OFF THE BEATEN PATH: The Albanian Alps
The Albanian Alps consist of the mountain range of Prokletije. The range covers three countries – Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. A popular trek in the area is called the “Peaks of the Balkans” trek which can easily take two weeks to do. You can even find all the information you need on this trek via Peaks of the Balkans website. I only trekked from Valbona to Thet which is part of the long distance trail.
To get to Valbona, the starting point would be the city of Schkoder. Schkoder can easily be reached from the seaside city of Ulcinj in Montegro by bus. I stayed in a lovely hostel in Schkoder called Home Hostel, which can only be booked via Booking.com. During my half day in Schkoder, I meandered around the city, which appeared to be more modern than anticipated. There was also some political rally happening when I was there. On the streets, it was quite noticeable how the crowd consisted mostly of men in a city that is predominantly Muslim. Also, being a person of brown race was intriguing to the locals as they stared often with curiosity.
The host of my hostel had an interesting background as he lived in Italy for sometime before opening up his new hostel in the city. He decided to start the business due to the lack of jobs in Italy where he was working previously. Essentially, the hostel was a family home that was converted into a business. While there, I met a couple from Poland and people from Korea, which was unusual. There were conversations that night about the political situation in Albania which to me sounded rather complicated to even recall exactly the details of the discussion. The short of it is that life in some parts of Europe has been rough for many due to the recent economic crises.
That night I spoke with my hostel host as to how one can get to Valbona. He advised that I have to catch a local bus, a ferry through Lake Komani and then another bus that will drop me right at the front door of the guesthouse that I intended to stay at. I was fortunate to have my hostel host arrange a local bus for me to get to the dock where I caught the ferry. The bus ride was early in the morning and en route while the sun was rising, I was able to catch a glimpse of the mountains within Albania. It was a scenic ride especially as you enter the dock area. Lake Komani was a pretty sight despite the cloudy skies and drizzle.
Upon docking, I had to then find a bus that was driving towards the direction of Valbona. The bus was essentially a minivan that sits about 15 people, mostly tourists. En route, as the views of Prokletije mountains appeared, we had a flat tire. The driver noted we just needed to wait for someone to send a new van to pick us up. After a half hour, the bus arrived and about 40 minutes more I arrived at my guesthouse.
I stayed at a Valbona guesthouse operated by this lovely couple. The guesthouse was recommended by the couple I met in Durmitor. Luckily, there was a website that was ran by an American, Journey to Valbona, which not only provided logistics but a great overview of Valbona and its people. The person running the website, Catherine, turns out to be from the U.S. originally who married a local Albanian and now they jointly run a guesthouse in the valley. Their property is a few minutes of a walk from the main area filled with other guesthouses. Valbona lacks anything else besides guesthouses and can be fairly quiet aside from the high summer season. Where I stayed was ideal since it was easy to speak to someone in English to obtain information on hiking trails. In fact, Catherine seems to have taken the lead in this valley in terms of developing trail maps and she also advised that she has a group of locals who are working on the trails themselves by setting up trail markers. On my first day in the valley, I decided to just take a stroll around the guesthouse where one can reach a small waterfall. The weather was a bit cloudy that day so the rocky peaks of the Prokletije range were hard to view clearly from the guesthouse.
Hiking in Prokletije
The next day I decided to do a solo hike to the summit of Maja e Rosit where the three countries intersect - one can view each side of Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. It was expected to be a 7 hour hike from my guesthouse and I was provided with a handwritten trail map. As I was walking solo, I decided to leave immediately after breakfast. Initially, finding the actual trail was a bit tricky. But as it turned out I only had to walk pass the center of the valley and make a right turn where a green house was located across the streambed.
Hence, up I trudged on a hill which then slowly took me higher above the valley, and then to a grassy meadow where one can see a 360 degree view of the Prokletije peaks. As I went higher past the grassy meadows, I noticed there was still snow left on the ground, and at one point, I had to figure out a way to avoid the snowy paths and climb up along the side of the trail. I didn't think I was going to make it to the highest point of my hike that day when I first saw the snow but luckily I managed to safely avoid the icy patches and eventually made my way to the top via a steep grassy incline towards the peak of Maja e Rosit. The hike up the steep hill required a bit of work as the trail was very uneven with false footing along the way.
After falling off the mountain in Durmitor in my attempts to summit Bobotov Kuk, Montenegro's highest point, I felt rather happy to make it to the top without an issue. On top, one gets to enjoy the 360 degree views including a few lakes in the distance. It was still a bit cloudy that day so some views towards Kosovo were covered by the clouds. However, from the peak, you can easily see the Montenegro side, and of course, Albania. It was a marvelous summit view as the clouds moved back and forth. The sun was out even though there was a little bit of wind. I was lucky to enjoy a lovely weather (as the next day was rainy all day on my way to Thet). So, given such a nice weather and still with enough daylight, I decided to spend time sitting alone on the summit to enjoy the views and take photos. A moment before I made it to the top, I did see a lone female hiker coming from another side of the mountain who noted that the trail was rather remote. I couldn't agree more as besides this one lady hiker, I only saw three other western hikers that day. Later on, when walking back on the road to my guesthouse, the same lady drove by and was gracious enough to offer me a ride to Catherine's guesthouse.
That night I enjoyed yet again a nice meal at my guesthouse where the food was farm-fresh and organic. I definitely indulged in a good night sleep in my solo room with a double bed. I knew the next day is a bit of a journey to walk from Valbona to Thet with the usual heavier pack and with the predicted unpleasant weather. With Catherine's help, she reserved a bed for me at one of the guesthouses in Thet. However, the challenge was to find the guesthouse first. Also, as the trailhead was a bit far and requird a car ride, I requested transport from the guesthouse. They had a sign in sheet for it but it remains to be seen whether the transport will for sure take place.
The Valbona to Thet Hike
The next morning I had my breakfast and coincidentally I met a couple who drove into the guesthouse that morning. I started chatting with both of them about my plans for the day and noted that I was awaiting the status of my transport to the trail head. The couple was familiar with the area as they visited before. The husband cheerfully offered to give me a ride. So, not only was I getting a ride, but I got to leave sooner than expected which was a good thing given I needed the extra time in the event I got lost.
So, off we went to the trail head which was past the center of the valley although it was only a 10 minute ride away. Once I got to the trail head, I started walking on the stream bed as instructed by Catherine and the couple, and as per my handwritten map. I was told it should be easy enough for a solo hiker to make it to Thet without any issues and that the trail was very straightforward. Without any worries, I forged ahead. That morning, I had to walk on the streambed for about an hour with the clouds looming in. I had a hunch that this might mean a good chance of rain during my hike. I managed to finally find the path that would take me off the streambed and inside the mountains.
At the start of the actual trail, there were a few local houses with locals residing in them, some of which offered stays and meals. I decided to move along and follow the trail. In about an hour or so, the trail got steeper in some parts, and rocky. I managed to make it over one steep incline and soon after the rain started coming down. In a few minutes, I ran into a little make shift cafe randomly on the trail where one can order coffee or soda. There was one person managing the cafe with whom I chatted for a few minutes as I drank a can of soda while I waited for the rain to stop. The man told me he typically ran his cafe during summer months but that he lives in the city. He noted that it was still early for tourists at that time so business was slow. He reassured me that Thet wasn't too far of a walk from his cafe and that I was close to being halfway there. As we talked, I noticed the rain wasn't going anywhere and so I decided to start moving again in such weather.
The next couple of hours were spent hiking uphill in the rain and without any views. I managed to get to a few lookouts along the way but didn't get a chance to enjoy the views due to the rain and fog. During this time, I ran into two British men who were hiking the entire length of the Peaks of the Balkans trek. Today, they were trying to get to Valbona. We chatted for a bit and told them about my nice stay at Catherine's guesthouse. They told me that half hour from where we were was another cafe for me to take a rest at as the rain was constantly pouring at that point. As they told me about their attempt to complete the Peaks of the Balkans trek and with their starting the trek in Plav, Montenegro, I realized that I made the right decision to visit Valbona and Thet for my own safety. They advised that the entire trek was quite remote with the exception of the Valbona-Thet portion of the circuit. I also remembered how a Polish guy warned me that vipers inhabit the trail.
As I continued my hike towards Thet, the rain poured harder and by the time I found the second cafe, I was almost completely drenched from the rain. I decided to stop for a bite of cake the cafe was selling and a cup of coffee which was prepared the same way as Turkish coffee. I realized at that point that Thet was about 2-2.5 hours away still which meant a lot more rain to contend with.
The next hour or so was mostly downhill but with the rain the trail had became muddier every minute. There was something very peaceful about that portion of the hike as I didn't find any other person on the trail and the only sound I heard was that of the rain drops. Though a bit disappointed that the hike wasn't going to afford me the views that I have heard about on this trail, I nonetheless enjoyed the peace to be had hiking alone in the rain. But at the same time, there was no denying that I was also daydreaming about a hot shower and dry clean clothes at that point. In any event, the weather did get better as the rain eventually stopped. As I got closer to the valley of Thet, I quickly observed the mountain peaks on this side of Prokletije - they appeared much closer and prominent than the ones in Valbona. I still didn't see a full view of them because they were hidden behind the clouds for the most part. But as I kept on walking downhill towards Thet on such slippery scree filled trail that later turned into a dirt road, I realized Thet might be more to my liking. Thet felt more like a village as opposed to the Valbona valley where the guesthouses were spread apart from each other.
When I reached the outskirts of Thet, kids started approaching me to offer me a bed. However, because I had made reservations, I decided I should try to find this place that Catherine recommended. I noticed a little cafe/restaurant to which I went to grab a hot drink and also to inquire about the guesthouse I was aiming for. That was when I learned the guesthouse was another 20 minutes of a walk. I was cold from being fully drenched in wet clothes and shoes at that point that 20 minutes sounded rather long. I was then told there were other options along the way so I decided to check them out. Just a couple of minutes walk from the cafe, I saw a restaurant and guesthouse so I asked the innkeeper how much for one person for 1 night. The price was actually cheaper than the one I was initially aiming for and I was offered a private room with full bath. I took it and it turned out to be a better option as the guesthouse was near the place where I had to catch the bus to Schkoder. Later, I learned that the place recommended by Catherine was located on the other end of town, which would have made it difficult for me to secure my ride. That night, I definitely earned my right to a restful night. Before that, at dinner, I was chatting with the innkeeper who told me that his family owned the place and that he was there to help run it during the summer. He added that Thet is a ghost town outside of summer season as most people live in the cities. People only come to Thet as a mountain break and most guesthouses are only open during the summer months. I also learned that the next morning was going to be a little unpredictable because by coincidence there was a local election taking place in Thet. Therefore, the regular "bus" that I was told about that would take me to Schkoder at 1pm wasn't running like normal. The innkeeper told me he would figure something out.
The next morning the village was filling up with people who arrived that day to vote in the local election. By coincidence, the election was taking place at a school next door. During breakfast, the innkeeper informed me that he hadn't secured a ride for me but that around noon some of the people who came to vote might have room in their car for me. I was a little worried given that I did have a tight schedule as I had to make my way all the way back to Schkoder, then to Ulcinj, and then to Dubrovnik where I take my flight to Rome.
Anyway, there was no point worrying so after breakfast I decided to take a walk in the village as the weather was much better than yesterday to take photos of the mountains. I decided to walk towards the other end of the village where I found the guesthouse that Catherine recommended. It was a lovely guesthouse ran by a couple with kids. And behind the guesthouse is a grassy field and a spectacular view of the peaks. I loved standing there in that field and staring out at the peaks.
Part of me regretted not staying in this guesthouse when suddenly another traveler who spoke English caught my attention. It was one of the travelers in the bus that I took which had a flat tire on the way to Valbona. He sounded American. And of course, he was. I learned from the conversation that he used to live in California and retired about 7 years ago. Retirement to him meant traveling the world which was why he was in Thet. He spent a number of years in India and thought at some point that he was going to stay there permanently but that changed and he continued on with his journeys. He shared that he has no idea of an end to his traveling and that life might just be this way until the end. I shared with him how I had been away from my own reality back in America and my career in Washington, DC as a lawyer. I expressed my desire to continue a life full of freedom and magical experiences. I told him about how this one German I met in Nepal was right - waking up each day and having a different experience is magical - it's not something that can ever be replicated on your day to day life. However, this American easily dismissed that and reassured me that when I return to the U.S., I ought to find magic in my daily life such as taking a yoga class or pursuing my hobbies. I didn't expect someone who was so well traveled to still manage to find joy in the day to day mundane things but perhaps he is right. I told myself when I return I would consider his thought about this magic carrying over onto my rat race kind of life.
At some point, I was reconsidering whether to do a short hike to the falls that I heard about nearby but decided to just enjoy the view before me and continue the conversation. After all, it had been a while since I spoke to someone from the U.S. As I listened to this man speak about his travels, how he kept record of his journey etc, I realized that as humans we have more control over our lives than we think we do. But we must first learn to acknowledge this before our desires can manifest themselves. The truth is the more I listen to travelers like him, the more I realize how short life really is. All the cliches about living your life to the fullest are true. They are not cliches. They are facts of life. Back in the culture of 9 to 5 jobs, it is rather easy to dismiss our dreams and aspirations. But being well into my 10th month of traveling has started to ingrain in my mind that life is meant to be lived based on what we truly desire; rather than give into the notion of working simply to pay bills, some of us are better suited to strive hard to change our circumstances to the extent they would allow us to really live our dreams. I know this sounds all too dreamy but as I sat in front of those peaks on that soft bed of green grass, silently on my own now as the long-term traveler left the scene, I knew that every bit of that dreamy statement is true.
At some point, I managed to get myself unstuck from staring at the pretty peaks and walked my way back to my guesthouse. My pack was ready to go and so I asked yet again the situation on my ride. It was still negative so I decided to see if I can befriend someone at the cafe that I visited yesterday. While chatting with the people in the cafe, I managed to find someone who knew of a few people leaving for the city. I was lucky to find a ride. In a few minutes, the driver came with his SUV with a few people already in it. Along with the locals, there was a couple from Australia that I met who told me that they were Americans that moved to Australia for a simpler life.
Again, my journey led me to meet more freedom-seeking individuals who managed to leave behind the rat race for a quieter kind of lifestyle. They encouraged me to look into moving to Australia but the way that sounded, it didn't seem the route I can easily take; but I thanked them nonetheless for the encouragement. The views of Prokletije were quite amazing on the ride out of Thet even though the road was in a state of disrepair. Its remoteness and lack of tourism infrastructure truly made it feel like a gem for a very unique trekking experience. I loved how the Prokletije mountain range can appear so stoic and gothic-like, and yet the cheery meadows are bright green and full of life. It was such a powerful contrast to be had and one day I would really consider myself lucky to be able to return to this part of the world for more trekking.
I have no doubt this so called Albanian Alps will become a major hub for tourism one day. But for now, to see it being run by locals themselves and living amongst them still carries with it the authenticity that most trekking destinations often lack. I truly indulged in that authenticity and the feeling of calmness I experienced in this lovely part of the world. The view on top of Maja e Rosit continues to reappear in my mind every time I close my eyes to meditate. That view at the summit was so calming that the experience remains with me even to this day. The locals I have encountered, despite their curiosity and bedazzlement at my being a solo female brown girl trekker, had been truly welcoming.
As I ended my journey in Albania, a place that is foreign to me having lived in Asia and the U.S., I realized people all over the world, regardless of culture, are all the same. Treat them with kindness and consideration, then more likely than not, they will return that same treatment towards you. It is humbling to always be reminded of that principle, and in Albania, the locals certainly live by that golden rule.
To find out more about the Valbona valley, I highly recommend you visit Catherine's site, Journey to Valbona.
For information on the Peaks of the Balkans, visit this site.