The Albanian Alps in the north of the country were the first place we visited during a two week stay in Albania. And what an introduction to this off the beaten path destination in Europe it was. The scenery in the so-called ‘accursed mountains’ was absolutely stunning. And the best of it all: it can be explored on a easy to arrange DIY three day loop from the city of Shkodër.
Three day loop Albanian Alps
The focus of this three day loop is the hike on day two from Valbona to Theth, crossing the 1.759 meter high Valbona Pass. The only way to do this is by taking public transport from Shköder to Valbona, hike to Theth and then take a minivan back to Shkodër.
The easiest way to do the loop is by booking an organized tour, but then you’ll be paying much more for a trip that essentially is fairly easy to organize by yourself. Actually our biggest worry was finding a secure parking space for our car while we were gone. Pemaj Hostel in Shkodër was kind enough to let us park our car in their fenced-off courtyard while we were away.
The hostel owner also made a call for a taxi-van to pick us up the next morning at 6 AM and we were ready to go. Furgons (minibuses) also leave from the bus station, but ask around for the exact departure times as these seem flexible. The standard price for the trip is 5 euro pp (which seemed the preferred method of payment instead of the Albanian Lek).
After picking up some other passengers in the center of Shkodër and stopping for a quick cup of coffee it was time for the first leg of our three-leg journey to Valbona: a 1,5 hour drive over sometimes bad, but very scenic roads to the ferry landing near the Koman Hydroelectric Power Station at Koman Lake. The last few hundred meters went through an eerie, dark tunnel and then suddenly we were at the small ferry landing.
Koman Lake ferry
In the summer months three ferry companies offer the trip across the lake to Fierzë, all departing within twenty minutes of each other. We’d bought tickets for the Rozafa car ferry (again 5 euro is the standard price). At 9 AM it was the first to leave, but also the slowest, so we arrived last at Fierzë.
The ferry ride took a little over three hours, but this was no punishment as the scenery around Koman Lake is beautiful. The narrow lake was formed in the 1970’s after the completion of a hydroelectric dam and is surrounded by gorgeous karst mountains and scenic gorges. It was sad to see, though, that halfway through the ferry ride a lot of garbage was floating in the water.
Getting to Valbona
At the Fierzë ferry landing minibuses and taxi-vans were waiting to take passengers for another 1,5 hour ride on a new tarmac road to Valbona (you guessed it: 5 euro). We had no reservations in Valbona, but this was no problem. Actually it’s better not to reserve in advance: our 20 euro room (after negotiating) at the Jezerca Guesthouse cost 34 euro on booking.com. On the other hand: the mediocre dinner was expensive here.
Since Valbona is not much more than some clusters of lodging options, there’s not much more to do here than admire the mountain scenery or go hiking. Arriving early afternoon in Valbona we planned on doing a short hike to warm up for the next day, but with a thunderstorm brewing in the distance we decided to return after half an hour and just rest a little and go to bed early.
Starting our hike
The next day we started walking around 8.30 AM and it was already pretty warm. Albania was experiencing 35-40 degree temperatures at the time and in the Albanian Alps it was not much cooler. We also wanted a relatively early start because we were unsure about how long the hike would be and how long it would take. The various resources we consulted came up with wildly differing distances and times. Even the signs along the way didn’t seem to agree on the length of the hike.
We suspect that much depends on what is taken as a starting point: your accommodation in Valbona, the end of the tarmac road or the official start of the trail head near the village of Rragami where you can be taken by 4WD.
We started at our accommodation, which was centrally located in Valbona. From here it was about a 50 minute walk to the end of the paved road. A sign points you in the direction of the dry rocky riverbed you have to follow for about another hour to the start of the trail head at Rragami. You won’t get lost here: just follow the 4WD tracks and the white-red-white striped trail markings.
Rragami: now it gets serious
At Rragami you’ll have to pay attention though. At the trail head the trail splits into a lower trail to the left and a higher trail to the right. We met people who took the wrong left turn here, ending up at a waterfall. We took our chances with the right trail, which turned out the be the correct one. We checked with a local first, though, before walking all the way up.
Until Rragami the trail was not hard, but after that the real climbing began to ascend the 700 meters to Valbona Pass. The trail was very steep at some sections and it was hard work in the blazing sun, Eugénie cursing me several times for making her do this hike.
After the steepest section we took a rest and drink stop at Simoni Kafe at Valbona Spring. This temporary pit stop is here from May to September, mules carrying cans of soft drink and beer up the mountain from Theth. It’s also possible to refill your water bottle with fresh and cold spring water and there’s even a western toilet. Simoni told us that 20-70 people per day stop by on their hike.
To Valbona Pass
From Valbona Spring it was another hour of climbing to Valbona Pass. Steadily climbing above the tree line we finally got rewarded for all our hard work. The views across the Albanian Alps were really fantastic on this beautiful day. After about five hours we reached the pass.
After eating our prepacked lunch of dry bread, cheese, tomato and cucumber we still had a 1.000 meter descent ahead of us. We’d read that this would be more gentle, but still there were some pretty steep sections. An hour into the descent there was another nice temporary wooden café to have a soft drink or beer or refill on spring water, which was very welcome.
Descending to Theth
The scenery on the way down to Theth was less spectacuIar than on the Valbona side, which made the descent seem very long. In the end it took us nine hours total (including many rest and photo stops) to get from our guesthouse in Valbona to our guesthouse in Theth.
We’d read that locals would approach you for a place to sleep, but somehow we were completely neglected. Almost at the end of the village we decided to just walked up to a place that looked more like a local bar, but it turned out to be a guesthouse as well. Charging 20 euro per person for a room, a great dinner and breakfast it seemed like a decent deal.
Lock-in tower in Theth
The location was perfect too, looking out to the very scenic village church and close to the village museum (not much to see here) and the so-called ‘lock-in’ or ‘isolation’ tower (kulla). It’s one of the few remaining isolation towers in Albania, a remnant of the tradition of blood feud that in a not so distant past was common practice in northern Albania. Those condemned by family ties could find protection from being killed in these towers.
Getting back to Shkodër again was easy. Our guesthouse host, who only spoke a little English, arranged for a minibus to pick us up at the guesthouse around noon so we’d have enough time to look around the village. Departure was on Albanian time, though, in the end leaving 1,5 hours later for the three hour ride back to Shkodër.
Ayone can do it
Looking back the Albanian Alps loop was one of our greatest experiences in Albania. The hike was tough, but we think that anyone that’s reasonably fit can do it. We’re both not in great shape and Eugénie is scared of falling on rocky descents, so our going was pretty slow. We saw families with children passing us so easily we almost felt ashamed of our pace.
The trail is pretty well marked, but at some points you have to look closely for the trail markings. We’re unexperienced hikers and just navigated on these markings without getting lost. However, we also met a German couple who managed to take a wrong trail twice navigating mostly through a hiking map and an app. Lesson learned: keep your eyes on the trail markings not on a map.
Comparing our experiences with pretty recent blogs and reports about this trip we found that things are changing fast in this part of the Albanian Alps. There’s a prefect asphalt road to Valbona now and the road from Theth to Shkodër has been partly paved as well. Driving out of the Theth valley the sometimes hair-raising road up was still very bad (kudos to the 30-year old Mercedes-Benz minibus), from the top of the pass down it had brand new asphalt.
It’s just a matter of time before the entire route is paved and Theth can be reached in comfort. The village – that now still has some traditional charm – is already preparing for the future, with new guesthouses being built, wood picket fences being replaced by (barbed) wire fences and the building of a bar/restaurant right next to the lock-in tower (a very bad idea). So, get here while you can!
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