Mountains and solitude. If ever one could scream: this is the highlight of my entire trip ! This could well be it. And while my trip around south-eastern Europe has been full of gems, and that as a rule I never set one favorite highlight across any given journey – as there’s always many great experiences – I am tempted to go out on a limb and say: Number 1.

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Late afternoon I explore the valley and the isolated homesteads of Valbone.

I suspect my conclusion is drawn from the fact that I was amid spectacular nature – alone. That if there had been crowds of tourist groups the vibe wouldn’t be so pleasing. So exciting.

But it was. And I was alone most of the day (just a handful of hikers – chatted with two young Polish guys at The Pass around mid-day, coming from Theth).

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Everywhere across Albania there remain these mushroom bunkers, as many as 360,000 of them; remnants from the Communist era, when the paranoid dictator Hoxha, thought invasion from any side was possible – by Italy, Greece, or even communist Yugoslavia. And even in this remote valley in northern Albania strings of these bunkers exist, in which citizens were expected use to repel the enemy. This grand misguided strategy nearly bankrupted the country and kept real infrastructure from ever being realised (like enough public housing) and today remain these broken, useless concrete lumps across the country.

Another wow factor was the genuine friendliness and curiosity of locals (which was true of Albania generally). So unaffected by mass tourism, for now. Was hard to believe that this was Europe in the 21st century, more like a remoter part of the world.

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Dinner at my guesthouse in Valbone was this scene besides a fast flowing creek, which the owners had dammed up to trap dozens of trout. This was my meal, caught fresh with a stick, string and hook. Surrounded in this valley of huge steep slopes (which this pic doesn’t really capture).

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Early next morning and I pass a woman milking goats in Valbone village on route to the trailhead for Theth.

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Early morning on the valley road on route to the trailhead (which will cross the mountains ahead) to Theth.

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Abandoned farm house on route, climbing the valley towards the Valbone pass.

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Having followed the river, now well above the valley.

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High above Valbone valley on steep trail towards the mountain pass and another great place for a sit-down and snack.

Travel Advice for the Valbone to Theth hike

First the obvious, leave unnecessary backpack contents – like laptop, etc – at a reliable hotel or guesthouse, only take hiking essentials to do this circuit of a few days (or more).

GETTING THERE FROM SHKODRA (Shkoder):

Shkodra – Lake Koman – Valbone – Theth – Shkodra

There’s a daily mini-bus from the central bus stop at 7am to Lake Koman. For just a few euros more and total convenience you can take the Mario Moller tour  (* includes all transport @ 15 euros) that picks you up at 9:00 at your accommodation and drops you at the new, revitalized public car ferry, travelling across Lake Koman at 12:00 each day.

This 2 hour lake trip * is amazing – Fjord-like sunken landscape a bit like southern Chile  – and with cold beer and snacks onboard, it makes for a real scenic session.

On the other side of Lake Koman,  vehicles * await passengers for Valbone, dropping you at your accommodation of choice (useful as places are isolated and spread across 9 km of valley). This entire journey will see you arrive late afternoon in Valbone.

You can start this circuit from Theth also. Both villages are connected by road to Shkodra. But the only way to travel between Valbone and Theth is via a hiking trail.

Leaving Theth, you’re restricted to one mini-bus leaving at 13:00. But if you ask around maybe you can get a 4WD shared taxi with locals, leaving around 10:00-11:00. This latter option shaves at least an hour off the 4 hour journey to Shkodra.

This whole circuit requires a minimum of 3 days, a few more would be better if you want to do other hikes or just hang-out.

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Many hours later having crossed the pass and come down the other side of the mountain, this is the distant welcoming scene of Theth village (about 2 km away, with it’s ancient lock-up tower in center of pic). Here’s I soaked my aching feet in the fresh, freezing waters of the river.

WHERE TO STAY:

VALBONE: Up to you. Depends your budget: 10 – 50+ euros for a room or camping? I stayed at Jazmina for 10 euros, so a good backpacker option with decent rooms and bathrooms in a traditional house. Also with restaurant and fresh-caught fish. And it is only 3 km from the trailhead.

THETH: I can’t recall the name of my guesthouse but it was beside the river before the Lock-up Tower and was maybe 20 euros a room, and also provided meals (extra). Theth is more developed than Valbone and has a quite few accommodation choices, yet village infrastructure remains basic.

Note: In both villages there are no real shops – possibly a kiosk in Theth now; so bring your own special supplies and snacks from Shkodra. Meals, coffee, drinks are available at accomodations.

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Theth’s medieval lock-up tower, where relatives of families engaged in blood-feuds were protected. This region was infamous for blood-feuds. And while some areas have seen this tradition return since the fall of Communism, the practice has not returned to Theth.

THE HIKE:

From my guesthouse it was about 17 km to Theth. Most people say it takes 6-7 hours. Along a river valley and up a steep slope and then down a steep slope and along another river valley. Done.

The hike isn’t difficult. Just tiring, especially if your pack is alittle heavy (I carried water and a bottle of red wine; and if, you’re more prone to being a couch potato … then slow down). I was much slower. And enjoyed picnics amid tranquil panoramas, and yeah, abundant photo ops.

NOTE: It’s not possible in winter !

Summer is hot, set off early. Yet much of the hike is shaded. Especially from the Valbone Pass – at 1812 meters – down to Theth, which is mostly forest.

Water is easily obtained on route from streams and rivers. I drank it straight, without purification. But take at least 1.5 liters to start, and always top up when you can.

The route is marked with red and white painted stripes on rocks and trees for much of hike. BUT not so much from Valbone, where it’s just a matter of walking up the road to the trailhead then up the wide river bed to the village of Rragam. And from there, trail markings are better as you follow an ancient mule track.

GEAR:

Wear boots. I wore hiking sandals – but not the best on such slopes, especially loose scree.

Obviously a backpack or daypack with camera, sunblock, a few snacks and survival essentials. Even on a hot summer’s day, carry a fleece and a waterproof jacket, for unexpected downpours and sudden chill.

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Locals on the trail … The old man urged me to join him for coffee (and a cigarette). The woman is my guesthouse host in Theth. Like most original residents of Theth, they are only there in summer and live the winters in more-southern cities. Only about 15 original families still reside in Theth in summer; other Albanians are outsiders building holiday homes or businesses as tourism slowly wakens in Theth.

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I shared a ride in 4WD taxi with a local Theth family to Shkodra. The husband was very chatty, spoke English, as they now lived in the USA and were here on the annual holiday. Then on the mountain road beyond Theth and heading down, were stopped here. I thought, nice pic, and took this shot. To my surprise his wife got out and kissed the memorial. It was her brother that had died, he said. His truck had slid on black ice and plunged over.

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Morning and clambering amid the wide – but largely dry – riverbed which slide thru the valley down to the village. I sat and ate a take-out breakfast here (sausage, bread, cucumber, tomato, goat’s cheese supplied by my guest house) … Silence. A cow with a bell around its neck. A cluster of relaxed horses. A shepherd and sheep nearby. Not much else but this view ahead (and surrounded by such mountains on all sides) … BLISS.

Travels in Albania – 2015

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