HIKING IN & AROUND ALBANIA’S ACCURSED MOUNTAINS
I wanted to go Hiking in Albania and I did it. Since then, I fell in love with Albania and Kosovo as well. I would go every year in those magical places. I live far away from Albania, very far, but will never stop going there.
In early June of 2018, I arrived at Tirana’s international airport for my fifth visit to Albania in just four years. My friend Berti was there to meet me and drive me to Hotel Villa Tafaj, about 200m off Skanderbeg Square, the very centre of the city.
After a couple of days relaxing in the city and catching up with friends, it was time to start my Walks Worldwide group hiking in albania trek called Peaks of the Balkans.
I had arranged to meet the tour leader Dritan in the city and travel out to the airport with him to meet up with the rest of the small group.
Kelmend, North Albania
We drove to Shkoder for an overnight stay and after dinner, we met Adnan, our trail guide from TrekBalkan. The next day we drove north in deteriorating weather into the Kelmend region close to the Montenegro border. We had a brief stop at the pass of Leqet e Hotif for the incredible mountain and valley views. Our first hike was from the village of Selca up to beautiful Sllapi waterfall.
Unfortunately, rain set in throughout the hike and after we reached the waterfall we returned by the same route, only to have the sun emerge while we sat in a local bar eating lunch. We drove on to our base for the next couple of nights at Zef Nilaj’s guesthouse in the mountain village of Lepushe.
Lepushe & Vermosh
The next day was cloudy but fine as we hiked up through the village and on up through meadows and forests to reach the Berizhdol Ridge. This gives outstanding views across to the mountains behind Theth. We did a loop hike along the ridge before returning to the village. This was one of the best hikes on the tour, and after dinner at the guesthouse, I joined the two affable guides for a drink in the local bar.
The next day dawned clear and sunny for another lovely hike. Leaving Lepushe on foot and climbing gently up to Maja e Grebenit where we could admire the spectacular views across to the Accursed Mountains.
Then came the descent to the village of Vermosh, where we made rendezvous with our van and luggage. After lunch, we drove across the border into Montenegro and on to the town of Gerbaja where we settled into our rustic hotel on the shores of Lake Plav just outside the town.
In the morning we drove to Vuthaj with its waterfall and nearby Syri i Kalter (Blue Eye spring) then we loaded the luggage on to horses for our trek back into Albania. Then, hiking in Albania and over the mountains to the valley of Theth at the heart of the Albanian Alps. On the way up at the Alpine Lake Gjeshtar, guide Adnan was happy to dive into the chilly water from a rock ledge for promises of buying a Fanta Exotik for him later.
There are spectacular mountain views here of the Karanfil mountains and at the top of the Peja Pass there is the dramatic col with Maja e Jezerce and the Accursed Mountains to one side. The dome-shaped Maja e Harapit to the other and the descent to the Shala river valley and Theth village straight ahead.
The trail down passes through the scattered village of Okol. Bbefore we enter Theth village, sprawled across the valley floor with its two iconic buldings that feature in every Albanian tourist brochure. The small stone Catholic church at the village’s centre and the three-storey stone Kulla (lock-in or blood-feud refuge tower) at the top of the valley. We settled into our guest-house home for the next 2 nights and after a typical highlander dinner Adnan and I spent the evening socialising with our mutual friends, brothers Pavlin and Nard Polia at their guesthouse.
The following day we spent visiting Theth’s attractions including the village church (only open once or twice a month when a priest visits from Shkoder) and the Kulla tower where Sokol, the current owner, gave not only an explanation of blood feuds and the Dukagjini Kanun (the medieval code of behaviour and punishment), but also gave a musical recital using a regular leaf from a nearby tree!
We hiked on alongside the Shala river and up to the impressive Grunas waterfall then back down to the river which we crossed at the Grunas canyon bridge where the river has carved a deep chasm with the walls only metres apart.
From here we hiked up the 4WD road to a small power station where the caretaker was more than happy to give us a brief unscheduled tour and then on to the village of Nderlysa. From here the trail started climbing past myriad pools carved by river rapids and on up to the Syri i Kalter or Blue Eye of Kapreja where a beautiful waterfall feeds a natural swimming pool that also appears by an underground spring.
Here there is a small platform built out over the middle of the river where you can enjoy one of the most atmospheric drinks of your life! We hiked back to Nderlysa where a very patient van driver was waiting to transfer us on a bone-jolting ride back to Theth.
Valbona Valley, Albania
The next day we undertook the iconic hike of the southern Balkan countries—the Qafa e Valbones between the mountain communities of Theth and Valbona over a 1800m pass. The hike takes about 5 to 7 hours, depending on your fitness, the weather conditions and how much time you spend drinking Pjeter’s excellent coffee at Simoni Bar.
The journey by road can take 7 to 9 hours with stops. This was my third crossing over the pass and the two previous occasions were in atrocious weather.
This time we started in fair conditions and at least I was able to see some of the magnificent views from the top as the clouds started to roll in and then it rained lightly as we walked with our horsemen Dardan & Adenis down to Rrogam, where Dritan had thoughtfully arranged for Valbona’s #1 taxi-van driver, Afrim to pick us up and drive the last few kilometres over the dry riverbed to our Valbona guesthouse just as a heavy storm broke.
In the morning the storm had eased to light rain as a small group of us hiked up out of the valley floor to the tiny hamlet of Kukaj in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains (a.k.a. Prokletije Mountains). We visited briefly with the Hysaj family there, but most of them were down in the village for a family funeral. We climbed further up to the stan (basic stone hut) of Ram Hysaj, but found no-one home and with the weather threatening to deteriorate we trudged back down to Valbona village and paid a brief social call on the Jubani family at their Kol Gjoni guesthouse.
Cerem & Doberdol
We took a transfer to the summer-only mountain village of Çerem for the next hike with horsemen David & Brahim for 2 days. It was a lovely trail mostly through open alpine meadows and forests, crossing briefly into Montenegro before our lunch stop at the stan of Sali & Chamile in the isolated hamlet of Balqin. They provided mountain tea and dhalle (delicious homemade drinking yoghurt). We continued past freshwater springs and on to the beautiful village of Doberdol, spread across a huge alpine meadow. The night was spent in the very basic stan of shepherd Sali Vatnika and his family.
We continued in the morning in cold weather, climbing above Doberdol to the small peak of Tre Kujfit where the international borders of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro all meet. From here it was a gently descending trail through meadows, fir forests and around glacial lakes to another village where we lunched with friendly locals and sampled their homemade raki (plum or grape brandy) before walking down a road to a river crossing where we met our driver Afrim at Zalli i Rupes.
Then, it was a drive back towards “civilisation” in Kosovo, down a river valley sadly marred by ugly hydroelectric stations and emerging at the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Deçan, still guarded by Nato K-Force troops. After a quick tour of the monastery, we continued on to our overnight stop in the lovely, lively city of Prizren, the jewel in Kosovo’s tourist crown.
Mount Korab, the highest peak in Albania
The following day we spent the morning on a walking tour of Prizren’s attractions before meeting our new driver Besnik and heading back into Albania, through the town of Kukes and starting to climb again into the mountains to the small village of Tejza at the very foot of Maja e Korabit.
At a brief roadside stop, Dritan clambered monkey-style up a tree and harvested armfuls of delicious fresh wild cherries. We overnighted in a basic guesthouse and readied ourselves for our assault on Korab, the highest peak in the southern Balkans at 2764m.
It also marks a three-border point, this time between Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. Unfortunately, the weather was closing in and hardly a glimpse of the summit was seen as we made our way up the trail.
By about halfway up the visibility had closed right in and in the end, only two of us stood atop the cairn on the summit in almost whiteout conditions. But lack of views still could not extinguish the sense of achievement. The highlight of the trek down was Adnan’s display of shoe-skiing down patches of snow.
Kukes & Tirana
On the final day of the trip, we drove back from Tejza through Kukes with a lunch-stop at Lake Shkopet and arrival back at Tirana in plenty of time for a city walking tour before our “Last Supper”, sheltering under restaurant umbrellas from heavy rain. It had been an excellent trip and thanks are due to Walks Worldwide, their local agents Outdoor Albania and our excellent guides freelancer Dritan and TrekBalkan’s Adnan.
After just a couple of days in Tirana resting up and doing laundry, I was ready to embark on KE Adventure’s one-week hiking trip around Valbona and Theth.
Meanwhile hiking in Albania, this trip would cover some of the same ground as the one above, but there would be some new trails and I would have the opportunity to visit friends made on previous visits to these two mountain villages. It was a pleasant surprise to find that my tour leader and the guide was Adnan from TrekBalkan once again.
I met up with the other 10 or so people on the tour out at the airport and we headed north to Shkoder with our driver Kujtim for an overnight stay. Before dinner, we toured the craggy site of ancient Rozafa Fortress, admirably sited above the confluence of 3 rivers and commanding views also over Lake Shkoder and south down the coastal plain towards the capital. The next morning we drove up to Lake Koman, formed when a river dammed for hydroelectric power.
The ferry trip up the narrow fjord-like lake to the town of Fierze is widely touted as one of Albania’s tourist highlights. On leaving the ferry we were met by driver Afrim who took us through the town of Bajram Curri and on up the Valbona River valley to our home for the next few nights at Kol Gjoni Guesthouse in Valbona. We had time after arrival to do a short walk up to the hamlet of Kukaj, just to get our mountain legs, before enjoying an excellent dinner.
Bori Pass & Zlla Kollata
The next morning Afrim transferred us up to Çerem (familiar from the trip above) and we set off from there on an exhilarating and demanding all-day trek over Qafa e Borit and Kollata e Keqe. We briefly entering Montenegro then descending down the Lugu i Persllopit trail all the way back to our Valbona base. We slept soundly that night! The next day was much easier as we returned to Kukaj and carried on higher to the stan of Ram Hysaj, but found it empty (as we had a week or so earlier).
On the way back to Valbona I wanted to call on the Hysaj family in Kukaj again (they had been absent during my earlier trip) and host Tahir rewarded my persistence by breaking out the homemade raki for us. It was time to leave Valbona and trek over the Qafa e Valbones to Theth, the same trail I had done 10 days earlier while hiking in Albania. But, in the reverse direction. On my fourth time over this iconic trek, I once again missed out on views from the top of the pass because of the drizzle and low cloud. On arrival at Theth, we settled in to Pashko & Vera’s guesthouse, our home for the next few nights.
Qafa Pejes - Back to Theth
The next day I and some of the group joined Adnan on an optional hike up to the top of Qafa e Pejes, which had been the gateway to Theth on my earlier tour. We abandoned the planned extra leg including Gropat e Bukura due to drizzle and low cloud and returned to the guesthouse. The following day, we walked in and around Theth village before reprising the hike up to Nderlysa and on to the Syri i Kalter of Kapreja that I’d done before. We spent the night at Prek Bjeshka’s guesthouse in Nderlysa where we feasted on delicious fresh mulberries before dinner.
On the last hiking day in Albania, r we left Nderlysa in fine warm weather and did a demanding hike up to Qafa e Thores. At the top, Kujtim met us with his van and we drove to the lovely town of Kruje. Idyllically situated on a plateau halfway up the foothills overlooking the coastal plain with views down to Tirana, less than an hour’s drive distant.
We stayed in the luxurious Hotel Panorama and had our final dinner there. The next morning there was time for a quick exploration of the town with its castle ruins, 2 excellent museums, Bektashi (Liberal Muslim Sect) chapel and atmospheric Ottoman-style bazaar. Kujtim then transferred the group to Tirana airport to go our separate ways. Thank you KE Adventure, Outdoor Albania & Adnan from TrekBalkan.