Hiking the Albanian Alps – Valbona Theth, Albania

03 Apr

The first day of the trek Valbona Theth

Short description. I took a local shuttle (furgon) from Shkodër to the onboarding place on the Komani ferryboat. For four hours, we traveled by ferry on the Komani Lake until Fierza. Then, we took a car to Valbona, where we stayed overnight before the Valbona Theth hike.

Long description

At six o’clock in the morning, I was in front of Camping Ledgenda and waited for the shuttle for the Komani Lake Ferryboat. Felix and Christiana, two Germans who were traveling with a campervan around Southeast Europe for six months, came with the same shuttle. I had a big backpack because I didn’t know how long I would be staying in the mountains. Felix and Christiana had only two small backpacks. In Shkodër, the shuttle-driver picked up other hikers too, including Nicolai and Anna-Sofia, two Danish who were hitchhiking through Albania for three weeks.

Komani Lake: furgon trip early in the morning

Komani Lake: furgon trip early in the morning

The road going to the Komani Ferry snaked along the homonymous reservoir lake. We passed the part of the lake formed below the concrete dam, where ferries couldn’t navigate. The road got worse, with lots of potholes and even off-road parts. After two hours of being jolted along the bumpy road, the asphalt suddenly ended above the dam. The wharf of Komani Lake was pretty small. It included three terraces, three ferries, and a minuscule parking lot packed-up with cars. I again met Arditt from Shkodër who had come with another shuttle. He showed me which ferryboat to board. I climbed on the deck of one of the ferries where a strong wind was blowing.

Komani Lake Ferry: embarking on the ferry

Komani Lake Ferry: embarking on the ferry

For several hours, the ferryboat winded among cliffs that ended deep under the water. We glimpsed villages perched on steep hillsides, accessible only on foot, and dilapidated boats anchored ashore. No car-road reached that wild area, and one could see lofty peaks of the mountains all around. A group of Albanians started to dance on the deck, while the ferry-boat was whirring and quaking on the rhythm of the music. Eventually, we reached Fierza without even noticing when the time had passed. The dock in Fierza was rather a parking lot, where local people awaited their customers. Linda from the campground in Shkodër had talked with Arban, who drove us to his home in Valbona.

Komani Lake Ferry (4h trip)

Komani Lake Ferry (4h trip)

Valbona was rather a large village, with 50-80 inhabitants. Many houses had been transformed into tourist lodges and sat hidden at the end of a steep mountain road. Several bigger households grouped around an enlargement of the road in the village’s center. Arban’s house sat at the feet of the mountains, in an isolated spot. It was still under construction and all of us had to sleep in one room with bunk beds. We were served a poor lunch (bean soup, salad, melon), and after eating it, I ended being literally hungry.

Valbona - a village somewhere up in the Albanian Alps

Valbona – a village somewhere up in the Albanian Alps

In the afternoon, Nicolai practiced his tenor exercises, while Christiana was doing yoga in the backyard. Anna slept, while Felix and I were talking with Anas and Vicky, two other Danish who were traveling with their 9-month-old daughter. Later, Arban showed us a place where to swim in the river, with ice-cold water, though. After thatwe drunk coffee at the so-called Valbona’s center, at Tradita Camping.

In the evening, we were again given little food for dinner. I was still hungry and asked for more. Arban’s son ironically told me I ate as much as I had paid for. If I had wanted to eat more, I would have had to go to a restaurant in the village’s center. This meant I had to go to Valbona’s center through dark and wilderness at that hour late at night. Nicholas felt merciful for me, though, and gave me his fried fish to calm my hunger. I would have liked to stay for another day in the area, but I had no other place to stay. In these circumstances, I couldn’t wait to leave the following morning and do the Valbona Theth trek.

The second day of the trek Valbona Theth

Short description. I hiked from Valbona to the homonymous pass, from where I descended to Theth Gjelaj.

Long description

The day of the great hike Valbona Theth, across the mountains. The day I had been dreaming for almost one year. We woke up at six o’clock in the morning and had a hearty breakfast (eggs, sausages, cheese and tomatoes, coffee). At 8 a.m., Arban drove us 7 km by car until the starting point of the trail, at the end of the Valbona Valley.

Trek Valbona Theth - on the way to Rrogam hamlet along the Valbona Valley

Trek Valbona Theth – on the way to Rrogam hamlet along the Valbona Valley

The trail started from the lower part of the Valbona Valley, a large valley, full of white scree. As I had a big backpack, I chose to go slower and enjoy the scenery. The Danish-Germans, though, hurried as if they were running a marathon. While I was hiking along the valley, a group of trekkers with a guide and two donkeys loaded with backpacks (including trolleys) overpassed me. The trail paved with whitish scree started to go up the steep slope of the mountain. It crossed a juniper forest, and within one hour, it reached the Rrgami hamlet. The small settlement had several lodges refurbished in people’s homes. The hamlet overlooked the valley, but at the same time, it had a good setting, protected by the mountain.

Trek Valbona Theth - traditional stone house in Rrogam hamlet

Trek Valbona Theth – traditional stone house in Rrogam hamlet

I continued to hike, passed several meadows, then steeply climbed a serpentine trail. On the trail, I met Yuri, a German trekker coming down from the opposite direction. He told me he had slept in his tent up in the mountain and it had been a bit cold. After a steep bend of the trail, I stopped at the most inspired coffeehouse in the mountains. At Simoni Cafe, I drank a delicious frappe, made with spring water from the heart of the mountains.

Trek Valbona Theth: Simoni Cafe on the way to Valbona Pass (Qafa e Valbonës)

Trek Valbona Theth: Simoni Cafe on the way to Valbona Pass (Qafa e Valbonës)

From Simoni Cafe, I climbed up to an important turn off of the trail, next to a boulder. There, I turned left toward the Valbona Pass. A guide running down in front of his group told me there was little left to the mountain pass. I had already reached a high altitude and I could see the Albanian Alps in all the directions. Further, I climbed a steep glen with scree along which the trail went up in tight bends. At its end, I crossed to the left on a footpath slightly going up to Valbona Pass (Qafa-e-Valbonës).

Trek Valbona Theth: on the way to Valbona Pass (Qafa e Valbonës)

Trek Valbona Theth: on the way to Valbona Pass (Qafa e Valbonës)

I reached the Valbona Pass at the peak-hour. Trekkers came from both directions and crossed the point of the maximum altitude of the Valbona Theth Trail (1600m). I sat down and ate biscuits and sandwiches from my backpack. The crowds passed and only me with another photographer remained on the mountain. We were both waiting for the sun to come out of the clouds and shoot brighter photos. The clouds quickly moved from Theth to Valbona. A chilly wind blew. I had 3G signal, so I cruised the internet while waiting for the sun. All the tourists hordes had descended. The sun came out of the clouds. Birds were chirping. Bees were humming. A breeze was lightly blowing. Finally, it was silence.

Trek Valbona Theth: close to Valbona Pass

Trek Valbona Theth: close to Valbona Pass

From Qafa-e-Valbonës Pass I descended to Theth in less than 2h. The trail went through the woods almost all the way down, so I didn’t have a spectacular scenery. For the same reason, I didn’t stop at the terrace which sat half an hour under the mountain pass. The sky was cloudy, and I preferred to reach Theth sooner. There, I was planning to search for another place to stay than the one recommended by Linda from Camping Ledgenda. At the end of the day, I really wanted to eat well after the hike and needed a good guesthouse.

Trek Valbona Theth: going down from Valbona Pass to Theth

Trek Valbona Theth: going down from Valbona Pass to Theth

I arrived in Theth Gjelaj early afternoon. When I reached the first houses, I agreed to stay at Harusha’s. They assured me that I would have a hearty dinner and a single room without noise. However, they didn’t know if they would have a free room the following night. Until dinnertime, I went to Qender Theth a few miles away. I wanted to find the accommodation of my dreams for the following day. A typical Albanian house made of stone, with traditional food and good-hearted peopleI took down phone numbers from several lodges, but when I reached Shpella Guesthouse, I knew it was the one. I talked with Gjon, the owner, who was smiling and benevolent even if his house was hyper-crowded with guests.

In the evening, I returned to Harusha Guesthouse, where I had a decent dinner (soup, fried potatoes, pancakes, salad, cheese with olives, homemade pudding, melon). I was very hungry after being forced to eat so little the previous day, so I ate everything. Additionally, I requested information for the trip to the Blue Eye. The guesthouse’s guide gave me information about it and also offered me rakija (strong alcoholic drink), which I left it for other trekkers in the room.

The third day of the trek Valbona Theth

Short description. I walked through various neighborhoods of Theth (Gjelaj – Qender – Grunas – Gjecaj – Okol). In the evening, I joined a great dinner at the Shpellas’.

Long description

In the morning, I moved from Harusha to the Shpella family, only a few kilometers away. Gjon (the owner) showed me how to go to the Grunas Waterfall, the homonymous canyon, and then to the Blue Eye. I started my descend next to the kula in the center of Theth. From there, I hiked on a road going down the Theth Valley. After that, I climbed up a steep trail with water to the Grunas Waterfall. The place around the waterfall was crowded, so I left quickly and tried to find the marked trail toward the Grunas Canyon. As I was hiking, I felt very tired after the hike from the previous day. Eventually, I decided not to walk other 6km to the next village, where the Blue Eye was, and turned back to Theth.

Grunas Theth Village - Grunas Waterfall

Grunas Theth Village – Grunas Waterfall

I turned back to Gjecaj Theth on a dirt road, circulated by cars, though. The weather was good and I walked slowly, admiring everything. By the end of the Theth Valley, I sat down for a picnic near Molla Guesthouse, perched on a hillside. The granny of the family saw me sitting under a tree in the meadow. She came to me and invited me for coffee at her house. 

While I was sipping my coffee, the granny tried my trekking poles to see how strong they were. She didn’t speak English, but she enumerated a list of countries until I figured out what she wanted to say. I answered her “Romania”. Before leaving, her nephew showed me the shortcut from their house to the main dirt road along the Theth Valley. I had to climb a wooden fence to get to the bridge over the river. After I crossed the bridge, I had to walk back 3 km to the Shpella family along a dirt road.

Gjecaj Theth Village - in the middle of the Albanian Alps

Gjecaj Theth Village – in the middle of the Albanian Alps

Gjon was drinking rakija at the bar next to his guesthouse. He spotted me right away and said “How are you?” in Romanian. I stopped at the bar and talked with him about communism.

The president Hoxha died in ’85. In fact, his wife had been ruling the country for the last 10 years before his death, when he was very ill. In Theth, the locals worked in cooperatives. They owned only the house because they weren’t allowed to own land. The land was state-owned and they didn’t benefit from working it. They were paid the equivalent of 50 cents/day for their work and had to survive with that money. Albania was very poor, although Hoxha didn’t admit it. When Mother Teresa wanted to build an asylum for the poor, Hoxha said there was no need for that. He claimed Albania wasn’t a poor country.

Qender Theth Village - Shpella Guesthouse: baking homemade bread for dinner

Qender Theth Village – Shpella Guesthouse: baking homemade bread for dinner

The dinner at Shpella’s guesthouse was very generous. I couldn’t even eat from all the dishes (soup, salad, cheese with pickled green tomatoes, grilled meat, baked potatoes, homemade bread baked in the earth oven in the backyard). A Czech family with their children wanted to come to Romania the following year. Daniela (Vienna) and Daniela (an Italian woman living in Berlin) were doing the Peaks of the Balkans Trail (8 days around the highest Balkan Peaks in 3 countries: Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo). It was a quiet evening at the Shpellas’ (only 20 persons for dinner) because usually, they had around 50 persons at a time.

The fourth day of the trek Valbona Theth

Short description. I walked through Qender Theth, then left Theth by minibus and returned to Shkodër, via the Albanian Alps.

Long description

Near Shpella Guesthouse, I climbed the steps inside the fortified stone tower (kula), which was a museum. Members of two families that had argued were arrested together in the kula until their families were reconciled. The community followed a canon written by Lekë Dukagjin six centuries ago (kanun). The isolation of the enemies imprisoned in the tower ended when the offended family forgave or a member of the insulted family was killed in return. If 40 days of negotiation passed without finding a solution, a baby was placed in a cradle inside the tower. The baby was suspended in such a way that he/she would have died if an agreement hadn’t been quickly found by the feuded families.

Qender Theth Village - Lock-in Tower (old kula)

Qender Theth Village – Lock-in Tower (old kula)

From the fortified kula, I walked up some alleyways flanked by stone walls. I stopped at the building of the former village museum, which was open, but devastated. Charming cottages of massive stone appeared among gardens with green vines and fruit trees. Unfortunately, a few modern, oversized villas didn’t respect the traditional style and the natural scale of the place.

Qender Theth Village - in the middle of the Albanian Alps

Qender Theth Village – in the middle of the Albanian Alps

While I was walking down toward the stone church in the village’s center, Shkurte Gumnari spotted me and invited me inside her house. I refused another glass of rakija and then a series of woolen socks, hats, and jackets knitted by herHer husband and one daughter lived in Italy, while two other daughters in Shkodër. Shkurte Gumnari lived in a pretty dilapidated house in Theth only during summer. When I told her I didn’t want to buy anything from her, she said ok but stopped paying attention to me. Therefore, I stood up and left the house

Qender Theth Village - the church made of stone

Qender Theth Village – the church made of stone

By midday, we took a minibus in front of Shpella Guesthouse. The minibus ran 15 kilometers along an off-road to Theth Pass (1760 m). From there, one could see the entire Theth Valley and the old, damaged access road along the valley. The asphalted road started from Theth Pass and it crossed an area with varied landscapes of the Albanian Alps. The driver invited me to stay beside him and take better pictures. When I asked him about a seatbelt, he said I didn’t need it. He drove slowly along the serpentine road. When we reached the straight part of the road, though, he speeded toward Shkodër. Then, I tried to press my non-existent brakes and hold on to the ceiling.

Mini-bus from Theth to Skhodër - crossing the Albanian Alps

Mini-bus from Theth to Skhodër – crossing the Albanian Alps

In Shkodër, I spent a relaxing day at Camping Ledgenda. I recharged my internet card in the city center and walked around the lake. By lunchtime, I ate at a restaurant by the lake and played with cats. Later, I sunbathed at the campground’s swimming pool and spent the evening with my neighbors – Sara and Maia. Both of them worked at the national library in Ljubljana (Slovenia) and traveled around the world every year.

Hiking the Albanian Alps – Valbona Theth is a trekking diary from Albania, about the days I spent exploring the Albanian Alps (you can find the version in Romanian at Traversarea Alpilor Albanezi – de la Valbona la Theth). And here are all my Travel Diaries from Albania, the Balkan Countries (x 7).

Have you been to Albania or plan to go there? Leave a comment on this post and tell me what you like about Albania or what you’re interested to see there.

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13 Responses to “Hiking the Albanian Alps – Valbona Theth, Albania”

  1. Anna April 24, 2018 at 2:02 pm #

    The Valbona pass looks breathtakingly beautiful! After reading your travel diary, I surely put it on my bucket list since I am as well into hiking 🙂

  2. Natalie April 24, 2018 at 5:40 pm #

    What an adventure! I’d love to unplug and hike in such a beautiful place for a week or two!! I’d have to do some serious training to be able hike in such terrain. The views sure look worth the effort!

    • Iuliana April 25, 2018 at 9:58 am #

      When I did this trek I hadn’t been hiking for one year I guess. But since it lasts only 6 h from one village to another, is quite easy to do it.

  3. Resfeber Travel Blog April 24, 2018 at 7:40 pm #

    Oh guys, I am going to be over this way next year. I hadn’t thought about Albainia but now I am. It looks great! Ian @ Resfeber

  4. David April 26, 2018 at 1:08 am #

    Really interesting post! Valbona looks absolutely fantastic. Albania isn’t at the top of my must travel list but with those views… wow!

    • Iuliana April 26, 2018 at 8:57 am #

      The Albanian Alps (or the Accursed Mountains how they call it) it is a great place for an easy hike.

  5. Lisa April 27, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

    This is so interesting to read, as I’ll be honest, I never knew Albania had an Alps! Please forgive my ignorance! I like the look of these small villages too. It’s here that you really get to see local living at first hand, and it’s great to see they still keep their traditions too. I’d not heard of Valbona before reading this, but now I will make sure to visit in the future.

    • Iuliana April 28, 2018 at 8:02 am #

      You can add it to your list now. 😉

  6. Sage April 27, 2018 at 3:24 pm #

    You are far more adventurous than I am, so I really enjoyed hiking the Albanian Alps on your back via your camera. The landscape is stunning, and I really felt as if I were right there with you!

    • Iuliana April 28, 2018 at 8:03 am #

      I am happy that you have somehow enjoyed the hike.

  7. Claire April 28, 2018 at 11:42 am #

    Komani Lake looks beautiful, and the ferry journey sounds much more interesting than I would have expected! I love the stories of you chatting with the locals, it is fascinating to learn more about Albania

  8. Priya Florence Shah April 28, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    When I see such beautiful places, I really wish that I could go hiking and trekking. Alas, I cannot since I fractured my leg. However, I do enjoy reading about other people’s adventures and appreciate their amazing photographs.

  9. Francesca May 7, 2018 at 5:04 am #

    I didn’t realize Albania had alps! The Valbona Pass looks so pretty! That moment that you took to have snacks and jus chill must have been so tranquil! I don’t know if I could pull off such a trek but your story is incredible!

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