Few places can you start your day in the mountains and end it at the sea. Albania’s natural beauty will take your breath away – and you’ll have far more of it to yourself than neighboring Greece.
That space could win it a spot on our Best in Travel list to unwind, but when you hiking through its mountains you’ll no doubt have more time to connect with the people who live there along the way.
We asked mountain expert and writer Stuart Butler to give us a four-day itinerary in Albania’s Accursed Mountains.
I’ve been a travel writer, guidebook author and photographer since before the internet was invented. (Yes, there once was a time when people used mailboxes instead of WhatsApp.) Much of my work focuses on mountain regions, hiking and the environment – and I have a special fondness for the quiet mountain trails of Albania and other Balkan nations.
Why you should visit Albania
For most people, Albania is an enigma. A place that’s in Europe, but not quite like the rest of Europe. Less polished. Perhaps wilder around the edges. And that’s what makes travel here so appealing. During a particularly brutal Communist dictatorship during which religion was banned, travel forbidden and property outlawed, the borders of Albania were firmly shut to most outsiders. While the Communist period ended in 1991, few outsiders visit even today. Those who do, however, discover a land of rocky buckled mountains and a history that goes back to the days of hazy legend. Visiting Albania is an adventure, true. But it’s a place with a warm heart, where hospitality, pride and tradition are intertwined, and a friendly smile is always a glance away.
Albania is a country with a rural soul, and to really get a sense of the country you should head into the mountains – in particular the wonderfully named Accursed Mountains in the far north. Here, it’s possible to make a fabulous four-day circuit taking in rugged mountain vistas, village-to-village hikes, a ferry ride along the length of an enormous lake and time in one of Albania’s most beautiful urban areas.
The adventure begins in Shkodra, a sizable coastal town in the far north. Said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe, it’s certainly one of the most attractive in Albania, with streets lined with pastel-shaded houses. Start your day visiting the city-center museums and sights. The core of the collection at the Marubi National Photography Museum is the work of the Marubi clan, a family of prominent photographers whose images capture village life a century ago. A highlight is sepia gem of a piece taken in 1858: the very first photo ever taken in this photogenic country, it depicts the Italian consul dressed to impress (and, judging by the number of swords he is carrying, dressed to kill as well). Another, somewhat darker museum, the Site of Witness & Memory Museum occupies a former prison and interrogation center for political detainees, and focuses on the Communist period, when people of Albania lived under one of the more ruthless Communist dictatorships, with long prison sentences, torture and “disappearances” all too common at any sign of dissent.
After such a heavy morning, let’s have some lunch. Hipster-y Pasta e Vino serves creative Italian dishes as well as classics such as spaghetti with prawns. Make sure you eat well, because a bit of an afternoon awaits. Hire a bicycle (most hotels rent them) and pedal 2.5 miles (4km) south to the Rozafa Fortress. Situated atop the only hill in the vicinity, it was built so long ago (and since rebuilt so many times) that nobody really knows exactly how old its foundations are. Today, it’s a fairly tumble-down affair, but the views from its remaining ramparts – across farming countryside, the city itself and the estuary on which Shkodra is located – are wonderful, especially at sunset.
Go up, up, up into the mountains
We know you’re on vacation, but we’re afraid you’re going to have set an alarm clock for today’s painfully early start. At 6:30am, a minibus will collect you from your hotel (the entire Shkodra-to-Valbona trip is sold as a package by all hotels in Shkodra) for a windy hour-and-a-half drive to the small lakeside town of Koman. There’s just about time here to grab a coffee and a quick bite to eat before boarding a small ferry that will sail you – if not in high style, then at least reliably – along much of the length of the huge Lake Koman, which was created as a part of a hydroelectric project in the 1970s. While the ride takes at least three hours, gliding in the shadow of looming mountain peaks, and past unfeasibly located villages and remote farming cottages, is a simple pleasure. The boat putters to a halt in tiny Fierzë, where you’ll board another minibus for an hour-long journey up, up, up a road that bends and turns like a demented serpent, until arriving in the village of Valbona. It’s highly likely you won’t even notice the settlement (in reality, more of a spread-out collection of homestays and guesthouses), as your eyes will be bulging at the sight of the shapely mountain peaks and plunging conifer forests that hem in the valley in which Valbona is nestled.
After you’ve settled in at your guesthouse, get your legs warmed up by heading out on a short afternoon hike. We recommend the pleasant 3-mile (5km) round-trip hike to a small shepherd pasture on the northern side of the valley, directly opposite Valbona. This little-trod route follows a track through dense forest. But be sure to keep your eyes peeled: the last time we walked it (alone and in early evening) we stepped in a very fresh “present” left by one of the area’s brown bears – at which point, we decided to beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the guesthouse. On the subject of guesthouses: these are all cozy affairs, with warm private rooms and communal dining, where camaraderie, as well as excitement at the prospects of the following day, run high, and easy connections get made between guests and homestay hosts.
Take a hike
Day three is the high point – in every sense of the word – of your trip. Wake up early, wolf down a bit of breakfast and then get those hiking boots laced up. Ahead of you stretches a beautiful five-to-seven hour hike (the total time depends on your fitness and the location of your accommodation) up and over the Valbona Pass (1900ft/1800m), then down to the village of Theth. It’s not an especially challenging hike, and plenty of first-time mountain hikers tackle it – but it is quite long and in summer certain sections can be very hot and sun exposed (especially the first leg out of Valbona, which takes you along the edge of a stony, semi-dry riverbed). The route is reasonably clear and there are frequent red and white trail markers. It takes about three hours of upward slog through wrinkled old-growth conifer forest to reach the pass, and its memorable view over an ocean of gray, jagged and snow-streaked mountains. On the way up, you’ll walk by several small stone huts selling drinks and snacks, with the farming and shepherding families who run them (most of whom speak decent English) happy to tell stories about life in the Accursed Mountains.
Heading down the western side of the pass, the trail runs through forest almost all the way. Up high, it’s all stern-trunked conifer; lower down, the trees turn to beech, with glowing green leaves in early summer turning fiery orange and red in October. After a long but fairly gentle approach to Theth, you’ll find a proper village filled with solid stone houses with slate roofs set amid an amphitheater of dramatic rock peaks, with a small stone-and-shingle 19th-century church at its center. The guesthouses here – almost all of them traditional-style stone buildings with tall, steeply angled slate roofs (to stop buildup of winter snow) – are homely affairs. Dinners are often taken communal-style, and after the buzz of walking over from Valbona there’s always a contented chatter between guests. Most of the meals are traditional Albanian dishes and might include such treats as tava e kosit, a kind of lamb, egg and yogurt stew. In other words, perfect mountain food.
Wind back to the coast
Most people return to Shkodra early on the morning of day four, on a road that corkscrews up and down mountain slopes and overpasses before a final whirlwind drop down to the coastal plain. From Shkodra, you can get to Tirana by car or bus in only a couple of hours. Yet if you can, we’d recommend spending more time in Theth and doing the half-day hike to the Blue Eye, a natural pool of cool turquoise water fed by a small waterfall. It’s a lovely picnic spot.