Hiking Through the Accursed Mountains

Arguably the most popular activity that travelers do in Albania is hiking through the Albanian Alps aka the Accursed Mountains. Other travelers I’ve met in the country were either planning to do it or have already done it. It was one of the things I was looking forward to as well. In fact one of the reasons why I temporarily split up with my friends is because they didn’t want to do it. Due to weather conditions, the trails are only open from around May to October. I was there last August, which seemed to be the perfect time to do the hike.

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As I’ve mentioned on my previous entry, it’s easy to get to Shkoder from Tirana. A single journey ticket only costs 300 lekë, and it takes about 2-3 hours. Keep in mind that you need to go to the northern bus station. It’s easy to take a local intracity bus, though it may take a lot of tries since most locals do not speak English. When a bus arrives in any bus stop, simply say Shkoder or Shkodra. This way, the bus driver would know that you need to get to the northern bus station. If it’s not on their route, they’ll say no. But if it is they’ll let you board. Alternatively, you can ask people who are also waiting at the bus stop. Chances are, anyone below the age of 30 would know even a little English. Once you’re on board, stay close to the bus driver so he can tell you exactly where to get off.

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The entrance to the northern bus station

Shkoder is a huge city, but compared to Tirana it’s more laid-back. The old part of town is charming, albeit on the touristy side. It’s right by Lake Skadar, the largest lake in Southern Europe, so one popular activity is to rent bikes and check out the views by the lakeside. The most popular attraction is the Rozafa Castle. I’ve been told that the best time to go is right before sunset. A lot of people rent bikes to get there, but we chose to do a leisurely walk from the center of town. We basically just walked straight on the main road (Bulevardi Zogu I) and it took us an hour to reach the foot of the hill. It takes about 30 minutes to walk up the hill to the castle itself. There’s an admission fee of 200 Lekë. We arrived just in time for the sunset, and the views were really amazing. The castle itself was really touristy though. It’s not like the other castles on top of hills elsewhere in the Balkans which were mostly isolated. This one even had a restaurant inside the castle. If that’s not proof that this castle is really touristy, I dunno what it. lol.

So basically from Shkoder, you’d have to make several transfers to do the popular hike. These are as follows:

  • take a bus or taxi from Shkoder to the Lake Koman Harbor
  • Take a ferry from the Koman Harbor to the Fierza/ Fierzë Harbor
  • Take a taxi/ minivan from the Fierza/ Fierzë Harbour to Valbona/ Valbonë
  • Hike from Valbona/ Valbonë to Theth
  • take a shuttle bus/ minivan from Theth back to Shkoder

Now some people choose to do this in reverse, wherein they head to Theth first. From what I’ve heard, some people advise others to do this because the views in Valbona are better than the ones in Theth. There’s one catch though: doing it in reverse is much harder. Basically, some people choose to do this so they’d get some sort of gratification or reward after doing such a hard hike. I have to agree— the views in Valbona as you’re descending the mountains are indeed spectacular. I know this because I kept looking back as we were on our way up. If that doesn’t make much sense and you’d prefer to do it the easy way, just do what most travelers do and start the hike from Valbona.

From Shkoder, there’s just one public bus heading to the Lake Koman Harbor and it leaves at 6 in the morning. All buses and shuttles leave at around 6 AM because they need to get to the Koman Harbor before 9 AM when the ferries leave. It takes more than two hours to get there. Most hostels arrange transportation for this hike so I suggest just joining a group at your hostel instead of doing it on your own. Pretty much everyone who’s staying in a hostel in Shkoder is planning on doing this hike anyway.

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I stayed at Wanderer’s Hostel since it’s part of the I Travel Balkans hostel network. It’s a hostel that I’d highly recommend. They arranged all transportation from Shkoder to Valbona so I didn’t have to worry about anything. For only 700 Lekë (7 USD), they already arranged our transportation from Shkoder to Koman and the transfer from Fierza to their affiliated guesthouse in Valbona. You can also purchase a ticket for the ferry from Koman to Fierza from them. It costs 700 Lekë , which is cheaper than the price they’re charging at the harbor (800 Lekë ) so you might as well buy from them. If you prefer to book tickets yourself, you can do it online on the official website of the Komani Lake Ferry. You can arrange a pick up service here, and you can purchase ferry tickets here.

A cheaper option would be to ride one of those smaller local boats. Most of the locals ride these instead of those ferries that mostly cater to tourists. You might want to take these instead if you’re looking for a more authentic experience.  But they charge almost the same price (600 Lekë per person) as the ferries and these small boats are just as overcrowded. You might want to reconsider taking these since they make a number of stops in between. It would take longer to reach Fierza.

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Holy Overcrowding, Batman!

I have to be honest: when I saw the ferry I was a bit hesitant because it was clearly overbooked. We were packed liked sardines on both the lower and upper decks. The views were amazing though, and those were enough to keep me from worrying about capsizing lol. The view does get repetitive after a while. The ferry ride took almost 3 hours. No matter how beautiful the views are, it will feel tiresome if you’re on an overcrowded ferry.

Once we arrived in Fierza, it was easy to find our ride. There were so many minivans and taxis waiting for passengers by the harbor, I think it would be easy to get a ride even if you didn’t book one in advance. From the Fierza harbor, Valbona is still an hour away. We had a quick stop at a town in between to buy some supplies and some snacks since there are no grocery stores in Valbona.

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On the way to Valbona.

The guesthouse (Guesthouse Arben Selimaj) was run by a local family and they live in the house across from it. Right from the start we got to experience that genuine Albanian hospitality. We had a home cooked meal for our late lunch and it was really delicious. They charge 20 euros or 2500 Lekë per night, which might seem pricey at first, until you realize that it includes lunch, dinner, breakfast, and packed lunch for the hike the following day. If that’s a little too expensive, there are cheaper options where you can just cook your own meals. There are even camping sites so if you brought a tent you’re good to go. There are no huge fancy hotels, accommodations are basically guest houses and homestays. Valbona is pretty isolated, so there’s barely any cellular service. It’s a place where you really have to disconnect– whether you like it or not. The views really are amazing. You can keep walking around the town endlessly and walk through various trails and you’d never get tired of it. You wouldn’t mind the lack of electricity (during the day time at most guesthouses) and the lack of ways to the access the internet. Don’t worry about the heat. Even during summertime it doesn’t get hot in Valbona. And during the night it gets really cold so you better bring a couple of sweaters.

The hike from Valbona to Theth takes about 6-8 hours on the average. We started the hike at 8 in the morning and arrived in Theth just before 3 in the afternoon. We did a leisurely walk and did a number of stops, so I imagine it’s doable in 4-5 hours if you just keep walking. I can’t imagine anyone rushing through this hike though. The views are amazing, it would be best to stop several times to appreciate your surroundings. The trail is clearly marked. If you do get lost, just look for rocks or trees that are painted with white and red stripes— those symbols mark the trail. As long as you keep seeing them, that means you’re going the right way.

As I have mentioned, the views on the Valbona side are absolutely breathtaking— it’s sad to see trash on several areas though 😦 . Once you start going downhill towards Theth, it gets pretty generic. Along the hike you’ll see a number of  cafés where you can get free water refills. Apparently the water comes straight from the mountains. All the locals say the water is safe to drink. If you’re not used to mountain water though, I would not advise drinking it. In our group, everyone who  drank a lot of that water got sick the next day. Some got diarrhea, some kept vomiting, some experienced abdominal pain. I only got a little nauseous, but maybe it’s because I didn’t drink a lot of mountain water. Back at the hostel in Shkoder, the staff told us that a lot of travelers do get sick after drinking the mountain water. So unless you’re really really thirsty, I’d advice against getting refills at those cafés.

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SMH 😦

Wanderer’s Hostel didn’t have any affiliates in Theth so we had to find our own place. There are several guesthouses in Theth and from what I’ve heard you can’t go wrong with any of them. I’ve been told they all served delicious home cooked meals using the freshest ingredients. It’s not hard to find accommodations even if you didn’t book one in advance. We decided to join this other group we met during the hike. We found a guesthouse that charged 2,500 Lekë  a night and decided to stay there. Theth is a small town, even smaller than Valbona. It’s a closely knit community and everyone knows each other. To reach Theth, you either do a hike or drive through very narrow mountain roads which are closed during the winter. I’ve been told that during the winter, the people living here are basically trapped so they stock up on food during warmer months to prepare for winter. It snows heavily in the area and the snow usually reaches several feet high. This is also why this hike can’t be done as we approach winter. All hiking trails and roads are closed. It’s dangerous to go to Theth during the winter because of the weather. In fact, it’s not even safe during the summer if you’re not used to driving on those narrow mountain roads. On our way back to Shkoder, there were times that we were afraid we were gonna fall off the cliff lol. I’d say I also liked Theth. The views are also beautiful, and it’s even more laid back. Surprisingly, there are a couple of bars that stay open as long as there are people inside, so there’s a semblance of a nightlife. And lo and behold there’s cellular service so I was able to catch up with the outside world lol. There’s a tower in the center of town that’s close to the bars (the Tower of Nikoll Koceku) and I would recommend checking it out. It only costs 1 Euro/ 120 lekë  to enter and it has a very interesting and grim history.

Heading back to Shkoder is easy. Right by the church there are a number of minibuses waiting for passengers and the last one leaves at 2 PM. They usually charge 700 Lekë. I’ve been told you can get cheaper rides in the morning. This is because many locals travel to Shkoder in the morning to get supplies. If you’re lucky you can even get a free ride. It takes 2-3 hours to reach the city. It mostly depends on oncoming traffic. The narrow mountain roads can only accommodate one vehicle at a time at certain points so vehicles take turns.

Those 3 days in the mountains were amazing. The views were spectacular and I gained a couple of new friends. This hike was definitely not overhyped. There’s a reason why so many people have been doing it. For those looking to disconnect and recharge for a couple of days, I can’t think of a better way to do this in Albania. In fact 3 days may not be enough. Because of the amazing views and atmosphere, it’s easy to overstay in both Valbone and Theth.

 

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