Hiking in Albania’s Accursed Mountains

A honk outside the gate signaled my ride. I took a few more quick bites of my breakfast and then hurried out to the furgon that was waiting for me outside the guesthouse. There were four or five other passengers in the furgon, and we were all going to the little village of Thethi, in a valley high up in the Albanian Alps, in a range known as the Accursed Mountains.

With characteristic speed, and a little recklessness, the furgon took us across the flat countryside surrounding Shkodër in the direction of the mountains. After about half an hour, we entered a long valley, which we followed all the way to the end. Then, the road turned to gravel and began to climb up the slope at the end of the valley, making several switchbacks. Eventually, we reached the top of the pass called Qafë Thore, where the driver stopped to let us take some pictures of the views. Then, we continued a little further until we entered Parku Kombëtar Theth (Theth National Park), where the road turned from gravel into a series of muddy potholes as it wound down in to the Valley of Theth along the steep slopes of the mountain. We bumped (sometimes quite violently) along this road for a while, while the three other tourists and I held on tight and tried not to look over the drop-off that we seemed a little too close to.

The Road to Theth, Albania
The high road to Theth

We finally came to a stop at the head of a dirt path leading down to a three-story building that was our guesthouse. The host and her four-year-old daughter came out to greet us. The other three travelers were also booked at the same guesthouse, and after we had settled into our rooms, we were served a delicious lunch at the picnic table in the yard. Eating in the shade of a large tree, we enjoyed the rustic environment, surrounded by cows, chickens, and the neighbors working in their little field, all in front of a backdrop of sheer mountain peaks.

Theth, Albania
Theth – A peaceful mountain village

In the afternoon, the four of us went for a hike to explore the surroundings. Theth is situated in a high valley that is entirely surrounded by the mountains. In fact, it is impossible to even reach the village during the winter because the road over Qafë Thore becomes snowed in. As a result,  there is not much development, and most of the accommodation is in small, family-run guesthouses like the one we were staying at. The town center has a combined school and clinic, as well as a quaint little church and a structure called an “isolation tower.”

Albania has a tradition known as gjakmarrja (blood feud), in which a person whose family has been wronged by someone else can take revenge by killing the offender or a member of his family. The isolation tower was used as a “safe space” where someone who was on the wrong side of a gjakmarrja could take refuge. The isolation tower in Thethi has not been used in quite a while because the practice has largely died out there, but there are other areas in rural Albania where instances of gjakmarrja are present even today.

After returning to the guesthouse and taking a siesta, my new friends and I sat in the living room and watched Albanian MTV with the host’s daughter while we waited for dinner. When dinner was ready, we were treated to a feast of stuffed peppers, homemade byrek (spinach pie), potatoes, fresh bread, feta, salad, homemade yoghurt, and cake for dessert. Thethi may be remote, but there is certainly no lack of delicious food!

In the morning, after another hearty meal, we set out on a 16 kilometer (10 mile) hike that would take us over a high mountain pass and into the village of Valbona, in the next valley over. Hiking over this pass is the only way to get from Thethi to Valbona (that is, unless you prefer to drive out of and around the entire mountain range, only to find that the hikers beat you there). It took about an hour to get into the village of Theth and the official start of the trail. From there, the path led continuously uphill for several hours. We passed a few mountain streams, where we refilled our water bottles, and we eventually stopped to eat the lunch in a nice clearing where we could look out over the entire Valley of Theth. About five hours after we had set out, we finally reached the top of the pass, and we suddenly had a spectacular 360-degree view over both the Theth and Valbona valleys.

Overlooking the Valley of Theth in Albania
Overlooking the Valley of Theth

We didn’t linger for long at the pass, though; the wind was strong up there, so we began our descent into Valbona. In contrast to the relatively gradual ascent on the Theth side of the mountain, the Valbona-facing side has some very steep, rocky areas that we had to navigate — some areas were still snow-covered, even at the end of May! Fortunately, two of my hiking companions had grown up in the mountains of British Columbia and were experienced at hiking in the mountains, they were able to offer some much-welcome assistance and encouragement when we reached the tricky areas.

Overlooking the Valbona Valley in Albania
Over the pass – First view of the Valbona Valley

Once we were below the tree-line again, the descent to the valley floor was quick and easy, and after a while walking along the riverbed, we soon found ourselves following a freshly-paved road, passing busloads of tourists coming to stay in the guesthouses lining Valbona National Park. We reached our guesthouses after a couple of kilometers; I was booked at a different guesthouse than the others in my group, so we said goodbye there. We had hoped to see each other on the 9:00 ferry the next morning, but the timing must not have worked out for them, because I did not see them again.

Seeing that I had just come from across the mountain, my host in Valbona was quick to offer me coffee and raki before setting out copious amounts of food to end an exhausting but adventurous day in the Accursed Mountains.

The Valbona Valley in Albania
Valbona – Another peaceful mountain village

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