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Hiking Albania’s Accursed mountains, in Rain, Hail and Shine

An Albanian circuit which is gaining popularity, is the round-trip to/from Shkoder to Lake Koman, with a breathtaking Ferry ride to Valbona and a day hike over the Accursed mountains to the village of Theth.

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View of Lake Shkoder from Rozafa Castle

img_1485-copyShkoder

Shkoder is located by a large lake of the same name. From Montenegro we boarded the Herceg Novi – Bar bus at Kamenari. From Bar there are hourly buses to Skhoder. We rented bikes at our guesthouse to explore the city and the lake. We abandoned our bikes halfway up the steep hill to Rozafa Castle, one of Skhoder’s main attractions boasting beautiful views. Skhoder’s  small and attractive old town comes to life in the early evening, when the locals appear following siesta. Socialising on the promenade or outdoor cafe tables, sipping coffee, Albania’s favourite beverage.

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Shkoder’s old town

Lake Koman 

We left most of our luggage in shkoder and took a 6:15am furgon (minibus) to Lake Koman, arriving at 9am just in time for the Ferry. The journey is rather hair-raising! Winding up and down poorly maintained mountain roads. The driver stopping for a Rakia didn’t raise my confidence! The cost for a furgon to Lake Koman was 500Leke (€3.50) and 1400Leke (€10) for the Ferry AND furgon to Valbona. Be careful you are not overcharged. Others we met paid as much €20 for the journey.

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Lake Koman

There are several ferries you can take. The Dragonia (passenger ferry) is faster, smaller and more crowded. We took the Rozafa (small car ferry) which has a deck on top with 360 degree views and lots of space to spread out. It is about an hour slower though, and takes 3 hours.

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Valbona River

Valbona

The base for many beautiful hikes, Valbona is a tiny village. It has only a few houses, campsites and guesthouses (some of which provide meals) and a surprisingly well-maintained road that follows the Valbona River. We stayed at Rilindja. Owner Catherine’s website Journey to Valbona has about 90% of the information you’ll find about Valbona and the surrounding areas, including the Valbona – Theth hike.

Valbona – Theth hike  

Five of us started out together on the Rilindja minibus that brought us to the end of the sealed road (for €3). We hiked the 3km 4×4 track until we reached the trailhead. Its worth BUYING A MAP! (purchase at Rilindja). This should be obvious but we assumed there would be a lot of people hiking and someone would have a map. Wrong! We managed to take a wrong turn at the trailhead, ending up at Valbona Waterfall. It’s worth a visit but added an hour to our journey.

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Bar Cafe Uj Vara, at the Trailhead

We had to backtrack to the Bar Cafe Uj Vara (hike straight uphill from the Bar along the fenceline, don’t take the left branch of the path). The route is marked with very obvious white and red painted stripes at least every 500m or where there’s a diversion on the track. There’s another bar located about about halfway up. There we were informed by a local to ensure we took a left at the large grey boulder up ahead as we reached a rocky, dry riverbed. While there is a marking on the rock, we heard others turned right and went the wrong way. After this point, the track was easy to navigate. We continued up the path veering left toward the summit. The hike is not available Google maps, but I found this map later, It may be useful.

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The second bar, halfway up
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The summit!

The sun was beating down on us, and I was unwell and quite weak and that slowed us down considerably. The hike is not difficult for someone of reasonable fitness and I would’ve been fine had I not been sick. As we neared the summit, the shear height and looking down at the precipice below, my fear of heights worked in my favour and produced enough adrenaline to kill my nausea and pushed me through to the summit.

Dark clouds gathered and soon fat drops of rain started falling. Thunder cracked too close for comfort. We continued on as the heavy rain turned to stinging, freezing hail! We took refuge under the thin pine trees, hoping it would pass, but it become even heavier, coating the landscape like a blanket of snow. The dry dirt track turned to a river of mud. We had no choice but to continue slipping and sliding down the path. We had climbed up in 30-plus degree heat and now we were shivering with cold.

img_0756-1Thank Goodness for enterprising Albanians who decide it’s worth their while to build bars in the middle of nowhere! Just when the storm was becoming too much to bear, we spotted a bar ahead of us. We were so grateful for hot tea, and the owner had a fire going in minutes. We stripped out of our soggy clothes (modesty becomes irrelevant when you’re that wet and cold), hung them by the fire, and tried to salvage some dry clothing from our backpacks.

Theth

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Theth

Close to 2 hours later the storm had passed and we continued our journey down the soggy mountainside. The village Theth is lodged in a valley guarded by mountains on every side and dotted with stone cottages on small farms. There are no shops and meals can be catered at guesthouses (€5 – 8 for a homemade spread of salads, bread, meat, rice, byrek & yogurt). Wifi is virtually non-existent and the power was out most of the time. An icy wind made it very cold, even in the height of summer! The locals relocate to Shkoder in the winter as Theth is uninhabitable.

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We paid €10 each to return to Shokder. We asked around and the price was the same for a furgon or a 4×4. A 4×4 is safer as the roads are in a terrible condition.

Despite how I was feeling  in the moment, this was an experience I will never forget! Definitely a highlight and a great story!

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