In Albania’s Accursed Mountains, The Journey Is Half The Fun
They sound scarier than they are – in fact, they're really beautiful.
After being closed to mainstream tourism for decades, Albania is finally competing with glamorous neighbours Montenegro and Greece for the spotlight. Perfect for young travellers, this pocket of Eastern Europe has earned its title as a must-visit destination: the food is incredible, the people are super friendly, the culture is fascinating, and its natural beauty is nothing short of stunning.
Most of the attention centres on Tirana, the country’s colourful capital, and, of course, the Albanian Riviera, along the country’s southern coast. But Albania also has an alpine region worth visiting: The Accursed Mountains sound scarier than they are – they’re actually really, really beautiful.
Slowly but surely, tourists from across Europe and beyond are heading north to explore the popular hiking route from the town of Valbonë to Theth, which is only open during the warmer months of the year. It takes a minimum of three days to do the full route, starting in Shköder then heading to Valbonë, hiking to Theth, then heading back to Shköder.
Day One: Shköder
Shköder is the northernmost city near the Alps and, in order to get to the really good bits of the hike, you have to pass through. Shköder is an easy two-hour bus ride from Tirana and onward journeys to Montenegro and Croatia are plentiful. Online forums will tell you that travelling by bus in Albania is difficult and, compared to more well-connected cities, it is a little trickier because timetables aren’t set in stone and bus station don’t really exist. Rather, buses gather in car parks around town, with the location changing every couple of weeks.
But don’t let that deter you — keeping an open mind means you’ll see that by bus (furgon) is the most delightful way to travel in Albania. If you can’t get to the start of the route, hail it from anywhere on the side of the road, let the driver know when you want to get off, then pay him as you leave the bus. Do allow extra travel time because sometimes there are sheep on the road. Just go with it and enjoy the wonderful scenery. It doesn’t pay to be stressed in the Balkans.
Give yourself a day to explore to Shköder: a charming and peaceful mountain town where all major sites are within walking distance of each other. There are numerous great places to eat and stay, and winding streets are filled with heritage-listed buildings. You can even wash your furgon-induced worries away in the nearby massive Lake Skadar and squeeze in a visit to the Marubi National Photography Museum, which is home to the iconic Marubi collection.
Day Two: Koman Ferry to Valbonë
After a busy day exploring Shköder, ask your accommodation to organise a bus to collect you and take you to the Koman Ferry terminal. Collection is usually around 6:30am to allow for the two-and-a-half hour journey to the 9am ferry, which runs only once a day.
The Koman Ferry is a trip highlight because of they natural beauty of the route and the intriguing glimpse it offers to a way of life that no longer exists in most parts of the world. The ferry takes you past isolated villages and farms, sometimes passing children playing at the water’s edge or farmers walking mules up steep cliffs.
The ferry trip ends in Fierzë, where buses are wait to take travellers to Valbonë. If you ask politely, they might stop at Bajram Curri, a small town with a bank, markets, and grocery stores, to pick up last-minute supplies. Make sure you hit up the ATM, because there’s no Pay Wave in the Accursed Mountains.
Most visitors tend to stay the night in Valbonë before tackling the hike to Theth the next day. But, if you have more time, there are plenty of clearly marked day hikes in the area that are well worth a visit. Guesthouses are the most common type of accommodation in these tiny villages but, if that’s not your style, there is the option to pitch your tent in camping grounds dotted through the valley or on those attached to guesthouses.
Day Three: Valbonë to Theth
The hike to Theth is (fairly) clearly signposted with red and white flags, some in more obvious spots than others. Valbonë pass is 1759m above sea level, and the hike to Theth is roughly 10km long. Take your camera and sturdy walking shoes; the trail covers a variety of landscapes from open meadows to pine covered forests, and big wide hills freckled with pine trees and snow-capped peaks.
More importantly, take your time, because breath-taking sights await you at every turn. Soak it all in by taking a break at one of the many mountain cafes dotted along the trail. These small wooden huts are often located next to springs and streams, where water is fresh off the mountains and icy cold. Locals use it to keep milk and soft drinks cold, and hikers revel at the opportunity to top up their water supply. Water never tasted so good.
When you finally arrive in Theth, you can take your pick of the dozen guest houses, but make sure you book before you arrive to ensure you have a good feed and hot shower waiting for you. Electricity is often off during the day while hikers are out, so it’s easiest to make a phone call when you hike in to town.
If you have extra time, spend a day or two exploring Theth and the day hikes that surround it. Once you’re ready to continue your journey, buses will be waiting to take you on the scenic trip back to Shkodër.