A complete guide to hiking the Accursed Mountains of Albania. Everything you need to know and what to expect of the stunning Valbonë to Theth hike.
When we planned our couple of months of backpacking in Eastern Europe, we carefully considered which countries we wanted to visit and specifically, what it was we most wanted to do in each of them. For Albania, there was one thing that stood out; hiking the Accursed Mountains, specifically the Valbonë to Theth hike.
The Accursed Mountains aka the Albanian Alps, are located in northern Albania, extending into neighbouring Montenegro and Kosovo. The story behind this evocative ‘Accursed Mountains’ name goes that two brothers were out hunting and came across a beautiful fairy. When asked which brother she preferred, the fairy’s answer was ‘one for his bravery, the other for his good looks’. The ‘brave’ brother then killed the ‘handsome’ one and took the fairy home to their mother. The mother was so upset and angry that she cursed both the mountains and fairy forever.
Cursed or not, these mountains looked truly spectacular and we made our way through Eastern Europe to Shkodër, the gateway city to undertake this much-anticipated hike.
Shkodër is located at the base of the Albanian Alps. It’s close to the lake of the same name, Shkodër (Lake Skadar on the Montenegro side of the border). It’s one of the countries oldest cities, founded in the 4th century B.C. Now a nice mix of both ancient and modern (and some somewhere in between), Shkodër is the main gateway for hiking the Accursed Mountains. The charming city is a lovely place to spend a day or two pre and/or post any hikes.
This city is well worth a visit regardless of hiking the Accursed Mountains or not. It’s undoubted show piece is its Rozafa Castle (Fortress). Symbolising Albania’s historic journey, it was founded by the Illyrians and rebuilt by both the Venetians and Turks.
The hilltop fortress is 3.5km form the city. You can walk, cycle or easily catch a municipal bus for 30 lekë to get there. And it’s worth the effort. The views atop the fortresses Illyrian walls offers amazing panoramas of the surrounding scenery. There’s views over Lake Shkodër, the Albanian Alps and the converging rivers of Drin, Kir and Buna.
From Shkodër it’s easy to arrange and sort out all the hiking logistics through a hostel or hotel. We stayed at The Wanderers Hostel which we highly recommend. They arranged our 2d/1nt trip for us which included:
- Bus-Boat-Bus transport from Shkodër to Valbonë – €15 p/p
- 1 night accommodation at a guesthouse in Valbonë – €20 p/p dorm or €25p/p private (paid directly to the guesthouse)
- Lunch on arrival at the guesthouse on day one, dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch for the hike the following day!
- Locked luggage storage at the hostel, so we could safely leave our large packs in Shkodër. You definitely only need to take a small daypack.
They made everything so easy! You can arrange all of this independently, but it isn’t really any cheaper. So it made sense to us to have someone else do it for us!
The scenic journey to Valbonë
People always say ‘half the fun is getting there!’ Though we don’t always agree with this, (try backpacking through Madagascar for a month), it’s certainly true of the Shkodër to Valbonë journey.
This 3-stage ‘bus-boat-bus’ combo was not only super straight forward, but great fun. As mentioned earlier, this was all arranged through The Wanderers Hostel. It started with an early morning furgon (shared minibus) ride at 6:30am for about 1.5-2 hours, taking us to Koman. Koman is your last real chance to pickup snacks and water. There’s also a restaurant and toilet facilities here. So, it’s a good opportunity to go before the three hour boat ride across Lake Koman, which departs at 9:00am.
Now it’s this leg of the combo, the ferry ride from Koman to Fierzë that is really impressive. This huge lake was created in 1978 when the Drin River was dammed. The lack of accessibility left this part of Albania completely unspoiled. This incredible journey takes you through picturesque valleys and dramatic rocky gorges, past densely forested hills and secluded mountainside villages. It’s not only beautiful, but it really felt like we were getting a little off track.
If the weather is in your favour, get up on the higher deck and ‘shotgun’ a good spot because this scenic journey was a highlight. We started out under moody looking skies, before the sun slowly broke through. Travelling in early October meant our ferry really wasn’t very busy with tourists. We have heard that in the peak summer season, the ferry can get extremely crowded. So it was a nice chance for us to interact with the locals and the few other backpackers on board.
Once we arrived in Fierzë, Arben, the owner of our guesthouse met us and took us to our accommodation. We had been given a receipt from our hostel/hotel stating where we were staying. The driver just checked this and we were on our way. It took about an hours drive to Valbonë through more lovely scenery.
We stayed at Guesthouse Arben Selimaj, tucked away in a great spot in the Alps. Arben and his family were so hospitable. His wife served up a delicious lunch of soup and bread upon our arrival. The location in the hills was the perfect place for a short afternoon foray up the mountainside as a bit of a pre-cursor to the following days main event.
The tranquil location was also a perfect place to chillout and read a book, or like Chris chase butterflies around. It’s also a good chance to chat with other travellers staying at your guest house. And, if travelling alone, it’s a nice opportunity to meet potential hike buddies.
Being Autumn the temperature dropped quickly and it got dark early, so we weren’t out too late. After another fabulous fireside meal, we were in bed early for one of, if not the most cosy and peaceful nights of our 18 month travels.
Hiking the Accursed Mountains – Valbonë to Theth
The time of year should influence your hike start time. In the peak season, the hot temperatures of July and August will likely have you starting early to avoid the worst of the crowds and the heat. But for us, hiking on a glorious day in the first week of October, neither crowds or heat where an issue. After a leisurely breakfast, we said goodbye to Arben after he dropped us at the starting point of the 12km hike (saving us a 30-45 minute road walk). We commenced hiking at 9am.
The first portion of the hike was a 2.5km stretch along a dry stoney river bed before gradually ascending past small rural farms with their traditional stone-walled fields. The rugged mountain peaks looked so picturesque jutting out over the colourful tree line.
After about 2 hours, the trail got steeper as we climbed up through alpine forest. Our September/October European travels were carefully planned to avoid big summer crowds. However, one completely unintentional and unforeseen bonus, was that our visit to Albania coincided with the spectacular Autumnal colours. There were times that we were completely enveloped in vibrant yellow and orange foliage.
Coming out of the forested sections, the views really started to open up as we continued up the clearly signed path. The views back towards the way we had hiked were stunning. Every time we looked back we ended up taking more photo’s. The views just got better and better the higher we got.
After a series of shallow switchbacks, we reached the peak. The main trail continued on and down to Theth, but there was a clear little detour on the left to the actual summit. Don’t worry you can’t miss it! It’s well worth a couple of minutes extra climb to get to the highest point on the trek. The views were better than we’d hoped for and the three hours of moderate hiking were absolutely worth it. With captivating views in both directions, its the perfect place to stop and devour your packed lunch.
Tearing ourselves away from the views, we began our descent to Theth. The steepish scree path was slippery in parts, but luckily the views in this direction weren’t as impressive, so we could concentrate on where we were putting our feet.
As we neared Theth, the forest thickened and we were once again surrounded by colourful trees, crunching through the fallen leaves. In the summer, this is no doubt a godsend to escape the powerful midday sun.
Every now and then, the vegetation parted giving tree-framed views over the valley below. After about three hours from the pass, we reached Theth and our phenomenal hike came to an end. And what better way to celebrate hiking the Accursed Mountains, than with an icy cold beer with two girls we had befriended at Guesthouse Arben Selimaj.
As was true with Albania as a whole, we would loved to have spent more time in Theth. Doing more of the surrounding hikes and visiting the Blue Eye certainly were appealing. We had underestimated Albania and misjudged how much time we should have spent in this endearing country. But, given our packed itinerary for our final week in Europe, coupled with the upcoming wet weather forecast, we and our two new friends elected to take a waiting furgon (shared minibus) back to Shkodër that afternoon.
Getting from Theth to Shkodër
Getting back to Shkodër was not arranged by the hostel. They leave travellers to arrange this themselves, as many people choose to stay on in Theth for a few days, or finish the hike after the last furgon departs. The furgon cost €10 (1200lek p/p) and left at about 15:30pm. The first part of this journey was up a narrow, windy and bumpy road. After an hour we stopped for a quick toilet break. There was a nice view point here overlooking the Theth National Park.
In total, the journey back to Shkodër took about three hours. The buses from Theth usually depart hourly (when full) from 7am-13:30pm. So we really got lucky. If there are no buses waiting to depart, it’s definitely worth asking any of the furgon drivers if they will take you back to Shkodër. If there is enough of you wanting to go, you may be able to negotiate a ride. Alternatively, just start your hike nice and early to be in Theth before 13:30pm. If you can’t get a ride back to Shkodër, there were plenty of accommodation options around, so you can find a place to stay on arrival. This may be a different story in the high season however.
Getting to/from and around
Albania’s international airport is located in Tirana, which is the closest airport to Shkodër. From Tirana airport, take the Rinas Express shuttle bus to Tirana’s city centre – 30min, 300 lek (€2-€3). The shuttle operates daily with hourly services between 8.00am-23.00pm daily. You can pay in Euros. Alternatively, a taxi will cost around 2500 lek (€20). From the city centre, the best and cheapest way to get to Shkodër is by bus.
Buses leave at least every hour from Tirana’s North Bus Station and cost 300 lek (€2.50) and takes a little over 3 hours. The bus terminates right on the eastern side of Shkoder’s main roundabout, near the mosque. To return to Tirana, buses depart from the western side of Shkoder’s main roundabout near the mosque.
What we did
We travelled to Shkodër on a direct bus from Dubrovnik’s Main Bus Station (locally called Autobusni Kolodvor). This journey took just under 8hrs and cost around €37 p/p. Other direct international bus connections include: Montenegro (Kotor, Budva, Herceg Novi & Podgorica), Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and Greece (Athens). We found it significantly cheaper to book these tickets through Getbybus.com compared to buying them at the station in Dubrovnik.
As already mentioned, our hostel arranged everything for our hiking trip. And although you can arrange this independently, it won’t really save you any money. So it made sense to us to have someone else do it for us!
There are lots of places in Shkodër to choose from when it comes to accommodation. We stayed at The Wanderers Hostel and can’t recommend it enough. Firstly, all of the staff spoke great English, there was a communal kitchen, cute terrace and clean rooms. They also have apartments which we stayed in after our hike, seperate to the hostel. They were well set up to help travellers and offered everything we needed for a perfect Shkodër stay!
Good accommodation books out fast during the peak seasons, in both Shkodër , Valbonë and Theth. We strongly recommend booking ahead during these months. During our visit (October), it was less busy, but we still recommend pre-booking to ensure you don’t get stranded. Valbonë and Theth are very small villages, so options are limited.
Best time to visit
As with most of Europe, the summer months of July and August offer the hottest temperatures. This is also the peak season and the busiest months. Although Albania is still little travelled compared to many parts of Europe, during the summer months, expect higher accommodation prices, limited availability and a lot more tourists.
The shoulder seasons usually offer warm days and fewer crowds. We visited in the first week of October and there were only a few other tourists wanting to hike at that time. In the mountains, the nights and mornings were super cold, however, the daytime temperatures for hiking were perfect. The Autumnal colours were also a big plus for us. Bear in mind, the weather can change quickly, so its best to check the forecast and be prepared for any weather at any time!
Winter brings cold temperatures and snow and the hiking trails are usually closed between November – May
Valbonë to Theth hike essential information
- The Valbonë to Theth hike is easily arranged from Shkodër
- You can do the hike from both directions. However, it’s more popular to start in Valbonë
- You will need: 1 day to get from Shkodër – Valbonë, 1 day to hike Valbonë – Theth and 1 day to get back to Shkodër. Allow extra days if you are wanting to explore Theth or Valbonë further
- The hike takes 5-8 hours
- Depending on your exact start and end point, the hike is 12km
- We would rate this hike as moderate. Note* There are some long steep sections
- The trail is well marked. It is also available on the Maps.me app
- The trail closes from November to May
- There are NO ATM’s in Valbonë and Theth. None at all. So make sure you have enough cash with you to pay for everything you need.
Packing list and hiking tips
- Only take a small bag with you as you will need to hike with it
- Store your main bag in your hotel/hostel in Shkodër
- Wear good sturdy shoes. The scree path is slippery both dry and wet. Something with good grip is recommended
- Decent socks will make hiking more comfortable
- Band aids for blisters are handy to have too hand
- Pack wet weather gear and warm clothes as the weather can change quickly
- Take a refillable water bottle and do your bit to minimise plastic waste as well as saving the pennies. We were able to refill our bottle at our accommodation in Valbonë
- Definitely take sunscreen, cap and sunnies. Reef-friendly sunscreen is the best for the environment
- Charge you camera batteries/phone as you’ll want to take a lot of pictures
- Take enough cash to pay for everything you need in the mountains (and extra just in case)
- Download Maps.me to your phone so that you have offline maps. We love pinning our journeys as we travel
- Stock up on snacks and water (if necessary) at the SPAR or other supermarkets in Shkodër. There are limited options in the mountains
- There are a few ‘cafes’ located along the hiking trail selling drinks and snacks
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