When I convinced my girlfriend to join me on hiking from Theth to Valbona in the Albanian Alps and she agreed, I was pumped. Firstly because this hike is part of the iconic Peaks of the Balkan trail, a 192 kilometer long trail known for its rugged terrain, wild nature and epic scenery. Secondly because up until now, I have always gone trekking or mountain biking on my own or with friends, never with Lisan. If this one would deliver the same thrill to Lisan as I usually get from a good trek, it could mean we could go trekking together more often.
Luckily for me, the Albanian Alps did not disappoint. Because the trek is not overly tough, very easy to navigate and the scenery beautiful, it is perfect for travelers of any type. So you better include it into your trip to Albania! No need to book a guide, you can tackle this one independently. Let me tell you how.
– Preparation –
Theth to Valbona or the other way around?
Even though the hike from Theth to Valbona is only a day hike, planning this hike is setting yourself up for a 3-day trip, starting from Shkodra, in the North of Albania. You can start at either end and although it doesn’t differ much, I recommend starting in Valbona. This way the route is a bit easier as you are ascending the trickiest terrain (which is safer) and are walking into Theth, the more developed town of the two and a better base from which to further explore the area if you like it some much you want more of it.
Training for the hike?
There’s no need for real training for this hike. Anyone with a normal physical condition will be able to finish it. You’ll be a bit worn out, but you’ll make it. If you are not steady on your footing this hike might be tricky, as the decent into Theth in particular is filled with loose rocks and gravel. There are also some steep sections on the Valbona pass without ropes or a railing. If you have normal balance you’re fine but if you are impaired in any way, consider twice before planning this one.
What to bring
Because both Theth and Valbona are tiny (Theth is a collection of guesthouses in a valley and Valbona is really just 5 or 6 hotels in an otherwise uninhabited NP), you should bring all the supplies you think you need on the hike. That includes cash money for your food and accommodation, although some guesthouses accept Credit Card. There is no need to bring heaps of water as you can refill your water bottle at any guesthouse and a few stops along the hike. Tap water is perfectly drinkable in the Albanian alps.
As for hiking gear, you don’t need anything too special, other than layered clothing and a rain jacket. I did the hike on old trainers, Lisan brought hiking boots. We both did fine but the terrain up top can be a bit tricky so make sure your shoes got good grip.
Shkodra to Valbona
Getting into Valbona means taking a 4WD from Shkodra to lake Komani, the ferry crossing the lake and another 4WD to bring you from the other side to the ‘town’ of Valbona. You can book the whole thing from most guesthouses in Shkodra or try to book each lap on the spot independently. While each lap can be booked on the spot, this will not save you any money. We booked the total transport package for EUR 15 at our hotel in Shkodra. On the spot each lap costs EUR 5, totaling up to the same 15 euro.
We got picked up very early in the morning and arrived in Valbona around 3PM.
Theth to Shkodra
Getting from Theth to Shkodra is very easy: there is only one semi-public bus going, and it leaves around noon. The (mini)bus will take you back to Shkodra in about 3 hours. The first bit is a precarious ride over an unpaved rocky track that curls around the mountains with steep drops but jaw dropping views. The bus will cost you EUR 10.
If you are adamant on leaving earlier: you can organise a private ride for about EUR 60. If you can find 2 likewise travelers in town (which there undoubtedly are), the price isn’t too bad.
– Hiking from Valbona to Theth –
After stuffing the packed breakfast our hotel prepared for us in our bags for later we climbed into a small van around 7 AM. The Komani ferry was said to leave around 9 AM and the ride was going to be around 2 hours. The gentle rocking of the bus combined with soft music playing was a perfect way to slowly wake up. We arrived at a tunnel where we got off and walked the final 50 meters towards the ferry.
Crossing lake Komani
The 2 hour ferry ride is breathtaking. The ferry itself is actually an old bus from which they cut the chassis and welted the rest onto a barge. Extra point for creativity. Although there are designated seats chances are small you are actually going to be using them as the views are incredible and we were out on the deck for the whole ride.
During the ride locals continuously hop on and off. They use the ferry as a means of public transport. Possibly their only way to get to civilization. It’s an intriguing sight to see whole families getting off at the side of a steep cliff, all with heavy packs, without any noticeable building or even a path nearby.
Around 11:30 AM we arrived at the other shore of the lake. There is a small cafe where you can buy snacks, water and use the toilet. From there it is a 30-40 minute drive by car to the guesthouses of Valbona.
The hike up the Valbona pass
To give you a general idea of the duration of the whole hike: we started the hike at 9:09 AM and arrived in Theth at 16:10 PM. We took plenty of breaks along the way.
We started the hike in Valbona at 9 AM and because we picked a guesthouse very close to the trailhead we were on the trail within 10 minutes.
The trail starts right next to the Burimi hotel and starts with a walk along the river. As we walked the trail in September, the riverbeds were dry but I can imagine a whole other sight when hiking the route in springtime.
Following the path is easy: just follow the red and white marks along the way. When there are forks in the road, red arrows will guide you into the right direction but even without that it is pretty clear where to go. As there are probably about a 100 people walking the trail on a daily basis you can always just wait at an unclear interception and figure out where to go together.
Around 09:50 AM we arrived at the end of the gravel path. There are about three houses here which form the town called ‘Rragami‘. This is where you should pay a little more attention. There are two paths, one following down (left) and one follow up (right). Take the right one, the other leads to a small waterfall.
From here the path starts to get more serious. The path gets narrower and steeper. The route rockier. As you climb up the occasional viewpoints that pop up every now and then grow increasingly scenic. It is about an hour to Simoni Kafe, the first stop where you can get a coffee or refill your water bottle.
From Simoni Kafe its another hour climb up to the top of the Valbona pass. We got there around 12:15 PM. The views along the way and up top are awesome but the route itself is the real treat. The path is narrow and steep at sections but keeps shifting from woodlands to rocky outcrops, to green grass valleys. It’s like crossing three totally different landscapes in one day which keeps the trek interesting until the very last second.
The descent into Theth
From the Valbona pass its all decending. You drop down from the rocky terrain into thick forest. This bit is probably the easiest of the hike. The path is good and the descent is gradual. Around 13:30 PM we arrived at the next cafe stop which has some good views and serves local delicacies to replenish some well-deserved calories.
A little later you drop further down into a green valley with grassy fields. Right before you think you finished the trail the path starts to get steeper again. Downwards this time, and the loose rocks make this probably the most technically difficult section of the track. Even though the town isn’t that far out anymore it will take you about an hour to get to Theth.
Around 15:30 PM we spotted the first Theth hotel. About 30 minutes later we hit the visitors centre which forms the middle of the town.
– Where to stay in Theth and Valbona –
As both Theth and Valbona are not much more than the sum of its guesthouses it pays off to pay a little more attention to which accomodation to pick. Your hotel will most probably also be your restaurant for the night and also your connection to the trail. Picking accomodation in a good location with a reputation of serving good food is essential and after doing some research we found some awesome spots.
Best hotel in Theth
Booking rate: 8.7 | privates from EUR 45
Upon arrival the owner greeted us with some homemade Raki, the local liquor of the Balkans. We loved guesthouse Shpella for its clean rooms and hospitable owners but the absolute highlight and reason why to book with Shpella is the family-style home cooked dinner. All guest gather around 7 PM to feast on a tasty and filling meal. Couldn’t have wished for a better welcome after a tiring day of hiking.
Best hotel in Valbona
Booking rate: 9.2 | privates from EUR 45
Hotel Margjeka is ran by a German couple and they do a terrific job. The hotel is clean and the beds are comfortable. The terrace has a great view overlooking the valley and the packed lunch we were given for along our hike was tasty and well portioned. A big plus for Margjeka compared to other guesthouses in Theth is that it is located only about 10 minutes to the trailhead of the hike. Some other spots are as far as 45 minutes out, increasing your day hike with the same amount of time.