Mountains and solitude. Hell, if ever one could scream “This is the highlight of my entire trip!” then this would be it.
And while my travels around south-eastern Europe has been full of gems, as a rule I never set just one distinct favorite – as there’s always many great experiences – yet. I’m clear headed enough now to state that the hike amid the Accursed Mountains of Albania between the villages of Valbone to Theth is my trip favorite.
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.
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 in the other direction from Theth).
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.
Valbone to Theth hike – travel tips
First the obvious: Before setting out from Valbone, leave all unnecessary stuff – – like laptop, extra clothes, etc – in a locked backpack at a reliable hotel or guesthouse; only take your hiking essentials for this short circuit (of a few days).
Direction: 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.
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.
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: 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 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 Ragam. And from there, trail markings are better as you follow an ancient mule track.
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.