After departing from Romania, the next destination I planned to visit was Albania’s Accursed Mountains.
Of course, Romania and Albania are far apart. I decided to break the trip up by staying in Sofia, Bulgaria for a few days. Well, actually I only wanted to stay one day, but it turned out that buses to Albania only happened a few times a week. I did sight-seeing around Sofia, and my favorite activity was the Communist Tour.
Tirana and Shkoder
I moved through Tirana and Shkoder pretty quickly. I was eager to see the Accursed Mountains, and I’m not much of a city person anyway.
In Shkoder, I stayed at Mi Casa Es Tu Casa. They knew pretty much everything about getting to the mountains. They set me up on the shuttle to Theth for the next morning and even packed me a sandwich to take along.
Theth is essentially a small village in the Accursed Mountains. It has a few homes and a few options for guest houses. I ended up choosing the guest house where the shuttle stopped to drop off a German couple. The couple invited me to go hiking with them for the afternoon, my first experience in the Accursed Mountains.
Our hosts gave us packed lunches and sent us on our way. The lunch was half a loaf of fresh bread, cured meat, cheese, a whole tomato, a hard boiled egg, and grapes.
The Blue Eye
Since we only had a half day to do a hike, we walked to a lake called the Blue Eye. It’s a popular destination for tourists in the Theth area.
On the way out of town, we bumped into yet another group of Germans, one of who was German-Albanian and could speak the language. Together the six of us continued on our way.
The hike itself was not difficult. It was just long.
Soon an old Albanian woman joined us, offering to show the way. The German-Albanian translated for us. I had a feeling she was showing us the way with the hopes of getting money afterwards. She was sweet though and the rest of the group liked having her along, so I didn’t say anything.
We arrived at Blue Eye, which was a pretty destination. I noticed that there’s already trash starting to collect around the area, an unfortunate result of the increase in tourism.
On the way back, the old lady insisted that we stop at her home for coffee. She brought us little espresso shots in dainty tea cups. The espresso was immediately followed by an Albanian tradition, rakia.
Rakia is a liquor made from fruit in a process that sounds similar to making moonshine. You don’t take rakia as a shot. It’s far too strong. You’re supposed to sip it.
Apparently a coffee followed by a rakia is a morning ritual for many older generation Albanians. The younger Albanians I spoke to often told me their parents drank a daily coffee and rakia, but they themselves did not.
Having a little bit of a buzz from one drink, we began the long walk back to Theth. A few members of our group did end up giving the lady some money for her trouble, but she didn’t ask for it.
Theth to Blue Eye Stats:
- 12.5 miles round trip (20 km)
- not much elevation change, just some small hills
As always, I recommend using the maps.me app. All of the Theth trails are on it, and the Blue Eye is specifically marked.
Walk out of Theth towards the village of Nderlysaj (good luck pronouncing it). Stay on the path and don’t cross the river until you are almost to Nderlysaj. Eventually, you will cross over a bridge.
After the village, follow the road until it breaks off into a trail. It’s a well-trodden path and will be obvious. When you reach a ladder going down to a stream, you’re almost to Blue Eye.
If you’re doing this hike as a half day, take the road back to Theth. This way you won’t get lost if it gets dark before you get back. The road is on the opposite side of the river from where you came in. You can cross over to Theth either by walking across a pipe over the river or taking the bridge a half mile further.
The entire journey will take 5 or 6 hours.
Hiking into the Accursed Mountains
Like I said, Blue Eye was a nice stop but it wasn’t hard. Being surrounded by peaks made me want to gain some elevation and get into the Accursed Mountains. By the recommendation of a French hiking guide I met, I planned to hike to Peja Lake.
Once again, my host gave me a packed lunch and sent me on my way. I hiked alone for a couple of hours until I ran into another American girl. It turned out that she was a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker, so we had lots to talk about as we continued up to the pass. At the top, we met a third girl who was hiking solo. The three of us sat together eating our packed lunches and talking about our travels and hikes.
Finally, I said goodbye to my new friends and finished the walk to the lake.
Having spent so much time hanging out with the two girls I had met, it was almost dark by the time I returned. My hosts seemed happy that I was safely back. I was told that Albanians wouldn’t hesitate to send half the village out looking for someone who hadn’t returned.
If you’re hiking solo (like me), it’s probably polite to return well before dark so you don’t cause too much worry.
Theth to Peja Lake Stats:
- 10 miles round trip (16 km)
- 3200 feet elevation gain (950 m)
Follow the road along the river to the village of Nikgjonaj. From there, veer right from the river and start the climb up. The trail is obvious the entire way. Peja Lake is marked on the maps.me app if you need additional guidance.
If you need a water source, there’s a spring just after the last cafe out of Nikgjonaj. It will be to the right of the path.
Theth to Valbona
I really got a kick out of this day. There was such a variety of scenery: quiet woods, open fields, jagged peaks, with an occasional smattering of rain. Plus, I’ve been doing day hikes for my entire time in the Balkans and this was the first time I set out with all of my belongings in my pack. It was a good feeling.
The hike was a steady uphill for a few hours followed by a steady downhill. There were a few cafes along the way, so I kept my energy and spirit up through the rain by drinking coffee. I also passed more hikers on this path than I had the previous two days combined. (There still wasn’t a lot; this is off season, after all)
I was told that the last 2.5 miles were a paved road walk and not worth it. As soon as I hit the pavement a taxi pulled me up offering me a ride… for 5000 lek ($44). I should know by now to not be offended by taxi drivers. They are scammers everywhere in the world.
It was only 2 pm and I wasn’t tired, so I walked away without attempting to haggle and started down the road. My French hiking guide friend had recommended a guest house to me, and that was where I was headed. I happily listened to my Game of Thrones audiobook (I’m on book 5 finally!) and meandered along.
Halfway to my destination, the taxi driver pulled over to talk to me again. He was headed to town anyway and I think was offering me a free ride, but after his exorbitant original offer I was mistrustful and declined the ride.
The Best Guesthouse Ever
An hour into my road walk, yet another van pulled over. The driver was a young guy, and after a brief conversation I found out it was his family’s guest house I was headed to. My French guide friend had called ahead to tell them I was coming and that they should send someone to pick me up.
Upon arrival, the matriarch of the family showed me to my room and then to the dining room. She told me that I must be hungry, and piled plates of food in front of me. Then I went a took a hot shower, a perfect remedy to the chill in my bones from the dreary day.
I was the only guest there (once again, off season), so I hung out with my host and played with the kittens. She taught me how to make burec, a traditional Balkans dish. I helped make the salad too. Spending the afternoon with her was a definite highlight of my time in Valbona.
In the morning, I needed to get back to Skhoder. This sounded like a complicated process because I would need to catch a shuttle to the ferry, take a ferry ride, then catch another shuttle into Skhoder. No worries though, because my guest house was a one stop shop. They gave me a ride to the ferry and arrange my tickets for the ferry and shuttle.
Theth to Valbona Stats:
- 11 miles (18 km), 8.5 miles (14 km) if you catch a ride from the paved road
- 3600 feet elevation gain (1100 m)
Follow the road out of Theth along the river. Don’t cross the river though. Eventually you will see a sign that points you in the direction of Valbona. There will be a few cafes along the way and a small stream of hikers headed to Theth.
If you want to stay at my favorite guest house, ask for the one with “the red van.” That’s what everyone knows them as anyway.
Albania’s Accursed Mountains are definitely something special. And they’re getting more popular every year. If you want to see it before the boom in tourism, now is the time. It won’t be long until Theth and Valbona are standard stops on the Balkans tourist track.
Albania Hiking and Travel Guide
Albanian Lek, $1= 113 lek
You can easily stay under $30 a day in Albania. Meals in restaurant were $2-3. One night I “splurged” on a big meal at a highly recommended place and it was still only $5.
Once you’re in the Accursed Mountains prices are even lower. Guest houses in Theth were 2700 lek ($24) for a bed, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And there’s nothing else to spend money on in the mountains, so you literally are only spending $24 a day.
The most expensive parts were the shuttles to and from the mountains. I paid $12 to get to Theth, and $17 to get from Valbona to Shkoder (for a shuttle to the ferry, the ferry itself, and another shuttle to Shkoder).
I didn’t want to take everything I owned hiking into the Accursed Mountains. My hostel in Shkoder stored my extra luggage for me while I was gone. They also organized my shuttle for me. My guest house in Valbona arranged my transport back to Shkoder. Easy.
Everything I had read about Albania (and the Balkans in general) before arriving was that, “It’s totally safe for women!” That’s only partially true.
I had two bad experiences in one week. The first was a guy who seemed to be on drugs harassing me on the train in Bulgaria. The second was a man in Tirana, Albania trying to follow me on the street while I was alone. I asked other female travelers about their own experiences and got mixed reviews. Many girls had no issues whatsoever. There were several who had similar experiences to mine.
It’s important to note when traveling to the Balkans that women are not equal. In Albania, local women don’t even go out after 9 or 10 pm. I wouldn’t let this discourage you from traveling to the Balkans (even solo). Just take extra precautions.
Personally, after getting followed by a man in Tirana, I chose to be back at my hostel by 9 every night when I was alone. There were two nights I went out with a group and stayed out late. I felt comfortable being out late when I was with other people.
For what it’s worth, I did get to know plenty of Balkans guys who were nice (and not creepy). It seemed to me the difference was that they were educated, had traveled out of their own country before, and/or were somewhat used to being around foreigners.
I seem to be on a roll with visiting countries that are not popular tourist stops (first Romania, now Albania). My communist tour guide in Bulgaria told me that visiting Albania is for “hipsters” because it’s not cool yet. Other travelers summed it up by saying, “Albania is weird. Good. But weird.”
Regardless, Albania’s Accursed Mountains are a must for any hiking enthusiast. Be a hipster and go before they’re cool.