This is the story of our adventure along the ‘Peaks of the Balkans’ trail, leading us on an adventure through the less-known Alpine world of northern Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. The network of 125 miles of trails through the Prokletije or ‘Cursed’ Mountains was set up in 2011 with the support of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the German Alpine Club. It offers breath taking views over one of the most remote areas of Europe. Follow myself and Ron on our 11-day trip which equates to climbing Mount Everest in both cumulative ascent and descent. Explore with us the rugged mountains, the flowering meadows and peaceful villages of the pearl of the Balkans.
This is where our story begins.
Day 1 (28 August 2015): Cologne – Vienna – Tirana
Ron and I reunite at Tirana Backpackers Hostel in the middle of the night. Ron has already explored Tirana for a few days prior to my arrival. It is a sweltering, tropical night, and I am only slightly overwhelmed by the new circumstances. We get a beer from a corner shop to deal with the heat. The 5,000-lek bills (around £25) I got at the ATM are of no use here because beer only costs 100 Lek (50p). I sleep restlessly. The fan in the corner is more decoration than remedy. My thoughts already wander to the nights in our tent to come.
Day 2 (29 August 2015): Tirana – Shkoder – Theth
We rise at 8 am and plan today’s trip towards Theth in northern Albania. The village will serve as our starting point. We enjoy the rich breakfast (flatbread with butter, fig jam, feta cheese, boiled eggs and loads of iced coffee) in the hostel’s courtyard, surrounded by art and orange trees.
Repacking our bags takes some time. We end up with 40 pounds each, consisting of equipment and food for the adventure that awaits us. We meet two travelers from Germany and decide to join them in Shkoder later that day to share our arranged transport to Theth. The 2-hour drive on a steaming hot minibus to Shkoder (400 lek, £2) almost dehydrates us, mainly because the lady in front of us decides, for reasons only known to her, to keep the window shut. We drive over a fertile river plain for most of the time. Despite the long dry period, agriculture seems unaffected: figs, grapes and olives grow plentiful. The route leads past bush fires burning in the distance and beautifully braided rivers. During the ride we witness a common Albanian customs: stuffed animals hung from construction sites to keep away evil spirits.
We arrive in Shkoder where we make our way to Rupa/Northern Albania Travel Agency. We are told a jeep would pick us up and take us over the mountain pass to Theth. We decide to use the remaining time to roam the streets, mainly in search for food. We are delighted when, at a small snack bar, the owner compiles a rich menu consisting of kebabs, bean stew, goat cheese in olive oil, flatbread and a farmer’s salad.
On our way back, we meet the other two Germans again and finally get in the SUV for the 3-hour ride to Theth. The winding road is newly paved and we make it over the pass in what feels like no time at all (we wonder, if the driver’s beer consumption on the way has anything to do with it). On the other side of the mountain range, however, road conditions deteriorate drastically. We follow the gravel road that barely leaves room for two cars passing each other, forcing either of them to come dangerously close to the steep drop of the mountain side.
Driving down into Theth valley
We arrive at Rosa’s guesthouse (the owner of the travel agency in Shkoder) and pitch our tent behind her house (£6 for the night). The remaining daylight invites to explore Theth valley. The village and its old wooden church snuggle in nicely with the wild beauty of the rugged landscape and steep mountains.
Wooden church in Theth valley
Hippie-cows welcome us in Theth
Tirana beer at the nearby pub offers the perfect end to the first day of our tour. Here, we meet a couple from England and enjoy a very pleasant conversation about science, traveling and UK politics. We call it a night and crawl into our sleeping bags. Albanian hip-hop tunes blast through the night.
Day 3 (30 August 2015): Theth – Valbone (18 km, Ascent: 1,371m, Descent: 1,193m)
We get up at 6am, pack and enjoy Roza’s delicious breakfast (strong Turkish coffee with raw milk, homemade bread with spicy, salty feta cheese, honey and fig jam).
At 7.30 we finally hit the trail. The first leg of the route is tough with a merciless ascent of 4,264 ft. (1,070 m) over 3.5 miles.
The views make up for the steep hike
The trail partially leads through beech forest
First alpine meadow halfway up the pass
The sun is beating down on us and our handmade turbans prove to be essential but provoke some comments and curious glances. We are relieved when we reach the Valbone pass. The breathtaking views both back down to where we started and into Valbone valley make up for the strenuous climb.
View onto Valbone pass
Finally made it up the pass
Awesome dude in front of awesome scene
Mountain partisan with AK47
Thistle growing along the path
We continue down into the valley, following gravely paths in heat well above 30°C.
The trail between Theth and Valbone is very popular. So we are not surprise to meet a lot of lightly equipped day hikers. We are also overtaken by a horse carrying four massive backpacks, a service locals provide to travellers who wish to brag about completing the trail without the discomfort of having a heavy bag on their shoulders.
Dry riverplain in Valbone valley
Smoke from wildfires in Valbone valley
A last glance back to where we came from
In Valbone we walk by military bunkers, only a few out of over 700,000 that were built during dictator Hoxha’s regime (nowadays, there is still more concrete in the bunkers than in the buildings in the country!). To our surprise, we bump into a group of Polish who Ron has already met in Tirana. Since we are looking for a place to stay anyway, we join them on the campsite that turns out to be free. After dinner, we decide to socialise with our Polish friends by a stream where we enjoy smooth, homemade raki from plastic bottles. By this time, the others have already consumed a significant amount of the local beverage (Quote: ‘By now, Shimon [one of the guys in the group] is just one brain cell. We always wait for him to meet another cell, so an idea or a bit of sense can come out.’). Lesson learned: Never try to keep up drinking with Polish people!
Day 4 (31 August 2015): Valbone – Çerem (16.1 km, Ascent: 984m, Descent: 774m)
We sleep in a little longer (definitely needed after last night). The Polish are already up and in remarkably good shape. We are jealous. Still feeling the aftermath from last night, packing takes much longer than usual.
By 9, we are on our way. We follow the main road for the first few miles. At a bridge the trail offers two alternatives: a longer, less steep section along the main road or a shorter route through the forest. We choose the latter. The hard, steep climb through thick vegetation is not what we need at this point. The narrow path and the loose gravel on the trail slows us down significantly. On the way, we encounter a horned viper and feed on very sweet blackberries. We meet a German couple (yes, we are everywhere) who tour Europe in their Volkswagen van (could there possibly be a stronger stereotype?!).
We come across a long and deep ditch (the ‘Horrible Hole’), carved into the hillside by a landslide. Without proper holds and carrying heavy backpacks, crossing the ditch is dangerous. This alternative route was not further described and could potentially be quite risky for more inexperienced hikers/climbers.
The Horrible Hole
On a long, slowly descending path through sparse beech forest, we follow the course of a river that rushes far below us. Before the river could get close enough for us to reach it, it disappeared under the karst rocks. We are slowly running out of water.
The forest opens up and we meet a Kosovo-Albanian boy who offers to guide us to his father’s farm. Bayram, the father, speaks some German. We finally fill our water reserves and get some strong coffee and a can of Tirana beer. With his wife and at least four children, Bayram farms a beautiful piece of land, partly cultivated with vegetables and hay.
The village of Cerem
On farewell, I give the boy 100 lek as unofficial pocket money, like a drug dealer hidden in my palm, followed by a ghetto fist. The little lad is obviously proud. We follow a river gorge for less than a mile. It is only 3pm but we decide to look for a camping spot. After lunch and a nap by the river, the two German guys we met in Tirana showed up and spontaneously decide to pitch their tent next to ours. You are welcome!
Lunch by the stream
We play backgammon on an ambrosial pasture of wild thyme and decide to cook over a campfire to save gas. Like the Tibetans, we take dried cow dung to get the hearth started.
Our campsite for the night
In the evening, Bayram appears. His welcoming attitude is changed completely. Quickly assessing the situation, he demands money for camping on what he claims is his property. When we realise he was not joking, we refuse vehemently and tell him we would rather move on than pay. He gives in and trots off angrily. Having witnessed our long discussion with him, our German companions for the night are now afraid that Bayram would come back with an entourage of the entire Albanian mafia. We laugh at the notion and go to bed early.
Day 5 (1 September 2015): Çerem – Doberdol (19.4 km,Ascent: 1,749m, Descent: 751m)
We get up at 5am and hit the trail at 6:30. For the first hour, we walk up steep slopes over alpine meadows. The air is fresh and clear. The rich scent of the variety of flowers is all around us and lifts our mood.
View down into Cerem valley
We cannot believe our eyes when, at an intersection, a small café appeared. An old Albanian sits on a chair outside, drinking coffee and raki (it is 7.30am!!!) while watching his wife work in the garden. We get served strong Turkish coffee in the bright morning sun and have a friendly chat with the owner and the old man. We are given contact details for a guest house in Doberdol, today’s destination.
Energised, we continue towards the Albanian-Montenegrin border. We ask some shepherds for the way and quickly reach Prokletije (‘Cursed Mountains’) National Park. This is bear territory, so we stay alert. The forest provides welcoming shade. Wild berries are plentiful here and we stop frequently to munch on them.
One of many bunkers along the way
We meet an eleven year old boy who tends sheep with his big brother. The little lad speaks some English and asks for plasters. We are offered cigarettes in exchange, a common currency up in the mountains. Without hesitating the boy lids one up for himself. After offering some of our cereal bars to them (the little bugger is a talented negotiator and Ron has a hard time bringing down the ‘price’), they show us the way towards Doberdol.
Our trail continues through mountain villages and fragrant old pine forests. While we enjoy lunch, an Albanian in traditional clothing rides by on his decorated horse (still the most popular way of transportation here). Unfortunately, we do not understand a word of what he tells us.
A few minutes later, three Germans backpackers (Doro, Simon and Mirka) come by. They are on their way to the Kosovo which happens to be our route, as well. They tell us about their mistake of spending the night in Bayram’s guesthouse back in Çerem. What started as a great evening turned into a nightmare in the morning. Bayram demanded £100 for the night (guesthouse owners along the trail usually agree on certain prices for overnight stays; Bayram’s offer was obviously well above the price range of £20).
While the three decide to have a break, we arrange to meet in Doberdol for the evening and move on. The rest of the route offers pure enjoyment. At the outskirts of Doberdol, we meet a local girl who invites us in to her family’s guesthouse. A little suspicious from our experience the previous night, we tell her about the guesthouse owner whose contact details we were given in the morning. It turns out that said man is her brother who has recently opened a new guesthouse in the village. She leads us there. While we devour salad, feta cheese and homemade bread like a pack of hungry wolves, Simon, Doro and Mirka arrive, followed by the two Germans guys who seem to sense our presence wherever we went. With the former, we decide to climb the ridgeline behind the village, the beginning of next day’s trip (500m on 1.5 km).
Hungry wolves in Doberdol
Along the way, we stop at the local ‘shop’ whose quirky owner proudly presents a dark chamber packed with pallets of food and beverages. We refill our supplies and grab a pack of cigarettes for the shepherds.
Making conversation with the shopkeep – Albanian style
As expected, this section of the route is quite cumbersome and reminds me of Scotland with its grassy, steep slopes and no visible paths. The view over the valley is overwhelming.
Quite a climb
Leaving Doberdol valley
On the top, the landscape opens up into an alpine plateau, the ideal campsite. We have dinner and watch the sunset. We enjoy the brilliant conversation with our new Bavarian friends. As darkness descents upon us, we lie in the grass and watch the star-covered sky before going to bed.
Looking for the perfect campsite
The top of the ridge
Dinner with sunset
Playing in the setting sun
Worshipping the sun
Day 6 (2 September 2015): Doberdol – Milishevc (Kosovo) (23.5 km, Ascent: 1,413m, Descent: 1,498m)
This day’s route will lead us over the vast plateau in front of us, before eventually dropping down towards Milishevc in the Kosovo. The prospect of an easy walk motivates us to move quickly.
A break on the plateau
A sign pointing back to Doberdol
Making rapid progress
In our jolly group of five we make rapid progress. The plateau really is a piece of cake. We can see the village of Babino Polje (our goal for Day 9).
The perfect companions
Scared of heights?
At a confusing signpost, we decide to choose an alternative path, different to the one recommended in the guidebook. Unfortunately, this path soon splits up into a myriad of different trails created by the shepherds. We are starting to feel lost when we finally reach a local’s house. The man shows us a secret path which, often barely recognizable as a trail, joins the original route.
We meet an Albanian sitting in the sun on a meadow and reading the book ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne. He used to live in Belgium for 16 years and has now returned to his hometown. We communicate in a mixture of French, German and Dutch and are shown the best way to Milishevc.
By now, it is clear to us that being able to speak German is certainly a big help in this part of the world.
Hoping for a warm meal and maybe a loaf of bread, we reach Milishevc. Unfortunately, there is no shop or guesthouse in town. We speak to an old couple sitting on the front porch of their newly built house. They invite us over for coffee and fruits. As Mirka will start working on a project with the GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation) in Pristina in a few days, she has learned some Albanian. So, we learn about the best way for the ascent up the mountain ridge, the final goal of this stage.
In the light of the setting sun, we reach a high plateau covered with low, gnarled pines and large shrubs.
Thick vegetation on the top
Our energy levels are almost depleted and so is our motivation. This is why we decide to set up camp for the night.
Mirka and Ron making fire
The mystical plateau and the incoming clouds exert a strange fascination on us. We feel the presence of wolves in the area. Sitting by the campfire, the group spirit is perfect, rounding up a tough and beautiful day. A huge orange moon appears behind the mountains and the trees and shrubs sing a sweet lullaby.
A perfect end to a perfect day
Fire, fire, burning bright, in the darkness of the night
Day 7 (3 September 2015): Milishevc – Reke e Allages (16.1 km, Ascent: 1,264m, Descent: 1,556m)
The prospect of a nearby lake makes us start walking in our bathing suits. Unfortunately, the lake turns out to be muddy waterhole. Frustrated, we promptly ignore the guidebook’s explicit warning of following the road, resulting in a long detour and an exhausting search for the original trail markings. When we finally find the worn-off markings, the hardest part of this section begins. Following the steep trail down into Rugova valley over 4 miles (an descent of 1,250m), blisters appear on our feet, knee and ankles start to hurt and our water reserves decline markedly with no supply in sight. A Giant Woodwasp (Urocerus gigas) laying her eggs in a massive log is the only distraction from the pain. After what feels like an eternity, we finally reach the bottom of the valley and, with that, the Camp Hotel Rugova. We decide to have an extensive lunch here and order salad, appetizers, olives, three pizzas and three mixed meat platters with chips. The food including soft drinks, beer and lukewarm espresso costs no more than £40 (total bill!).
After lunch, the time comes for the group to split. While the group of three takes a bus towards Peje, we continue on the final section of this day’s trip. We walk alongside a paved road that gently winds up to Reke e Allages. Without any major physical or navigational challenges, we quickly proceed uphill, surrounded by high rock walls. When we reach Mustafa Hokaj’s guesthouse at the end of the village, he invites us in for a cup of tea (Kosovan mountain tea with marjoram). We listen to his stories about this year’s hiking season and tourism in the region. He mentions the recent protests against the decision of the National Park authorities to stop construction projects by home owners who illegally build houses in the protected valley without proper permission.
Mustafa shows us where the trail continues. Mustafa’s new trail markings are, for the first time on this trip, clear, and the 2-hour ascent to the northernmost part of our trip presents no further challenge.
The final steps of this day
The view from our campsite
We find a slightly wavy campground below an emergency shelter and fall fast asleep.
Part 2 to be continued…