Hiking through the Valbonë Valley 🏔
Escape to the quiet side of the Balkans, a side comparable to the alps. Staying in the Valbonë Valley in northeast Albania you are surrounded by mountains towering over a kilometre in height. Outside of the peak season it makes for an amazingly quiet and untouched part of the world. With a good hike you will discover the locals shepards still raising livestock and living a jealously simple life. I am surely glad to have ended up here, far removed the big cities. After several days in the Valbonë Valley, I genuinely didn’t want to leave.
It took a rather pretty ferry ride up Lake Koman, part of the River Drin, to get up to this part of Albania. The other ways here are through Kosovo. Once you arrive though, wow. It’s looking straight up in every direction, the mountains rise up well more than a kilometre in every direction.
There are a variety of hiking trails ranging from 4WD accessible roads to near bush-bashing. A common path is to hike from Valbona to Theth, but I didn’t want to carry everything with me and we had been told it had snowed recently. Theth is on the western side of the mountains making it more accessible by vehicle, so for some it would be better to start from there.
We decided on a path that would go mostly on safe tracks and paths and do a loop with the option for a slightly longer loop if we felt like it.
It wasn’t long before I realised I was travelling one special looking child, which for the sake of this, let’s call him Kate. Kate looked like he was ready for school with the backpack and all, looking a bit like Ness. RIP red cap.
Over the course of the day we walked over 20 km, crossing over several changes of environment from lush rain forests to mountainous terrain. Rising up 800 metres we were still nowhere near the top but had great views the entire way. At one point the path became less path and more wishful thinking but with three of us, calm heads prevailed as we compared maps and topographic data.
I lost some of the tracking data after the app crashed on my phone but it was mostly the same path up as down.
Finally we did reach a great viewpoint!
Look for the shepherds
We departed extremely underprepared intentionally. Shepherds still take care of a number of livestock in the lower mountains and you’re welcome to drop in and say hello. In fact it appears to have become a thing. They will happily drop everything and invite you in for food and tea, in return you provide a small gift. Sadly this side of the mountains Italian and German don’t go too far, so without an Albanian speaker you’ll have to make do with limited English.
Look for the small things
Honestly though with so much beauty at such grand scale it is a timely reminder to always keep an eye out for the small things. Also a time to give some macrophotography a go on the phone again.
And the plain amazing
On the way back down we glad to be heading back but that didn’t stop seeing some wonderful sights.
We were racing the sunset. Pretty exhausted, probably hallucinating, but hello unicorn walking past us 🦄
The owner from the homestay in Shköder had organised a place for me but they didn’t seem to know about it. Fortunately I ended up in a place called Rilindja, which operates a range of accommodations here from camping to private rooms. The latter were very affordable (€25 single/€35 double) including breakfast. They operate an all-day restaurant again with good prices considering you are far removed from anywhere else. There are daily specials with local influences and many vouch for the fish which are super fresh – the pond outside stock hundreds of them. We got to stay in the lodge above the restaurant which has several private rooms in gorgeous surrounds.
You’re not too far from the river, which is quite small this far upstream. There are comfortable short walks around and along it.
In the evenings we often relaxed in the loft that holds a pretty extensive range of books. I spent some of the evenings here helping one of the staff get a grip on their thesis. There’s some basic internet connectivity however both it and electricity can be unreliable out here. I had picked up a Vodafone SIM card in Shköder which apparently has the best coverage in Albania. I found in Valbonë you could attain a 3G signal but it would often fall back to 2.5G (no 4G yet in Albania) and up the mountains it could drop out completely.
There are other accommodation options in the valley that looked pretty sweet but it’s a difficult place to gather information on so some phone calls ahead might be worthwhile.
It’s really quite a spectacular and remote place. Certainly not easy to get to unless you reside in the region and have a vehicle. If flying into Tirana you might be able to access it with one long bus trip (via Kosovo) but more likely need to chop and change to get there. If you can though, do it.