Hiking Peaks of the Balkans

Peaks of the Balkans Day 1: Theth-Valbona

I lost my hiker legs.

That was entirely expected after a year since any serious hiking (even running fell mostly by the wayside) but damn, it still got me by surprise.

There’s expecting and knowing that you lost them, and there is the very real feeling of the burn and the pain and the sweat of lugging your pack up a steep hill asking yourself why you are doing this again.

That was our first few hours on the trail, but let’s back up a little.

Getting to Theth

At 05:00 we were woken by the muezzin from the mosque across the square. Our alarms were set for an hour and half later, but going back to sleep apparently wasn’t an option.

Our pickup to Theth was scheduled for 07:10 and we tried to get some coffee in our systems before that. Most places opened at 07:00 so that was a tight fit. Tiny paper takeaway cups in hand we dropped our packs in the back of the furgon (minivan) and off we went, but not before doing more laps around Shkoder to pick up more people. Eventually the van was full and we were headed North. First along a smooth stretch of asphalt (which we vaguely remembered from cycling there in 2015) but soon up a steep and winding mountain road.

Coffee break on the way to Theth

Two and a half hours later and vaguely car sick, we arrived in Theth.

I’ll save my description of Theth for later when we return to end the trail. To be honest, we didn’t give ourselves much time to look around, eager to get some breakfast in us and hit the trail.

Theth-Valbona Hike

The hike from Theth to Valbona was for us the first stage of the Peaks of the Balkans trail, but for many people it’s a popular dayhike exploring the rugged Accursed Mountains. Hence, the trail was quite busy with an assortment of people: daytrippers carrying a tiny purse that wouldn’t fit a water bottle, dainty sandal-clad girls with fashionable crocheted crop-tops, hikers with fully outfitted packs and everything in between. Also pack horses! There’s apparently a luggage carrying service from one valley to the next. Maybe that explained the tiny purses?

In any case, we had our packs, which felt quite heavy, and it was quite steep, and quite hot, but also quite very beautiful.

Looking out over Valbona Valley

The descent towards Valbona was very doable, a bit of loose gravel in places but overall it was fine. Both up and down there are some places where you can buy water, soda or beer. Nearing the bottom of the valley the trail flattens out and takes you over a dry riverbed. The last few kilometers towards the ‘center’ of Valbona are on an asphalt road.

Mule track into Valbona

Valbona is a village spread out over the valley (there isn’t really a clear discernable center) that is developing quickly, including a big ass hotel being constructed in the middle of the valley. This doesn’t bode well for the future charm of the region, but for now most accommodations are of the homestay and guesthouse variety run by local families.

Once we located our guesthouse we had a shower, changed into fleece sweaters and headed to the terrace for an excellent dinner.

Trail tips

  • There is a small store in Theth where you can resupply, near the bridge. Only the basics, no camping gear or gas canisters
  • On the way to the pass there are a few pop-up cafes where you can buy bottled water, sodas and even beers and snacks. It needs to be brought up the mountain (by horse, I guess) so comes with a bit higher price tag than you’d normally find around these parts. Fair enough.
  • You can apparently let a horse carry your pack. Might be a welcome change? We didn’t inquire, so no idea about the costs or logistics.
  • The last kilometers into Valbona are along an asphalt road and a bit boring. I’ve been told you can quite easily hitch hike, but we didn’t try.
  • If you plan to do the alternate high route to Çerem the next day I’d recommend you stay in Guesthouse Brahim Selimay as it’s right at the bottom of the path and they’re very friendly with excellent food! (#nospon BTW, just a good experience).

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