Hiking in the Accursed Mountains in Northern Albania

Posted by Julie Luscombe 2nd October 2023
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Hiking in the Accursed Mountains in Northern Albania

Albania is having a bit of a moment as an emerging travel destination and having spent a week walking in and up the Accursed Mountains in the Albanian Alps, and appreciating the hospitality of the friendly Albanians, it’s not hard to understand why.

Highlights included:

  • Hiking through forests up to the Bori Pass, which is right on the green border of Montenegro to enjoy a picnic lunch with one foot in Albania and one in Montenegro, whilst looking across to Kosovo accompanied by two golden eagles swooping in the valleys
  • Walking along a high ridge to a remote settlement where we were served mountain tea infused with red oregano by a local family having not seen another human for hours
  • Spotting the paw prints of a brown bear followed closely by a pile of cranberry-infused bear poo reminding us that we share the forest trails!
  • Regularly filling up our water bottles with ice-cold water from an abundance of natural mountain springs
  • The option of a beer or delicious Albanian wine at the end of a long walking day!
  • Meeting our guide Besi, a truly kind human who often went above and beyond to ensure our trip was the best it could be

We love to walk and are always looking for different destinations to explore, but Albania had not been on our radar until fairly recently and we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. When we told people where we were going, reactions ranged from bemused expressions of ‘why’ or ‘where is that’ to ‘wow, that is somewhere I want to go’! The wonders of Albania have been a fairly well-kept secret that is only just starting to get let out of the bag.

We were in the north with stunning mountain landscapes and humbling hospitality from the Albanians even in the remotest of places we visited. Homemade bread, cheeses and locally grown vegetables meant we were never hungry during or after our walks. As vegetarians, we were well catered for and at one inn in the Valbone Valley the owner asked us, ‘Tell us what you want and we will make it’.

A previous reviewer for this trip had advised ‘Don’t underestimate the fitness required for the Accursed Mountains’ and she wasn’t wrong. My husband and I spent the last month before our flight convincing ourselves we hadn’t done enough to prepare as we don’t have much opportunity to practice mountains or even hills in Jersey! The level of recommended fitness is high and worn in walking boots and walking poles are highly recommended. It turned out that as regular walkers we were fine – some days felt harder than others and some days we felt it in our legs more than others, but the pace was steady with plenty of opportunities to stop so it was all do-able with not too many aches and pains in the evenings. We slept soundly though!

Our expert mountain guide Besi, led us through a mixture of moderate (2 days) and challenging (4 days) walks which were rewarded by massive payoffs as we felt we were in a

photoshopped landscape of peaks and valleys. We were eased in gently with a three-hour (mostly flat) walk on the first day of walking after a ferry trip from Lake Koman to Fierza taking us into the Albanian Alps and our base for three nights, the beautiful Valbone Valley. After that, our walks were averaging around 6 hours a day over rocky trails and through beech and pine forests on shepherds’ paths working our way slowly and steadily upwards to our daily destinations with the knowledge that what goes up must also come down! The heatwave was over but it was still very hot which added another aspect of challenge to the walking as shade was intermittent. Picnic lunches, plentiful opportunities to refill our water from mountain springs, and regular stops for a bit of information from Besi (or a chocolate bar for energy) all helped us to get to where we wanted to be and get our ‘wow’ moments, not just at the top but as the view changed around every corner or trail.

Our guide, Besi
Our guide, Besi

There were six of us on the trip, all fit and active, but we all had a different day when we found a walk more challenging depending on our preferences. My legs feel much stronger walking downhill so the day I found hardest was the day in the middle of the week when we crossed the Valbone Pass on our way to Thethi, a path that is only accessible during the summer. This was a relentless walk upwards with very little shade accompanied by horses who were carrying our bags (soft luggage only). We started early so we could complete the climb before it got too hot and I was feeling pretty hardcore until I spotted a range of 20-somethings without walking poles, wearing trainers or even sandals with their whole camping gear on their back. I felt my age that day! But again...the payoff was worth it. Getting to the top and looking back at how far we had come was such a sense of achievement and I enjoyed the long walk down the other side arriving in Thethi ready for a beer, food and a nap!

There is beauty everywhere and the history is fascinating. As an example, in Thethi (which has been declared a Protected Historic Centre and is in the middle of a national park) we listened to stories about the stone blood feud tower and walked past stone-walled terraces that date back to the Bronze Age before walking across waterfall pools on our way to the peaceful hamlet of Nderlysaj. This was our one afternoon off where our options were to wander to a nearby bar for a beer, have a swim in the pool at the guesthouse or a nap...I managed all three!

The week finishes literally on a high, with a long trek from Nderlysaj, past turquoise pools and through forests before making our way up and further up to our final destination on the pass. Our last night was spent in Kruje, a beautiful historic setting comparing notes on our week over dinner and really good quality Albanian wine.

North Albania is a jewel, but it’s also a bit of a rough stone in some ways; the roads aren’t great in some areas, and I definitely needed my travel sickness tablets. The ferry crossing we took felt very full and if we hadn’t arrived early we would have been standing for 3 hours. Also, if you are hiking in the remote mountains, you have to understand you won’t be sleeping in luxury (although we were always comfortable) and the water isn’t always hot. But...if you’ve got a sense of adventure, love walking off the beaten track often in perfect peace with an expert guide and like-minded companions, enjoy meeting and listening to a local population who are incredibly proud of their country and want to share their hospitality with you and want to explore an area of outstanding natural beauty before everyone else discovers it, then I would totally recommend this trip.

Right now, I think I’m returning to walking long distances up gentle hills to give my legs a rest but don’t be surprised if I end up on another mountain next year! The payoffs are worth it...

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