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Hiking Albania’s Accursed Mountains – Valbona to Theth

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Mountains and solitude. If ever you’d scream – “This is the highlight of my trip!” Then this is it.

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The distant welcoming scene of Theth village (about 2 km away, with the ancient lock-up tower). Here’s I soaked my aching feet in the fresh, freezing waters of the river.

A conclusion drawn from the fact that I was amid spectacular nature – alone.

And that if there had been crowds of tourist groups, the vibe wouldn’t be so pleasing.

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Morning and clambering amid the wide – but largely dry – riverbed which runs 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.”

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.


Hiking Valbona to Theth – TRAVEL ADVICE


First the obvious:  Leave all unnecessary stuff – laptop, extra clothes, etc – in a locked backpack at a reliable hotel or guesthouse in Shkodra; only take your hiking essentials for this short circuit (of a few days).

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Early morning and I pass a woman milking goats in Valbona village on route to the trail-head for Theth.

GETTING THERE:

Direction: Shkodra – Lake Koman – Valbona – Theth – 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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Up the mountain pass – looking back towards Valbona

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.

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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.

On the other side of Lake Koman,  vehicles * await passengers for Valbona, 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 Valbona.

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

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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.

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.

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

WHERE TO STAY in Valbona and Theth:

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 accommodations.

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Dinner at my guesthouse in Valbona 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).

THE HIKE from Valbona to Theth:

The hiking trail distance is about 17 km from Valbona to Theth (from my guesthouse). Most people say it takes 6-7 hours. However, it’s a not a difficult hike. Rather easy and simple, actually.

You follow a river valley and then up a steep slope to the Valbona mountain pass. Then down the other side to follow another river valley to Theth.

But the mountain hike is tiring. Especially if your pack is a little 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.

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

NOTE: Hiking this route and much of Albania’s Accursed Mountains is not possible in winter.

Summer is hot, set off early. Yet much of the hike is shaded. Especially from the Valbona 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 Valbona, where it’s just a matter of walking up the road to the trail-head then up the wide river bed to the village of Ragam. And from there, trail markings are better as you follow an ancient mule track.

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Everywhere across Albania – even amid the Accursed Mountains – 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 realized (like enough public housing) and today remain these broken, useless concrete lumps across the country.

What to wear on the hike:

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

Obviously a backpack or day-pack 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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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 they were here on the annual holiday. Then on the mountain road beyond Theth and heading down, we 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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Having followed the river, now well above the valley. And another perfect snack-stop vista!

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