In the far north of Albania lies a tiny village called Valbonë. Surrounded by the beauty of the Accursed Mountains and lined with streams of dry river beds and sparingly placed guesthouses, it’s a quiet corner where the expression ‘less is more’ certainly speaks volumes.
On arriving to Valbonë you can immediately recognise the kindness, generosity and resourcefulness of the locals. In a village of what seemed 20 houses or less, it was especially interesting to note the productivity of the land. Each property maximising opportunity for fresh produce– corn, tomatoes, olives, citrus, figs, pears, etc., as well managing small herds of livestock. Sometimes singular. Bread, cheese, yoghurt and jams were all handmade as required. It was the epitome of ‘slow living’, and it was so refreshing.
What initially appeared to be ‘the simple life’ quickly became understood as damn hard work. The locals would work around the clock throughout the summer with the welcoming of guests into their homes that arrive to enjoy the mountains, to then ‘making do’, or travelling for work throughout the harsh winters when all becomes white.
Nothing was too much and everything was carried out with a smile. On asking our host for directions to the starting point of the hike, though she didn’t know, she showed us the way into town to ask for help. As we walked the 30 minutes ‘into town’, – a long stretch of main road; we passed a quarter-sized shipping container that was the ‘local store’, a school and a couple of guesthouses turned restaurants. The simplicity and remoteness of this community that bared only the absolute necessities was incredible. It’s obvious that money has arrived to the area through the growing popularity of the hike from Valbonë – Theth (amongst other scenic trails), though developments are understated and few, and very much fit the untouched profile of the area.
The hike from Valbonë to Theth is a beautiful way to to explore the magnificence of the Accursed mountains. For anyone who loves getting back to basics and unwinding in the fresh air of the outdoors (as well escaping the many thousands of tourists in the summer), I’d highly recommend you consider this stunning adventure.
Paved by dry riverbeds, cattle tracks and some steep inclines, as well equally steep descents (after all – what goes up, must come down), the hike is a 12 kilometre marked trail that takes a suggested 6 hours. Depending on where you stay in Valbonë, it can take up to 2 hours of walking along the main road to reach the starting point. In saying this, some guesthouses will drive you to the opening, as well, there is a large hotel on its doorstep. We walked for almost 1.5 hours to the beginning of the path, and including this, as well plenty of photos stops along the way, the whole trail took us just shy of 5 hours. For anyone of relative fitness, this is absolutely for you!
We packed snacks and more so ate on the move, though if you’d prefer to take the more leisurely approach, there are 4 bar/cafes along the way to refuel and relax. Be sure to bring along a reusable drink bottle to refill with fresh running water over the course of the day, or simply enjoy a beer from the bathtub J.
And if carrying your backpack (we left ours in Shkodër for a couple of nights and brought along a small daypack between us) for the duration of the hike simply isn’t realistic, there are donkeys that will do this for you. Willingly or unwillingly, they trudged through the mountains carrying ridiculous loads of cases and backpacks. Please do consider the combined weight of these loads and pack accordingly.
To arrive in Valbonë our hostel arranged a door-to-door service for 15 euros per person from Shkodër. – It seems there are many tour operators that can help. The journey was a little over 5 hours, though incredibly picturesque. A minibus picked us up from the hostel at 6.30am ‘Albanian time’ – a little later than expected, and we drove for almost 2 hours to the ferry port at Lake Koban for a 9am departure. The ferry ride was just shy of 3-hours and incredibly beautiful (and windy!!) as we traversed through the floor of the valley with the mountains completely encasing us. On arriving to the Markaj Port, (links to small town Lekbibaj) another minibus was waiting for us, that would take us a further 40 minutes to our guesthouse entrance.
After an early night from the long day of travel, as well some late afternoon exploring, we woke to a delicious spread of fresh bread and pancakes and a selection of jams (that we watched our host prepare the evening prior), eggs and coffee. It was the perfect beginning to what stacked up to be an adventurous day, with a little added excitement than we bargained for.
Keen to beat the heat of the day, we ventured off at 7.15am. High in the mountains, naturally it was fresh. Quite underprepared on our part or ‘travelling light’ for better word, we had nothing more than the clothes on our back – t-shirt and shorts, running shoes and a light knit, and a clean change of clothes (I would suggest being a bit more organised and carrying a windbreaker at the very least). Early into the journey we found company in 3 dogs who came along for the adventure. Despite several attempts to send them home, we figured they did this often, neither understood English.
The beginning of the hike is quite flat and easy going along 4×4 tracks and loose stones of what resembles a dry river bed. We didn’t see many others on the trail by this stage – a small group of Germans, the dogs and us.
As we walked along the cattle track, still with canines in tow; we passed the entrance to a property that very clearly (in hindsight) had livestock. What seemed to be the watchdog over the flock was free to roam, despite several others barking from their chains. Without hesitation it darted towards our little companions (which each fleeted in various directions) and very aggressively asserted its dominance. Obviously trained to do its job, it was quite distressing to watch nature run its course. One dog continued with us unharmed (even more so to our angst), and despite the yelps of the other two, we saw them on their way.
Just prior to this, we had been charged by a cow that was blocking the way of the trail as we tried to manoeuvre around it. In an effort to escape its rage, we climbed over a fence into the next property and made a small detour across the land, and then climbed another fence that led us back to the trail. I grew up on a cattle farm and feel quite comfortable in their company, however this made my heart race. I’m sure it would have provided for some light entertainment to anyone watching. Funnily, we didn’t see the Germans again after this, and wondered if they had got past Daisy?…
We continued on the trail for some hours, enjoying the silence and fresh air that comes from being far away from any big city, as well the beautiful scenery and fleeting banter with other hikers that we passed. Unfortunately, visibility was low as we climbed to the top of the pass so we missed the panoramic views of the Valbonë valley beneath us. Having said this, within moments of winding down the other side towards Theth, the sheer beauty and magnitude of the alps could not be missed. It was completely stunning!
The walk home was mostly a gentle descent with a few pockets of steep and rocky downhills. The sun was beginning to warm up, so we were glad that we started our day early. However, supposedly not early enough? Within the last hour of the journey, we met with a snake that was enjoying the warmth of the sun right in our path. Luckily, a local that was walking toward us had already noted it, providing warning to stop. I am THAT scared of snakes, a phobia that gets worse as I get older, and this made me incredibly nervous. I had no option other than to hightail around it as he created somewhat of a barrier between it and I. Needless to say that for the remainder of the hike I was on edge, ready to meet with the next. Fortunately, there were none.
As we arrived into Theth it was quickly evident that this village was reminiscent to the scale and offerings of Valbonë – refreshingly minimal and picturesque. Set in the foot of the valley, with the magnificence of the alps surrounding, it was so nice to slow down and to be able spend a night. Because one hike wasn’t enough, we spent the afternoon exploring the Grunas waterfall – a 2-hour return hike from the ‘town centre’.
On waking up early the next morning to fresh air and the sounds of the countryside – farm animals and streams running; as well views like these, its easy to understand why children are born here and stay a lifetime.
What are your favourite hikes? With 365 days on the road, I’d love to hear your suggestions for exploring the great outdoors!