The Albanian Alps, Part 1: I Went to the Accursed Mountains and I Never Wanted to Leave

At the very beginning of June I hiked the Albanian Alps, also known as the Accursed Mountains. It was one of the more challenging hikes I’ve done, and it was absolutely gorgeous. Along the way I met some of the most welcoming people I’ve encountered anywhere in the world.

I started with a week in Shkodër, the pleasant little town I wrote about in my last post. I was able to leave my luggage at my hotel for a few days, so I went with only my hiking bag. I booked a furgon (private minibus) in advance and got picked up at my hotel early in the morning for a long drive to catch the 9am ferry at Lake Komen.

31 May, 2018: The bus ride was exciting — a mix of backpackers with the same plan I had, locals using it for everyday transport, and small children using it as a school bus. It was fascinating to have the bus stop randomly on a mountain road when a mother appeared with a four-year-old on a dirt path leading into the hills. She’d shoo the child on to the bus and wave goodbye, and before long it was standing room only with adorable and very well-behaved little kids. Eventually we pulled off the paved road onto an extremely dicey dirt track and went past a few ruined buildings to a small schoolhouse next to a church in the middle of nowhere. All the kids filed off the bus, and we jounced and bounced back to the road.

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This is a school

After a number of hairpin turns on a single-lane semi-paved mountain road, we drove into an unlit tunnel that had clearly been hand-cut through solid rock. We slowed right down, and then made a 90-degree right turn, which is something I had never encountered in a tunnel before. We then popped out of the pitch-black and into a small loading area at a tiny ferry dock.

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There were two small ferries loading, each handling a few vehicles (and settling noticeably lower in the water with each addition) and a number of walk-on passengers. I paid my driver, headed onto the ferry he pointed at, and went straight to the upper deck to snag a seat on the bench that surrounded the outer edge. A few minutes later we were off!

2018-05-31-09-14-18The ferry ride was about 2.5 hours, and quite lovely.

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Much like the furgons, the ferries are the only means of transportation for most of the few people who live around the lake, so the ferries stop here and there at makeshift docks to pick up and drop off locals, some of whom row out in canoes.

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Eventually we landed at an even tinier ferry dock than the one we had left, and I found another furgon heading to my destination, the village of Valbona, which is spread out through the Valbona valley. This furgon was smaller and older and more casual than the last one. As is usual, we waited to leave until all seats were full, and then the driver accommodated three extra passengers in the aisle, one on a milk crate and two on wooden chairs borrowed from a shanty cafe at the dock. Once everyone was more or less seated, we zoomed off down a sort-of-paved road, the stereo blasting some Albanian pop while the driver sang along enthusiastically.

I got off at the first stop, a guesthouse at the start of the valley run by one brother of a set of triplets, each of whom runs a guesthouse at a different point along the way. I owe this whole trip to the very excellent website run by an American expat who made this her home, and am very grateful! The first brother confirmed my reservation at the second guesthouse, and because I was early, I stopped over for lunch. It was delicious — lamb, polenta, potatoes and orange juice.

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Once I was finished I had a moderate walk through the woods on a trail by the river, which was… sort of marked, though I did get turned around a few times (which didn’t bode terrible well for my full-day hike in the real mountains the next day).

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I also almost stepped on a snake, but it heard me coming and moved so that I saw it in time, yay! Later I asked my host, Skender, if the snakes in Albania are poisonous, and his verdict was that it was best to assume they might be, since you never can tell for sure.

Once I arrived in the middle section of the village there was a walk along a dirt road for a bit, with helpful signs, until I reached my guesthouse. To be clear: this is a village in the sense of a small collection of scattered houses and farms in a lovely valley in the Albanian Alps. There are no shops, no gas station, no services of any kind. At any given point you can see maybe four houses.

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Most of the villagers are related in one way or another, and they are accustomed to hikers at this point, as the trail I came to do is becoming quite popular. Many families rent out rooms in their homes to backpackers. I went for a walk after I checked in, and got slightly lost trying to find a path back that wasn’t attended by a large dog. After I startled a coop full of chickens and got stuck attempting to navigate a mud puddle without getting my feet wet, a man having dinner with his family on his porch (who had been watching me with some amusement, I suspect) flagged me down.

“Where are you going?”

I gave him my best friendly smile and pointed vaguely toward my guesthouse.

“Ah, you are staying with Skender, yes? He is my cousin. Here, I show you the way!”

These mountains are still a bit lost in time, in the best possible way. I asked Skender how the villagers generally felt about tourists, particularly the older generation (the ones I saw out in the fields with scythes and hoes). He said that since the mountains were so incredibly isolated for so long (partly because of location and largely because of the repressive communist regime), they are for the most part delighted to have visitors. At the moment it’s still far enough off the beaten track that the people visiting tend to be the adventurous, hardy, culturally curious types — definitely not the cruise ship crowd. I was only in these mountains for two days, but I’ve rarely felt so welcomed by a community. The various folks I met in the Albanian Alps are some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve encountered anywhere in the world, and part of me wanted to just stay right there and never leave.

There’s a tradition of hospitality here that means you treat a guest like your family, or possibly even better. Life in these mountains is hard; the winters are long and difficult, and living in these small communities has required that people take care of one another to survive. As a result, they’re only slowly adapting to the modern concept of reservations for lodging, which is a little nerve-wracking as a traveler, but ultimately quite beautiful. If I understand it correctly, their thinking goes something like this: if you arrive in my village and you need food or shelter, of course I will welcome you to my house, and feed you, and give you a place to sleep, even if it’s my own bed. Why would you ask me to promise I will do that in advance? It’s a given; it’s part of my culture. Similarly, if you want to “reserve” a place in my home, you’re implicitly asking me to turn someone else away if they arrive before you. How could you expect me to do that The modern world is slowly encroaching, and it’s possible to reserve rooms in a number of guesthouses now, but the spirit remains, at least for now, and it’s beautiful.

The valley is also beautiful, and I could stare at these rugged karst mountains all day:

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I had failed to arrange dinner, so I ate some of my travel snacks and settled in for the evening. I spent a while reading in a covered gazebo while it rained lightly, looking up the valley toward where I’d be hiking the next day:

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After it got dark I went for a short walk out into the field to admire the stars, which shine exceptionally bright in those sparsely-populated mountains. I fell asleep to the sounds of crickets and woke up bright and early to have breakfast and start my hike.

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