Completely unbeknownst to me when I decided Albania would be one of the stops on my Balkans trip, this gem of a country is home to a series of incredible national parks with breathtaking scenery. Who knew? Naturally, as soon as I did find out, I did some digging and made a beeline straight for this area of the country. I was definitely glad I did; the entire experience was one of my highlights of the Balkans. The experience, for most travellers, pivots around a stunning hiking trail linking two tiny villages in the mountains: Theth and Valbona.
Given the remoteness of these villages, reaching them is part of the fun and embarking on this hike requires you to stay at least a night in the mountains (I’d really recommend two nights to make the most of it). The ‘traditional’ way to do it is stay a night in either Theth or Valbona, hike to the other, stay a night there and then head back to civilisation. There are so many trails round here though and it’s such a gorgeous area that you could stay for days.
The best place to start in order to reach Albania’s Alps, as they’re nicknamed, is the city of Shkodër in northern Albania. From here, you need to decide where you want to start/end your hike – either in Theth or Valbona. The hike is obviously the same but the direction dictates what sort of a hike it is. When researching, I found that the Valbona-Theth hike involves a steeper ascent and a more gradual descent, whereas tackling it the other way round means a more gradual climb up but a steeper walk down. Since I have problems with balance/co-ordination, I really hate going downhill so I opted to start in Valbona. Since where you start will determine what transport you take, you should figure out whether you prefer a steep uphill or downhill before you go.
Most hostels in Shkodër should be able to sort out transport for you, whichever village you’re heading to. Most places should also store your luggage for you. My hostel, Our Way, was great at organising everything. To get to Valbona, I paid 2100 lek (£15) for the 6 or so hour bus-ferry-bus ride to Valbona. I was picked up at around 6.45am from my hostel by a minibus full of other travellers. From Shkodër, the bus drove us all to the ferry terminal. The windy drive took about 2 hours and was timed to meet the ferry departing at 9am. Ferry terminal is perhaps a bit generous – it was pretty basic. There were several ferries here so it was a bit confusing working out which one I needed, but showing the men at the terminal my ticket did the trick and they pointed me to the right one. It’s a small car ferry with a few different levels for passengers to stand on. It’s definitely not luxury but this is one ferry ride that is not to be missed.
The 3 hour boat trip on Lake Komani is almost certainly the most stunning boat ride I’ve ever taken. Meandering past cliff faces, mountains and more, it didn’t stop being incredible for the entire journey. The amazing views literally didn’t relent once. One thing to note is that it is bloody freezing. I was there in October but I can’t the boat being much warmer in summer since it was still quite a warm day when I went. Definitely pack a few extra layers because you’re going to want to spend the entire journey outside. Even if you can’t do the hike, I’d recommend taking this ferry to Valbona and back again. It’s absolutely stunning and the boat ride by itself costs just €5! Less than a fiver for 3 hours of insane beauty is a pretty good deal in my book.
The ferry docked in Fierza where an entourage of minibuses and cars were waiting. Again, just show any of the guys your ticket and they will point you to the correct mode of transport. We had to wait a little for one of the other ferries to arrive and then we were on our way. You can let the driver know if you have accommodation reserved in Valbona and he will drop you off outside. If not, he’ll drop you in the centre and you can peruse the numerous guesthouses at your leisure. The drive from the ferry only took about 45 minutes so I was in Valbona by about 12.30ish. I was soon checked in to my accommodation, the fantastic Villa Dini. It’s worth bearing in mind that prices are a bit higher up here in the sticks so I decided to “splurge” out for a £24 room here. Given it included breakfast, a lift to the start of the hiking trail (6km away) and a terrace from my double room with a gorgeous view, I was happy I did. There are a few cheaper options but most hover around the €20 mark. I spent that afternoon having a wander around Valbona, stunningly nestled within the mountains. It was particularly scenic at this time of year with the leaves turning golden, it made it even more spectacular. After dinner at the hotel, the icy Valbona chill soon set in and I grabbed an early night ready for the hike tomorrow.
The next morning I enjoyed my free breakfast at the hotel and then headed off. I decided to start the hike around 9am. I’d heard timings ranging from 5-7+ hours so figured an 8/9ish start would be best. In the end 9 won out because… lie-ins. The owner of the hotel gave me a lift to the start of the trail. This was really useful as it saved me about an hour or so walking along the road in Valbona. Whilst it wouldn’t have been an awful walk – Valbona is pretty scenic – it’s an unnecessary addition to an already long hike so the lift was helpful. I was dropped off at the trailhead signposting Theth. My driver ominously told me it was impossible to get lost because this was the most hiked trail in Albania. I wasn’t sure I believed him – they said the Titanic was unsinkable. However, the trail was well marked. At the beginning, any time there was a fork in the road, Theth would be signposted. In addition to this, throughout the hike there were red and white stripes at frequent intervals so I was always sure I was going the right way. The most difficult part navigationally was the final part arriving into Theth but I think that might be because I relied too much on maps.me in order to find my guesthouse, rather than just following the trail.
The first part is pretty easy but the trail then starts to climb up very quickly and it’s definitely a workout on the legs. After the steepest section there is a small cafe though I guess it only operates in summer. Once you reach the cafe, the worst is definitely over for your legs, though it’s still a bit of a climb up. The scenery makes it worthwhile though, especially at this time of year when the leaves were fiery orange and the panorama of the mountains included a sea of red (which is much less bleak than it sounds). The other advantage to hiking in the autumn was that I barely saw anyone. On the way up, I think I passed maybe two other walkers coming down. There were a few more at the peak but I didn’t see any more than a dozen other people for the duration of the hike. After snaking my way up over Valbona, feeling like one of the Fellowship of the Ring, I finally reached Valbona Pass which brings with it a whole different load of breathtaking views. I ate my packed lunch here (provided by the hotel for 400 lek) and soaked up the gorgeous views before beginning my descent.
I knew I’d definitely made the right call doing the hike from Valbona to Theth since the descent was gradual and relatively easy. The path now worked its way through gorgeous orange woodland. I’ve heard other commentators say that this part of the hike is less scenic but in the autumn it’s staggeringly beautiful. The trail opens up too so you still get your fill of awesome mountain views. One thing I did notice when walking down was a guide with a horse which was being made to carry presumably some walkers’ luggage during the hike. Without wanting to become preachy, please don’t do this. Either leave your luggage in Shkodër or take the hit and carry it yourself. If you think you’ll struggle carrying a backpack for 6 hours, imagine how a horse feels carrying multiple people’s backpacks for 6 hours, whilst being whipped and yelled at. There’s no justification for it really.
The trail became a bit steeper and more slippery the closer I got to Theth but I knew by now that the end was in sight. Theth is literally just a smattering of guesthouses spread out amongst the countryside. As I say, I got a bit lost working my way down so I’d advise just sticking to the trail until you get into the heart of the village. Maps.me tried to send me on a couple of shortcuts which didn’t exist. Besides, the location of my guesthouse (Rupa) was completely wrong on maps.me anyway. I got a bit worried when I turned up at the supposed location to find a demolished pile of rubble. It turned out my guesthouse was just a little further out of the village. All in all, the entire hike took about 6 hours which does include me taking an hour for lunch on the peak but doesn’t include me aimlessly wandering round Theth like a headless chicken trying to find my accommodation.
The guesthouse was nice, run by a quirky, friendly old lady who spoke limited English. There was also a younger lady who spoke very good English and German. For €15 a night, I got a basic (and freezing!) room with an en-suite. It cost an extra €8 for dinner which was quite expensive but she fed me and the other two guests very well, with soup, bread, meat and potatoes. She even warmed us up with a crackling fire. Whilst Theth does get cold at night, it’s definitely worth venturing out after dark to see the hundreds of stars shining in the night sky. Then run back in and huddle under your blanket again.
Theth is also worthy of a little explore. There’s a cool, photogenic church and a nice stream and its location nestled within the mountains is second to none. In terms of getting out, the guesthouse owner arranged a bus for €10 to take me and the other guests back to our various hostels in Shkodër. This was theoretically meant to depart at 11.30am but it was closer to 12.30pm when we set off. I’ve heard various times for buses to Shkodër and given the only passengers on my bus were other guests at the guesthouse, I’m guessing this is something each accommodation sorts out itself.
You may have thought your workout took place the day before during the hike… but you would be wrong. The true workout is the journey out of Theth. Prepare yourself for a journey across basically the same terrain you hiked on the day before. The first hour or so of the journey is bumpy. Seriously bumpy. Strap yourself in just roll with it is probably the best advice I can give. I can’t believe these drivers do this every day. They must have arses of steel. Our driver was very friendly though and even stopped at a particularly scenic point so we could all stagger out and get a photo. Finally we were back on normal roads, the journey back to Shkodër taking around 3 hours. If you let your driver know where you’re staying, he’ll drop you off at/near your accommodation.
My aching legs could attest to an exhausting adventure in the Albanian Alps but my God it was worth it. There is nothing negative I have to say about the experience. Everything, from the boat ride to the picturesque villages to the incredible hike to the bum-clenching bus ride, was amazing. If you’re in this part of the world, I would absolutely recommend it. I’d be shocked if you regretted it.