12th July 2019
Before travelling to Albania, I must admit that I had very little knowledge of the country, its culture or history. All I knew was that I wanted to go away with Wild Frontiers hiking and I was sold on the picture of Valbone Valley on the front page of our itinerary. Whenever I told anyone that I was going there, their immediate reaction was slight confusion, a pause, then followed by ‘but why?’. Though Albania in many respects is still scarred by the decades of communist rule and is struggling to piece together a democracy, Northern Albania is still so fascinating to visit for its dramatic landscapes, rich with wild flora and fauna, and abundance of natural waterfalls, rivers, lakes and canyons. It offers much more than meets the eye.
Still so untouched and isolated from the rest of Albania, the northern Alps are a walker’s paradise. The idyllic ferry ride across Lake Koman to Valbone on the first day sets the scene for the beautiful scenery to come. Walking through Valbone Valley and Thethi National Park you are presented with a series of breath-taking views that show off just how dramatic and colourful this Alpine landscape is. We walked through dense forested terrain and clamber over large boulders knocked down by avalanches the winter before, to then reach high alpine meadows which are covered with beautiful wildflowers. This everchanging landscape means each day’s hike is just as exciting and interesting as the day before. What’s more is I felt totally alone and free, there is no light pollution, and scarcely any other walkers, only the sound of birds and running water.
Having an experienced tour leader who grew up in Valbone, staying in small locally run guesthouses and travelling on foot, gave us an intimate insight into the lifestyle and challenges of the communities that inhabit these remote parts of the alps. The tour leader’s familiarity with the area meant that each day was an adventure and we were often taken off-the-beaten-track to his favourite hidden spots.
One day we stumbled across this little bar, all handmade out of wood in a meadow in the middle of the forest run by a mother and her son. There was nothing else in sight. It was the perfect spot for our picnic and provided stunning views over Thethi. Another day we stopped off at this café tucked away at the end of valley by Nderlysai, only accessible by foot. The café was run by a brother and sister who lost their father last year and our tour leader brought walking groups here to help support them. They had built little picnic areas for families looking down on a waterfall and natural swimming pool with the bluest water I had ever seen! It is these kinds of details and brilliant surprises intermittent within our walking that made the tour so special and memorable.
On day five of the trip, we hiked the most famous walk in the area over Valbone pass and into Thethi National park. This pass is only accessible in the summer months from May to October when the snow has predominantly melted away. With only a narrow foot path to follow that winds its way up the mountain, we were accompanied by horses and shepherds who diligently carried our luggage over to the next guesthouse only to then return to Valbone in the same day.
Though a 700-metre ascent may not sound huge, I can promise you that it was, and only made harder by the fact that whilst we slowly plodded and sweated our way to the top, taking in the stunning views that surrounded us, the local shepherds passed us by with a spring in their step having already reached the pass and be returning to their homes.
A couple of times we stopped to desperately catch our breath and were joined by a shepherd passing in the opposite direction. These moments remain a highlight of the trip for me as they were an opportunity to integrate with the local people and appreciate the simplicity of their lives. Hiking in such remote areas gets you to step away from the busyness of modern life and take a moment to just be in the present, and this is extremely refreshing.
If you want an adventure and you like hiking, then book a trip to Northern Albania and be wonderfully surprised!