Hiking the Accursed Mountains: Theth to Valbonë

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October 11th 2019
Published: October 12th 2019
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The trip to Albania was slightly less straight forward than it was supposed to be thanks to the demise of Adria airlines. Instead of a direct flight from Ljubljana to Podgorica, Montenegro we first flew from Ljubljana airport (which was about a half hour drive from our hotel in Bled) to Belgrade in Serbia. After an approximately 3 hour long layover in the rather uninspiring Belgrade airport we caught the next flight to Podgorica.

Podgorica airport must be one of the easiest airports for passengers; we hopped off the plane, queued for immigration as we entered the terminal building, clear immigration and headed to the baggage carousel which was about 10 meters away.

After picking up our hire car for the next 3 weeks (a white VW golf), we set off for Shkodër in Albania. Along the way we did our first land border crossing in a car as we left Montenegro after only being in the country for about an hour and entered Albania. We’d heard some interesting things about Albanian driving, but it didn’t seem too terrible (perhaps the best (worst) is still to come!). We had a little trouble finding our hotel as it was in a bit of a random location on the hillside outside of the main part of Shkodër but even with the detour we pulled into the car park only about an hour and a half after leaving the airport in Montenegro.

Shkodër is the fourth largest city in Albania with a population of approximately 140,000. It was founded in the 4th century AD and over the years since it has been governed / occupied by the Romans, Byzantines, Serbs, Venetians, Ottomans, Montenegrins, Austro-Hungarians, French and of course the Albanians. During the early 1990’s it was the birthplace of the democratic movement which eventually overthrew the communist regime of Albania.

After checking in and dropping off our bags and asking the hotel to organise a 4WD for the following morning we drove back into Shkodër in search of a sim card for Scott’s phone and to withdraw some Albanian Lek from the ATM. We parked our car and headed to a Vodafone store. Fortunately the staff at Vodafone spoke fantastic English and were very friendly so the whole process was very easy.

That night we decided to have dinner at our hotel as we had to leave quite early the following morning. Scott ordered a shrimp risotto and I had spaghetti with vegetables. Our meals were quite nice, certainly not as heavy as Slovenian food.

The following morning we were supposed to be picked up by the 4WD which would take us to the start point for our hike through the Accursed mountains, Theth, at 6:40am. We were rather (pleasantly) surprised when it arrived at 6:38am. We introduced ourselves to the driver and then hopped into the car with our small packs containing (hopefully) everything we’d need for the next few days.

After leaving from our hotel we headed to another hotel to pick up two German girls. We then headed to a hostel to pick up three other tourists. When they hopped into the car the girl said “are you guys Australian?” “are you from Melbourne?” Turns out that we were sharing a car with two of our neighbours, Emma and Tom, from our (fairly small) apartment building at home plus one of their friends, Tay. We’d never actually met each other in Melbourne so we all had a good laugh about how weird it was that we ended up on a random 4WD heading to the middle of nowhere in Albania with our neighbours from Melbourne! After stopping to pick up two more tourists (who weren’t our neighbours) we then set off for Theth.

The first part of the drive to Theth was fairly quick. We stopped briefly for some (delicious!) cheese byrek (borëk) before continuing on our way. Eventually we hit point where the journey slowed as we made our way up the side of the mountain on a fairly narrow road. The road is being improved at the moment which means there was a bit of construction going on so we had to slow to drive past excavators and rock breakers at various points. The drive wouldn’t have been very pleasant for someone afraid of heights as much of it was on a poor quality narrow road winding along the side of the mountain but we quite enjoyed it. The scenery was beautiful, particularly the brief stop at the viewpoint midway through the journey. We pulled into Theth about 3.5hours after leaving Shkodër making it a fairly slow 76.2km journey.

We were checked into our pretty hotel by an old grandma with very little English. After dropping our bags at the hotel we set off to explore the village of Theth.

The town of Theth is tiny; it seemed to mostly consist of guesthouses catering for those hiking in the Accursed mountains. The population of Theth is apparently shrinking and most families living there now leave the town during the harsh winter months.

We walked for about an hour along the main ‘road’ (more like a track) through the town and beyond. Although we were heading in the direction of the Blue Eye (a waterhole with clear blue water similar to that which we’d seen throughout Slovenia) we decided not to do the 20km round trip the day before doing a whole day hike.

After our walk we had lunch at our hotel. We ordered beans which were topped with a tomato and capsicum sauce and chicken served with mashed potato mixed with polenta. The chicken was a little dry, but the rest of the food was delicious.

We spent the rest of the afternoon reading our books, admiring the scenery from our hotel and befriending an initially timid turned rather demanding and friendly cat at the hotel.

That night we met up with Emma, Tom and Tay for dinner at their hotel which was a short walk from ours. We grabbed a table and not long after we sat down the dishes started arriving. We were served bread, a plate of olives, eggplant, roasted capsicums, cheeses similar to a rustic feta, tomato and cucumber salad, lamb, a tomato and egg dish, bean soup and, my favourite, a whipped cheese with cloves of garlic and roasted eggplant on top. We also ordered beers and wine to go with our meal. The food was delicious.

The following morning we had breakfast at our hotel (cheese, tomato, capsicum, homemade yoghurt, honey, jam, bread, cornbread, sausage and eggs) and packed ourselves a picnic lunch (much the same as breakfast). We then met up with Emma, Tom and Tay and set off together for the hike to Valbonë at about 9am.

Not long after we started walking we arrived at a rather confusing marking on a power pole which suggested that we needed to follow a track which maps.me said the bridge had collapsed on. We decided to rely on maps.me and follow an alternative route which saw us climbing up the hill along narrow paths and climbing over gates / fences.

Eventually we rejoined what appeared to be the main path and continued on our way up the mountain. The upwards trajectory continued for the next 3.5 hours. The scenery changed a fair bit along the way. We walked through beautiful shady forests and grassy areas as well as narrow tracks along the side of the rockier parts of the mountain. We stopped a couple of times to admire the view, take photos, catch our breath and fill our water bottles. We seemed to make pretty good time as we overtook a few people along the way, including a group of Israelis who started at about 6am.

When we reached the ridge of the mountain we got our first glimpse of the stunning Valbonë valley. Tom, Tay, Scott and I decided to climb a little higher along a track which headed off to the right while Emma waited with the bags. Scott, Tom and I stopped at the viewpoint a short way up while Tay continued climbing to the peak.

After admiring the view and taking some more photos we all set off again, this time heading down the mountain towards Valbonë. The walk down the hill was easier, though a little slippery because of the loose stones at times. The scenery on this side of the mountain was even more beautiful and quite different to the Theth side. The autumn leaves made it even more special.

We stopped to eat our picnic lunch at one of the four huts along the path. The boys each had a beer with their lunch while Emma had Fanta and I tried the mountain tea with honey.

As we continued further down the mountain the trail eventually widened so that we were walking along a dry river bed. As we entered Valbonë we stopped to take some photos of the group and then said farewell to the others near their hotel (3km before ours). Scott and I walked the rest of the way along the road. Valbonë was slightly larger than Theth, though not as beautiful. On the way to our hotel we passed quite a few new guest houses and hotels under construction; seems Albania is getting ready for the tourism boom it deserves.

We were pretty happy when we finally reached our hotel just under 8 hours after leaving Theth. We probably walked for about 7 hours in total, with about 45 minutes worth of breaks for lunch / snacks. After checking in we both really enjoyed the warm shower! We’re not sure how the father and son duo we encountered on the walk managed to walk Valbonë to Theth one day and then find the energy to do it back the other way the following day!

That night for dinner we ate at our hotel. We shared a stuffed capsicum, a bean soup and a spinach and cheese byrek as well as some bread and a well deserved beer/wine. We also had some grapes and a walnut cake covered in honey. The food was delicious, particularly the stuffed capsicums.

The following morning we were quite surprised to discover that our legs still worked and weren’t anywhere near as sore as we’d expected they would be. We had breakfast at our hotel (tomato, cucumber, bread, eggs, cheese and date jam and mountain tea).

We ended up catching a ride to the ferry at Fierze with an American lady, Martine, and her Kosovan driver Nasser. Martine had spent the previous 6 weeks working for the Kosovo Womens Network in Prishtina and was travelling in Albania with her husband John (who was walking Valbonë to Theth) and their driver Nasser before heading back to the US.

The drive to Fierze was very pretty. We actually ended up driving past the turn off to the ferry terminal which wasn’t well signed and continuing about 20 minutes beyond. The slight detour meant that we got to see one of the large hydroelectric dam walls. Eventually we realised we were heading in the wrong direction so turned around and headed back towards the ferry.

We arrived at the ferry terminal at about 12pm. We grabbed some snacks from the small cafe (mainly selling drinks, seems like a missed opportunity for a byrek stall!) for the ride and waited until it was time to hop on the ferry.

The ferry departed right on schedule at 1pm. The ride took about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The scenery along the way was stunning; impressive rocky mountains, the Komani lake (actually a dam) and mostly blue sky. We spent the ride chatting with Martine, a German guy travelling through Albania in a van with his adorable dog and admiring the view. We stopped briefly along the way to drop off a tractor (with tyres that hardly had any tread left) at a small town, but otherwise it was a non-stop journey to Koman.

After arriving in Koman we hopped back in the car with Martine and Nasser and set off for Shkodër. The drive was incredibly slow for the first 36kms as the road wasn’t in good condition and Nasser seemed rather concerned about his car. Eventually the road condition improved and we continued at a much faster pace towards Shkodër.

After leaving Nasser and Martine at their hotel Scott and I headed off in search of a taxi. We found one only a short walk away and didn't even have to argue about the meter. We arrived back at our hotel just before 5:30pm.

That night for dinner we headed back into Shkodër to a restaurant in a 17th century Ottoman building. We ordered a vegetarian appetiser selection (two different cheese byreks, stuffed capsicum, dolmades, a corn based slice and delicious flat bread), a yoghurt dip with grilled zucchini (which they call pumpkin here for some reason) and chicken with corn flour which was a shredded chicken dish in a polenta stew which tasted almost Mexican. Scott had a beer and I had a wine. The food was delicious, we’re really enjoying the Albanian cuisine.

I had read about the hike from Theth to Valbonë on the Travels of a Bookpacker travel blog while planning our trip. The scenery looked so stunning that I ended up redoing the plans for our trip so that we could fit the hike in. I’m so glad that we were able to fit the hike in as it was absolutely fantastic. The scenery was spectacular; the views made climbing the mountain totally worth it!

The following day we had a rather slow start as breakfast wasn’t available at our hotel till 8:30am. Following breakfast we headed off to Rozafa Castle.

Rozafa Castle is perched on a mountain overlooking Shkodër. The castle was originally built by the Illyrians in antiquity and was then rebuilt by the Venetians and later by the Ottomans.

The castle is mostly in ruins now, but the walls and a few buildings or foundations of buildings remain. The views from the castle over Shkodër, Lake Shkodër and the surrounding countryside and mountains were impressive, though a pesky cloud was hiding the Accursed mountains during our visit. We probably spent about an hour at the castle in total, including the walk up the hill from where we parked our car.

After the castle we headed to the Site of Witness and Memory museum in Shkodër. The museum commemorates the victims of the communist regime from Shkodër. After paying our entrance fee we watched a 10 minute video which gave an overview of the brutal policies of the regime and talked a bit about executions, removal or religion and punishments dealt out.

Once the video finished we took a look around the museum which included photographs of those executed, artefacts from that period of time and prison cells from the regime. We suspect that the museum is linked to the Catholic monastery next door as there was a big focus on the removal of religion and the impact that had on the culture. We found the communist history quite interesting as neither of us knew a lot about the Albanian regime, or Albanian history at all, before coming here.

After the museum we went for a walk around the city. We ended up on a cute street which looks very different to the rest of Shkodër, we suspect the buildings along that strip were from the French occupation of the city. We strolled around the block and through a park. We also checked out a couple of supermarkets (only Asian ingredient was soy sauce, Scott can never live in Albania!).

After walking for a while we stopped for a cheese byrek. The byrek was delicious, but not quite as good as the one we’d had on the way to Theth. We then headed to another small restaurant and ordered a chicken souvlaki each, which we ate while watching the people walking past.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel to read books and blog on the balcony at our hotel while admiring the view.

That night for dinner we met up with Emma, Tom and Tay. We went to an Italian restaurant for dinner as they needed a break from Albanian having eaten at their hotel in Valbonë three times the previous day. The pizzas were quite good, though the cream and walnuts on mine was a little odd.

After dinner we went to the pretty street we’d visited earlier in the day. Albania was playing Turkey in the soccer so we grabbed a spot where we could watch the game and have a drink. It was surprisingly quiet out given it was a Friday evening and Albania was playing. After the game finished we said farewell to Tom, Tay and Emma and then headed back to our hotel.

We enjoyed our time in Shkodër but the highlight in this part of Albania was definitely the Theth to Valbonë hike!

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12th October 2019

Amazing beauty. We would like to follow in your footsteps.

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