Europe Part 7: Into the Albanian Alps
Albania wasn’t on our itinerary when we first sketched out this trip four years ago. Our flight back to North America would be departing from Rome, so we needed to get across the Adriatic Sea to Italy at some point. We didn’t want to retrace our steps back to Zagreb or Ljubljana, so we initially thought about continuing south to Greece and flying back to Rome from Athens. At some point during our trip planning though, we ran across some YouTube videos of people backpacking in the Albanian Alps and pretty quickly decided that we wanted to fit them into our itinerary. Plus we found some cheap flights from Tirana (Albania’s capital) to Rome, so Albania it was!
Albania is a fascinating nation with a history that sets it apart from the surrounding countries that we visited. The only country on our trip not part of the former Yugoslavia, Albania experienced a more isolating and brutal form of communism than its Yugoslav neighbors to the north. From 1944 to 1985, Albania was controlled by the dictator Enver Hoxha, and was almost entirely isolated from the international community, unlike the relatively open Yugoslavia. Communism fell in Albania in the early 1990s, and today it is a democracy, albeit a fledgling one. Arriving in Albania was definitely a little bit of a culture shock, even after almost a month of travelling. After three weeks of seeing Serbo-Croatian languages everywhere, we knew or at least recognized a lot of words so it was becoming a bit more familiar. Albanian is completely different, so it was sort of like starting the trip all over again. English was also widely spoken in the former Yugoslav republics (I swear the Slovenians spoke English better than we do…) but this was definitely not the case in Albania, especially in the more rural parts. There exists only a single guidebook for Albania, and overall it was much harder to find information and plan things in advance.
After out brief stop in Shkoder, we embarked on the final leg of our trip: a five day tour through the rugged Albanian Alps, also known as the Accursed Mountains. Our plan was to take minibuses and a ferry to the Valbona Valley, stay there for two nights, then hike over Valbona Pass to the village of Theth, where we would spend a few more nights before taking another minibus back to Shkoder and eventually Tirana to begin our journey home. While we were already travelling pretty light, we would need to carry all of our belongings with us over Valbona Pass so we ended up leaving some stuff behind at our hotel in Shkoder and picking it up on our way back through five days later.
We departed at 6:30 am on a minibus, the primary mode of public transportation in Albania. The minibus drove around Shkoder for close to an hour picking up other people until the bus was full, then we headed out of town and quickly started climbing up into the mountains. Our destination was the Komani Lake ferry terminal. The Valbona Valley, while not far from Shkoder as the crow flies, is not easy to get to. One option is an all day drive that apparently involves crossing the border into Kosovo and then back into Albania. Option 2 involves a two-hour drive to Komani Lake, followed by a 3-hour ferry ride, and then another minibus for the final hour to Valbona. We opted for the latter and a few hours after departure from Shkoder arrived in the tiny and very rural town of Komani. From here, the road, which had been very rough dirt for the last hour, was suddenly paved and lined with a sidewalk and streetlights. The road climbed up a steep grade littered with rockfall before entering a small tunnel bored into the side of the mountain. About halfway through the tunnel, cars and buses were stopped in the road letting people out. Our bus somehow managed to squeeze past a bunch of them (if you had asked me whether this tunnel was wide enough for two mini buses to pass each other, I would have said “hell no”), but eventually had to stop as well. We got out of the bus, grabbed our stuff, and walked out through the end of the tunnel, which emerges at the base of a huge cliff next to a ~30×30 foot patch of pavement wedged between the cliff face and the shoreline of Lake Komani, which is actually a reservoir.
This was the ferry terminal and it was absolute chaos…probably the craziest scene I have experienced while travelling. It was jam packed with people, minibuses, full size buses, luggage, cars and trucks trying to get on (or off) one of more than a dozen boats of various sizes that were jostling for space along the shore. It was pretty wild. We pushed our way forward to the largest boat, Ferry Berisha (fun fact: named for a former prime minister and president of Albania who was banned from entering the U.S. in 2021 because of “involvement in significant corruption”), on which we had, in theory, paid for the trip in advance. The ferry employees didn’t seem to have any record of that though, and after a few minutes of trying to translate our argument into Albanian, they just let us on, probably just to keep the line moving more than anything else. The ferry was relatively small, with about 10 cars on the lower deck and a small passenger deck above with seats. The passenger seats were already quite full by the time we boarded so we ended up plopping down on the lower deck next to the cars. We estimated that there were well over a hundred people on the ferry and were somewhat surprised to see so many people headed to such a remote part of Albania. I guess we shouldn’t have been…after all, we found out about this area from a YouTube video. Mass tourism spares no corner of the world these days.
The ferry ride was very scenic, and reminded me a lot of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado (specifically the Morrow Point Reservoir section where the National Park Service runs a boat tour.) Komani Lake is a very narrow reservoir that winds deeper and deeper into the Albanian Alps, with several thousand foot cliffs coming right down to the water in many spots. There were a number of small villages and houses along the shores that are apparently accessed only via ferry.
The ferry terminal where we disembarked was not quite as chaotic. Basically there were just a ton of mini buses standing ready to shuttle people the last hour to Valbona. Neither of us remember the drive that clearly because we were both nodding off. We were eventually dropped off at Guesthouse Demushi, our home for the next two nights. The setting was gorgeous. The guesthouse was on a mini-farm with a garden, fruit trees, flowers, lots of chickens running about, and, of course, stunning views of the high peaks in the Albanian Alps.
Valbona is not really a town per se, but rather a bunch of homes, farms, and guesthouses strung out along several miles of the Valbona River Valley. The road into the valley dead ended a few miles up valley from our guesthouse, turning into a hiking trail that we would take to Theth a few days later. Valbona was an incredibly beautiful albeit very perplexing place. We struggled to find a comparison to anywhere we’ve visited before. For starters, we weren’t quite sure where everyone that was on the ferry went, because the valley felt pretty deserted. There were a ton of little guesthouses (some with restaurants) scattered throughout the valley, but no other tourist infrastructure whatsoever: no stores, gas stations…nothing. The entire area is a national park, though if we hadn’t read that in advance, I don’t think we would have known. There is certainly no visitor center, and barely any signage whatsoever. It seemed like half the valley was under construction. There were a lot of half finished buildings (including a monstrosity of a hotel that seemed more out of place than any building I’ve seen in my life), many of which looked like they hadn’t been worked on in quite some time. The roadside and yards were also littered with decomposing, round, concrete bunkers, left over from Albania’s communist days when Enver Hoxha was paranoid about an attack and had several hundred thousand prefabricated bunkers built across the country. Sadly, there was also a ton of trash everywhere. It sort of felt like someone decided to build a little mountain resort town and then just abandoned the project halfway through. All in all, the built environment felt wildly incongruous with the natural setting.
The Valbona Valley is in extreme northern Albania, just a few miles from Montenegro and a few miles from Kosovo. After getting our bearings, we were excited to do some hiking the following day, however we struggled to find reliable information on hiking trails in the area or a weather forecast. My CalTopo mapping app showed a handful of trails, but I’m always loathe to rely entirely on electronics, especially in an unfamiliar area. (Oddly, we had full LTE cell service throughout the valley.) We couldn’t find a paper map, because the only person in the valley who sold them has apparently disappeared from the face of the Earth (a story for another time…)
We ended up hiking a loop trail that a waiter had mentioned the night before at dinner, only part of which appeared on my digital map. The hike began with a gentle ascent to the village of Kukaj, perched a few hundred feet above the main valley in a little side drainage. From Kukaj, the hike got quite steep and we sweatily labored our way up the valley wall until we arrived at an amazing viewpoint where we could look both up and down the Valbona Valley. (See photo at top of post.) We spent close to an hour here enjoying the view before completing the loop and descending back to the valley floor. We got back the guesthouse not long before a pretty intense thunderstorm (and brief power outage) rolled through the valley.
The next day it was time to head across Valbona Pass to Theth! This day happened to be our 6th wedding anniversary, a date on which we’ve had some interesting adventures the last few years. In 2019 we rode a shuttle bus in Glacier National Park that ended with us filing a formal safety complaint with the National Park Service, then proceeded to nearly lose a wheel on our own car, necessitating a cross-border trip to a NAPA Auto Parts store in Cardston, Alberta. In 2020 we had a brush with hypothermia on a backpacking trip near Glacier Peak, only to return to our car and find that mice had trashed it during the few nights it was parked at the trailhead. In 2021 we were on a whitewater rafting trip on the Rogue River in Oregon, which actually went quite well save for the suffocating wildfire smoke that has become so common in late summer.
The day started with a delicious breakfast at Guesthouse Demushi, consisting of bread, butter, cheese, jam, eggs, etc…very traditional, tasty, and filling. After breakfast, we got a ride to the end of the paved road to save us a few miles of walking. We started early as we weren’t quite sure how long of a hike we had in store. Distance estimates we had seen online varied wildly, and while the route was well signed, like most other countries in Europe, Albanian trail signs give distances in hours, as opposed to, you know, an actual unit of distance like kilometers or miles. (As a former park ranger who has seen first hand the wide range in personal hiking speeds, this drives me crazy to no end!) Our best estimate was 8-10 miles.
It was a cool, overcast, and humid morning as we walked the mostly flat, gravelly river bottom for the first few miles to the village of Rragram. After Rragram, the grade started to steepen. While it was still overcast and fairly cool, it was extremely humid and I’m not sure if I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. Times like these make me grateful that we live in the desert! Before too long we arrived at one of two small cafes found along the trail. This has to be the ultimate paradox of hiking off the beaten path in Europe: it’s almost impossible to find out how long the trail actually is, but you can still buy a cold beer every few miles. Quite surreal. This first cafe had a thatched roof of leaves, a wide selection of cold drinks cooled by a natural spring, and a plush bathroom with an ornate running water system. (Prices for those drinks were the highest that we had seen since London, which I guess makes sense. Generally speaking, prices in Albania were quite low. Dinner for two with drinks set us back the equivalent of about $20 most nights. A soda here at the cafe was $5.) We enjoyed two sodas even though it was not yet 9 am, to replace the many electrolytes we had lost via sweat in the last two hours.
The trail from Valbona to Theth is without a doubt the most travelled in the Albanian Alps, but up until this point we had only seen one other group of people and were again starting to wonder where the heck everyone was. Apparently we were the early birds because while resting at the cafe, several larger groups caught up with us and we had plenty of company the rest of the day. After the cafe the hike got much more interesting as we began to ascend rocky slopes up toward the pass. The views really opened up and we could see back down the Valbona Valley towards where we had stayed the last few nights. Before we knew it, we were arriving at the pass, just as the clouds started to open up. Luckily we didn’t hear any thunder, but even so we didn’t stick around too long before beginning the descent to Theth. Half an hour later we arrived at cafe #2 where we waited out another heavy band of rain under a covered seating area while enjoying some fli, a traditional Albanian mountain pastry consisting of layers of Swedish-pancake-like dough with sugar and nuts.
From the second cafe it was a long, steep descent into Theth, mostly through dense beech forests with minimal views. In the final installment, more on Theth and our journey home!