communities in these northern reaches. The boat leaves once daily at 9am, laden with an eclectic assortment of people, packages and supplies. We had time to grab a quick coffee at the utilitarian little café, but since there was a power cut we were offered rakia as a logical alternative: traditional fruit brandy, usually home-distilled even when bought in bars and cafes, and lethally strong. There’s nothing quite like neat alcohol to perk you up at 8am.
The boat trip on the long, narrow lake is often – and quite justifiably – rated as one of the best in the world. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours the ferry putters between forested slopes and magnificent limestone gorges, revealing new delights with every twist in the valley.
Passengers alight in the unlikeliest spots and head off up the steep hillsides to hidden dwellings, and people wait on the shore with their mules to collect supplies. It’s a fascinating insight into a harsher, simpler way of life.
The ferry finally arrived at Fierzë, where another furgon was on hand for the last part of our journey to Valbonë through yet more lovely scenery.
We were dropped off in the early afternoon at Rilindja, an isolated wooden chalet which is the unofficial centre for hiking in the area, run by Alfred Selimaj and his partner Catherine. One of the first things we saw inside, pinned to one of the pillars, was a handwritten Russell Hoban quote: “He felt the silent waiting of all the seeking and finding that lived in the maps”.
Sometimes the smallest things give you a sense that you’re precisely where you’re meant to be.
An Evening Mini-Hike to Explore a Wooded Valley
Inspired to start exploring, we managed a mini-hike that first evening; there’s a trail through the forest between the winding narrow road and the mountainside, linking Rilindja with the small alpine settlement further up the valley. There was no discernible path and the ground was strewn with rocks and autumn leaves, but every now and then we’d spot a painted red stripe that meant we were still heading in the right direction.
At one point we encountered the lovingly tended graves of some of Alfred’s family. In an English woodland that would be decidedly odd and rather creepy, but here it seemed appropriate and endearing. How wonderful to remember your ancestors in the natural cathedral of the tall trees and towering mountains.
We walked on, scrambling and climbing very happily, until the gathering dusk made it even harder to spot the occasional waymarks among the gilded foliage.
Alone in that wooded valley, craning our necks to look up at the crags that towered above us, we were forcibly, joyously aware of all the reasons we love hiking. The physical challenge is only part of it. From the minute we lace up our walking boots in the morning, eagerly anticipating what the day will bring, to the minute we ease them off our weary feet in the evening, we are free. Free to explore, free to venture where cars and bikes cannot go. Free to pause and enjoy our environment with all of our senses and on every scale, from witnessing a tiny insect paying a visit to a delicate wildflower, to feeling insignificant as we feast our eyes on a vast panorama to which our cameras can never do justice.
When we hike, we don’t merely visit a place, we live it. We interact with it and immerse ourselves in it. Every time, it’s a unique personal experience.
We gazed at the beauty all around us and took big greedy lungfuls of pure, cleansing mountain air, and we grinned at each other. Words were inadequate and unnecessary. We were a million miles away from the rat race and the rush hour and that moment in those mountains was priceless.
A Rainy Day in Rilindja and a Cosy Mountain Chalet
The following day was decidedly soggy. Bad weather for hiking. Great weather for cosying up in a mountain chalet with a log fire, a couple of beers, and some delicious Albanian food. We watched the clouds drift by outside, catching on the jagged peaks of the mountains, while the rain dripped off everything and the trees glistened in their seasonal reds and golds. It’s almost impossible to feel disappointed or miserable when you’re surrounded by such beauty.
We took the opportunity to interview Catherine and Alfred later that evening. They told us about their ongoing work marking trails and providing information to hikers, and of their optimism and concerns regarding this little Balkan country’s rapidly increasing popularity as a tourist destination.
“Development is a double-edged sword,” said Catherine. “Local people are vulnerable to exploitation. Albanians are by tradition and nature very trusting and hospitable, but if that’s abused it will be lost.”
She also told us how a foreign agency came to the area a few years ago and started marking new hiking trails without consulting anyone. “They didn’t involve the locals, who have knowledge and skills to offer. It was a very real problem because the markings were confusing and people were getting lost.”
The pair support the village school, too, and are trying to help their small community embrace the opportunities that tourism brings, without damaging the environment and traditions that make the area so special. Catherine herself is an improbable champion here, having originally come to Valbonë on holiday from the stark contrast of Brooklyn, New York.
“I just fell in love with the place,” she says, and we can understand why.
Waking Up to Snow-Covered Peaks and Dashed Hopes
The next morning, we opened the curtains of our modest little guesthouse further up the valley and were greeted by the breathtaking sight of snow on the peaks. As picturesque as it undeniably was, this scuppered any last hopes we may have had of hiking over the pass to Theth. The snowline was pretty low and, in a rare attack of good sense, we readily conceded that we were simply not equipped for such conditions. Admittedly, we’d visited the Accursed Mountains towards the end of our month spent backpacking around Albania, so we’d had to take a chance on the weather.
So we left Valbonë, still tantalised by the silent waiting of all the seeking and finding that lived in the maps.
We can’t tell you any details of the hike across the pass, or what lies beyond. What we can tell you is that Albania is an unpolished gem, absolutely worth visiting before too many resorts and hotels spring up. Its people are incredibly welcoming, willingly obligated by an age-old culture of honouring guests. This manifests itself everywhere: a taxi driver will buy you coffee; a hotelier will not only book you onto a furgon, but will drive you to the stop himself and talk to the driver on your behalf; and a family may open their home to you when you ask about where you can stay.
Albania is waking from a troubled sleep in which isolation under a communist dictator and subsequent political unrest haunted its dreams. Thankfully those nightmares are firmly in the past. It is a land of huge potential and staggering natural beauty and it will undoubtedly become a popular tourist destination in years to come.
For now, the legions of holidaymakers who swarm in search of cookie-cutter resorts and fancy facilities are put off by the country’s lack of sophistication and infrastructure. Those things will inevitably come, so if – like us – you’re prepared to trade a few home comforts for unspoilt charm and genuine experiences, you might not want to leave it too long before you visit.
Editor’s Note: Although I’ve not hiked Albania yet, this story has definitely awakened a desire in me to do so. Who will take on the challenge of the Accursed Mountains? Or have you already? Please let us know in the comments below.
Flights direct into Albania’s capital city, Tiranë, can be relatively expensive and it may be a better option to fly into Podgorica in neighbouring Montenegro, especially if your primary reason for visiting is to hike in the Accursed Mountains. Shkodër, a logical starting point for travelling to Valbonë, is a 65-kilometre hop across the border – although you’ll need to allow extra time for the Balkan customs officials to do their thing (and they sometimes do it quite slowly). You can hire a car at Podgorica and simply drive down into Albania, or even take a taxi to Shkodër for about €50. There isn’t (yet) a bus or train service linking the two.
Most Albanians don’t speak English. However, the language barrier never prevents them from being friendly and helpful. We were standing in the street consulting a map when a woman stopped and said, “Hostel?” Performing ‘sleep’ pantomimes and gesturing alternately at our backpacks and at a nearby side-street, she successfully guided us to a great little hostel that we’d otherwise have missed. It’s definitely worth having a few local phrases to hand and making a bit of an effort, but if the person you address doesn’t speak English, they’ll often go to great lengths to summon their friend’s uncle’s neighbour’s cousin who does, in order to help you.
Buses and furgons (minibuses) provide a pretty comprehensive public transport system, not to mention a fascinating insight into local culture and some brilliant experiences. Fares are ridiculously cheap and you basically just flag one down that’s headed in the direction you want to go. On some of the more remote routes, services may be limited and it’s worth asking at your accommodation to check times and book a seat in advance. Furgons are not for the fainthearted, though. Don’t be surprised if they’ve seen better days and are burdened with an assortment of sacks and livestock as well as people. And their drivers negotiate the wiggly unbarriered mountain roads without a care in the world.
What to Pack
Albania has a warm Mediterranean climate and it can be uncomfortably hot for hiking in July and August. Spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit. You’ll need full hiking gear including lightweight waterproofs and thermal layers for the higher altitudes. Make sure your camera has lots of capacity for all the pictures you’ll want to take, and don’t forget your swimming costume as the country has a long coastline and the sea is clear and glorious. If there’s room in your backpack to bring a few supplies for the village school in Valbonë, ask Catherine what they need and you’ll be a local hero. Or at least be offered a free beer.
Information for Hikers
Even if you have a map and/or GPS, do ask at Rilindja for trail information and updates on conditions, or to arrange a local guide or accommodation. For further details, check out journeytovalbona.com.