Albania… Albania? Albanian Alps? If you’re like me, your initial thoughts probably are a) where exactly is Albania and b) I thought the Alps were somewhere else. But if you love stunning scenery and exploring destinations under the radar, trust me – you will want to know exactly where Albania and the Albanian Alps are.
I have to admit my own ignorance and thank the Lonely Planet Europe guide for educating me and putting Albania firmly on my travel map. The guide described this intriguing country with a complex history and endless possibilities for exploration – especially if you’re after something a bit off the beaten path. Rugged mountains, uncrowded beaches on the Mediterranean (yes Albania is a beach destination too, and a fabulous one at that!), traditional villages and some truly unique cities. We were sold.
Sandwiched between Greece and Montenegro, Albania is also perfect for those who’re planning to traverse the Adriatic Coast of the Mediterranean Sea. You can pretty easily make your way from Greece to Albania and then on to Montenegro and Croatia (as we did).
We visited a few different spots in Albania including the fascinating capital Tirana with its very unique vibe and some stunning spots on the Adriatic Coast, but the absolute highlight for us was our hiking trip in the Albanian Alps.
Why you need to go to the Albanian Alps NOW!
So, why exactly do you need to make the Albanian Alps your next travel destination?
Firstly, the Albanian Alps are simply breathtaking. Turn every which way and you’ve got yourself a postcard picture.
Secondly, Albania and hiking the Alps is very affordable. Our 3-day hiking trip package which included transportation, a local guide, accommodation in guesthouses for two nights and all (giantly enormous) meals cost a total of only US$340 for the two of us.
Thirdly, you see very few travelers. Even though the Lonely Planet dubbed Albania as the ‘Hot Country to Visit’ already back in 2011, the herds are yet to come. There is definitely some development in the mountain villages of Valbone and Thethi, but you won’t be fighting any crowds and you still get a glimpse of the local life as it truly is.
Day 1: Albanian Alps Hiking Trip – From Lake Shkodra to Valbone
Our 3-day/2-night Lake Koman, Valbone and Thethi trip started with an early morning pick-up from Lake Shkodra Resort, where we were camping. Hopping on a minibus, we were soon swapping travel stories with our fellow trekkers, two Dutch couples, and our local guide. After a superbly scenic drive we got on a passenger ‘ferry’ (really a pretty functional hybrid of a boat and an old bus) on Lake Koman. The lake is simply a stunner. It’s like an endless, intensely blue fjord with banks dotted by small mountain villages and farms.
After some three hours enjoying the fairytale-like scenery on Lake Koman, we arrived in Fierze, and hopped on a another minibus that took us to Valbone for our first night. The stunning scenery just kept getting more and more breathtaking and eventually we arrived in Valbone, a gorgeous village in the valley of the ‘Accursed Mountains’. The moody mountains surround the valley, creating a mysterious and dreamlike atmosphere. We stayed in a guesthouse on a local farm, complete with farm animals. A word of warning at this point: do not get too attached to the super cute goats. One of them will probably be your dinner.
Day 2: Albanian Alps Hiking Trip – Hiking from Valbone to Thethi
Early the next morning we took off on our hike from Valbone to Thethi over the mountains through Valbone Pass (1,948m/about 6,400 ft). The hike started off nice and gentle through the valley before we reached the foot of the mountain. Along the way we saw many rustic farm houses and local farmers herding sheep.
At reaching the foot of the mountain the uphill part started, but we didn’t really pay too much attention to that as the mountain panoramas were just stunning and seemed to just get better every time we climbed a little higher and turned around. Be prepared to take LOTS of photos (and have a few ‘The Sound of Music’ moments). There was even some snow near Valbona Pass at just shy of 2,000m. From the Pass the jaw-dropping views seemed to go on forever, both back towards Valbone and down towards Thethi.
The total hike is about 15km/9 miles and doesn’t have any particularly challenging parts, although there is obviously a fair bit of uphill to reach Valbona Pass, and then a fair bit of downhill to descent down to Thethi on the other side. To enjoy the hike you do need to be in decent shape but the pace is pretty gentle and there are lots of breaks so it’s very doable.
Reaching Thethi on the other side we discovered another gorgeous mountain village complete with a traditional stone church, a watchtower and even a nearby waterfall. We stayed in yet another charmingly rustic guesthouse and enjoyed another enormous and superbly delicious dinner (luckily this time we didn’t have time to make friends with the goats).
Day 3: Albanian Alps Hiking Trip – From Thethi to Lake Shkodra
On the third day we were treated to some more amazing Alpine scenery. A four-wheel drive minibus picked us up from our guesthouse in Thethi for our journey up the zig-zag one-lane mountain dirt road. Bouncing around in that minibus for an hour or so was superbly uncomfortable, fun, slightly terrifying and memorable all at once. At the top we were rewarded with – surprise surprise – a stunning view, and from there on it was another (less uncomfortable) minibus ride all the way back to Lake Shkodra.
We could have easily stayed in the Albanian Alps for much much longer, exploring the villages, hiking, enjoying the superb scenery, nature and solitude, but it was time to continue our journey to Montenegro (another oh-so-stunning travel destination).
We were in Albania in June and saw only four other hikers on the trail from Valbone to Thethi. Apparently it is busier in July and August, however I can’t imagine the trail being overcrowded at any time. But I do think it’s really only a matter of time before things pick up big time in Albania and the Albanian Alps – so go now to experience the unique charm of the region.
Some info on hiking the Albanian Alps
We organised the hike through our hosts at the Lake Shkodra Resort where we stayed for a few days enjoying the beautiful and serene Lake Shkodra. (As a side note: we were ‘glamping‘ in one of their large bell tents by the lake – highly recommended!).
The cost of the package: US$170/person. Inclusions: All inclusive package with transportation (various minibuses and Lake Koman ferry), accommodation, all meals and a local guide for a 3 day/2 night package. We thought the cost of the all-inclusive package was great value and a really easy introduction to hiking the Albanian Alps – highly recommended!
Hiking the Albanian Alps independently: You can make your way to the Alps and do the hike completely independently too, but getting to Valbone and Thethi from other parts of Albania is not super straightforward so you’ll need to do some research. There’s heaps of information on the ‘Journey to Valbona‘ website so that’s a great starting point.