With their steep and rugged slopes overhanging kilometres above deep and remote valleys, the Albanian Alps just have to be one of the Balkans’ (and indeed, Europe’s) most stunning mountain ranges. Their menacing appearance, thanks to which they have deserved the moniker “the Accursed Mountains”, only adds to their mysterious allure.
Whether you call them the Albanian Alps, the Accursed Mountain, Bjeshkët e Nemuna or Prokletije, it’s all the same mountain range, situated where the borders of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo meet. They’re the highest section of the vast Dinaric Alps that follow the Adriatic coast of the Western Balkans. And it’s not just sheer height that the Accursed Mountains impress with: the traditional villages, turquoise lakes, elegant waterfalls, primeval beech and fir forests and authentic highlander cuisine make this secluded region the Balkans’ perfect nature getaway.
Entering the Albanian Alps via one of the world’s most epic boat rides and driving out over an exhilarating and treacherous mountain pass, with loads of quality hiking and the odd lock-in tower (north Albanian blood feud anyone?) in-between, kashkaval tourist presents 6 adventurous activities in the awe-inspiring Albanian Alps.
1. A boat ride to remember: hop on the legendary Lake Koman ferry
Departing on the world-famous Lake Koman ferry on a summer morning is indisputably your perfect introduction to the Albanian Alps. The ferry will take you on a three-hour boat ride among otherwise inaccessible mountain gorges. The peaks above you will turn more and more dazzling as you approach the terminus at Fierzë, but the waters retain their shade of turquoise along the way.
Getting on and off the Lake Koman ferry is an adventure in itself, as friendly locals volunteer to help foreign drivers with the perilous approach on and off the ferry ramp. Quite how the seemingly erratic logistics of loading and unloading the boats works is a bit of an Albanian mystery, but rest assured, not traveller would be turned back!
2. Alpine paradise: hike up the spectacular Valbona Valley
Once you get off the ferry at Fierzë, the gorgeous Valbona Valley is just a short minibus ride away. The glacial valley of the Valbona River is nestled between the almost vertical ridges of the Albanian Alps and the altitude difference of 1,700 metres from the river bed to the summits almost directly above it is absolutely dizzying. The Valbona Valley boasts a range of trails to everyone’s taste and ability, including a gentle path along the river, a short walk to the Liqeni i Xhemës pond or ambitious ascents of the colossal Kollata massif (2,554 m) or the highest peak Maja Jezercë (2,694 m).
However, by far the most popular day hike is the steep trek from Valbona to Theth via the Valbona Pass (Qafa e Valbonës) at 1,795 m. This six to eight-hour trek of medium difficulty will take you through secluded stone villages and ancient beech forests, along pristine mountain streams and just below the intimidating peaks of the Accursed Mountains. On either side of the pass, there’s a basic café where you can stop for refreshments or fill up your water bottles.
3. Tête-à-tête with the highlanders: discover the village of Theth
Your reward for the tough but majestic hike over the Valbona Pass will be the scenic highlander village of Theth. A collection of rustic stone houses connected by dirt roads, visiting Theth is truly like a journey back in time.
The Catholic church building is a wonderful example of the local stonemasons’ remarkable craftsmanship, but the most impressive landmark of Theth ought to be the lock-in tower. The tower is a testament to the mostly bygone local practice of blood revenge (gjakmarrja), governed by the ancient clan law of the Albanian North, the Kanun. The tower would host the male members of a family who were the target of a vendetta by another clan: most likely because they had committed a blood revenge themselves, as part of a vicious circle. This harsh tradition is portrayed brilliantly in Ismail Kadare’s novel Broken April.
Otherwise, the soaring landscapes on Theth’s side of the Albanian Alps are just as impressive as those on Valbona’s. There’s ample opportunity for short hikes during your stay here too, including walks to the crystal-clear Blue Eye spring and the waterfalls of Grunas and Gjeçaj.
4. Genuine Balkan tastes: savour the traditional Albanian cuisine
No visit to the Albanian Highlands would be complete without tasting the local food. A far cry from the fresh and light Mediterranean diet of Аlbania’s Adriatic lowlands, the cuisine of the Accursed Mountains is hearty, rudimentary and largely meat and cheese-based. So be aware, this is a tough place for vegetarians!
The local specialty seem to be a whole goat or lamb roasted on a spit, though homemade sausages and trout from the river are also often available. On the side, you’re likely to be served locally grown potatoes, polenta, pickled veggies or delicious cheese from the region. And to drink, there’s raki (Albanian fruit brandy), red wine, Turkish-style coffee or fresh juice from whatever fruit is in season.
5. Mountain madness: drive the insane Qafa e Thorës pass
If the Lake Koman ferry is your perfect intro to the Albanian Alps, then the somewhat crazy drive from Theth to the low-lying city of Shkodër has to be the most fitting outro. A narrow gravel road takes you over the Qafa e Thorës pass at 1,685 m, where you can stop for a coffee to enjoy the panoramic vistas of the Accursed Mountains opening on all sides . On the other side of the pass, the winding road quickly turns to decent-quality asphalt, which makes for a rewarding descent involving steep hairpin turns.
Passing incoming traffic on the gravel section of the Qafa e Thorës road takes a lot of skill and appropriate use of your horn. And although you would see Albanians driving their trademark old Mercedes on the gravel, a four-wheel drive is more than recommended. If you’re not one for adventurous drives, there’s lots of companies willing to arrange your transfer in and out of Theth with an experienced driver. That way, you can focus on the views and not worry about the road!
6. Down by the lakeside: enter the Rozafa Castle near Shkodër
The historic city of Shkodër counts as a capital of the Albanian North and as a gateway to the mountains that dominate its background. On the other side of Shkodër you’ll find the Bojana River and the eponymous Lake Skadar, the largest lake in Southern Europe. With its hot Mediterranean climate of wild figs and pomegranates, Shkodër is quite unlike what you’ll find up in the highlands. Nevertheless, it’s a vibrant and picturesque city totally worth a visit! What’s more, it’s a great transport hub to continue west to the Italianate elegance of coastal Montenegro or head south towards the capital Tirana.
Shkodër’s most eminent sight is the impressive Rozafa Castle, strategically situated on a hill just outside of town. The hill has been inhabited since Antiquity, when Illyrians first settled these parts. The modern castle walls are mostly Venetian-built, though the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans also ruled these parts. From the Rozafa Castle, you can revel in the truly spectacular views that surround you, including the lake, the Bojana and Drin Rivers and the city itself with the Albanian Alps in the distance.