Walking in Northern Albania: Photos & Notes

Somewhat belated summary of my week Walking in Northern Albania with Hazel and Thelma, courtesy of Wild Frontiers.

Photos are in my Flickr Album: Albania, May/June 2018

Thursday 31 May 2018: London – Tirana

Delayed BA flight from LGW, but Villa Tafaj’s taxi booking held good. Phew.

Tirana International Airport is modern and (relatively) minuscule, and we were quick to clear immigration and baggage collection. Moonlit drive into Tirana and a warm welcome at the excellent Villa Tafaj, where tour leader Max had thoughtfully left a 5l cask of water in our triple room and a welcome note with tomorrow’s arrangements.

Pottered. Unpacked / repacked. Bed around 11pm.

Friday 01 June 2018: Tirana – Shkodër

Up early for our Albanian breakfast – the first of many tasty meals – then out to  explore central Tirana.

Max had rejigged the itinerary so that the minibus that would be taking the group from the airport on to Shkodër could take us to the airport en route, without being there hours early. Great!

The Villa Tafaj is only a few minutes walk from Skanderbeg Square, where we coincided with the set up of a music festival featuring Rita Ora. Plenty of photo opportunities – the mosaic over the main entrance of the National Museum, the Skanderbeg statue, Et’hem Bey Mosque and the Clock Tower. We then pottered around the adjacent side streets, sort of following the Bradt guide’s walking tour, which took us to Kapllan Pasha Tomb (Tyrbja e Kapllan Pashës) with its shimmering golden awning and, a little further on, statues of the Unknown Partizan and others, round to the National Art Gallery with its collection of discarded Communist statues out back, and then the length of Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard to Mother Teresa Square, passing Pranvera Hoxha’s Pyramid en route.

Mosaic over the main entrance of the National Historical Museum, Skanderbeg Square, Tirana
Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

All along the Boulevard a parade was forming with groups in school uniforms, national dress and marching band outfits, and we watched them parading to Mother Teresa Square and back. We learned later that 1 June is International Children’s Day, and the parade is an annual event. A super sight to chance upon. And one of the schools is named after Edith Durham. In fact, it turned out that Albania has lots of places named in honour of Edith Durham.

On our stroll back up Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard, we spotted the Socialist Realist bas relief on the Council of Ministers building, and a little further on paused at Postbllok (Checkpoint: Memorial to Communist Isolation) before continuing up to Rinia Park with its Monument of the 100th anniversary of Independence of Albania and returning to Skanderbeg Square via various Government Ministries housed in smart late Ottoman era buildings.

A fab couple of hours.

Back at the hotel in time for our 11am check out and pay (EUR 90 for the room), we rendezvoused with Max in the restaurant and met fellow tour member Tilly and Bledi our local Albanian guide.

With time to spare before our 11.30am minibus, Hazel, Thelma and I took Max’s advice and headed back out to change some money at a Money Exchange back down the road towards Skanderbeg Square. EUR40 (5000 Lek)  between Hazel and I turned out to be plenty: we had 2000L left over at the end of the week, which we were able to change back at the airport before flying home. That said, we only drink at the end of our trips and aren’t big souvenir hunters, so we don’t spend a lot.

Leaving Tirana, the minibus took us back out to the airport to pick up the rest of our Wild Frontiers Walking in Northern Albania Recce Group, then on a short distance for lunch at the Nord Park hotel complex. More tasty Albanian food!

A snoozy afternoon on the minibus as it headed north to Shkodër, and a late afternoon leg stretch as we toured Rozafa Castle. Great views out over the Drin river delta inland, the Albanian Alps to the north and Lake Shkodër to the east. Down in the valley below we could see the Buşatlı Mehmet Pasha Mosque, “the Lead Mosque” (Xhamia e Plumbit). Lovely.

A short drive brought us into the centre of Shkodër, and the recently refurbished Rozafa Hotel where we were staying for the night. Time to explore the streets and squares of the old town – pedestrianised and quiet even where not – before heading back to the hotel for a shower before dinner. Postcards and stamps purchased too.

Following Bledi we headed back into the old town and to Vila Bekteshi – a great place for dinner. Sat around a large table in the upstairs room, we feasted and started to get to know one another.

A good first day.

Saturday 02 June 2018: Shkodër – Lake Koman – Fierza – Valbonë

Buffet breakfast, then into a new bus for the drive to Lake Koman following the Drin river valley inland passing through farmland and into the conifer clad limestone mountains.

Lake Koman (Liqeni i Komanit)
Lake Koman (Liqeni i Komanit)

Time for a coffee overlooking the ferry quay at the southern terminus of Lake Koman, and a lovely 3 hour cruise through the gorges of this reservoir created by flooding the valley of the river Drin.

Hot and sunny.

A new minibus met us at Fierza, and we drove 30 mins before stopping for lunch at the Bar Restorant “Krasniqja” – another feast, but cut short by torrential downpour. Our hosts moved the sunshades around to keep us dry but it was a dash back to the minibus.

Bananas and other fruit were acquired during a short stop in Bajram Curri, our last town for a few days. From the minibus, we caught glimpses of plenty of the two-person pill box bunkers intended as Hoxha’s communist regime’s final defence against foreign invasion.

The skies stayed grey as we continued on towards the Accursed Mountains and into the Valbonë valley which would be our base for our first three walks in the Prokletije.

The settlement of Valbonë stretches out along the river valley. Our home was the Besim Selimaj Guesthouse, a small family run lodge, recently built, with a lovely view up and down the valley. We relaxed in the circular wooden summer house in the garden; fruit trees, vegetable gardens and bee hives only a stone’s throw away.

Once settled into our twin rooms, it was straight out for our first walk – a stroll around the woods and meadows below Grykat e Hapëta, a little further up the valley. No complaints after being confined to the ferry and cooped up on the minibus for most of the day. Lovely beech woods gave way to high Alpine meadows, with these “Accursed Mountains” looming beyond.  We had to avoid lots of giant slugs along the footpaths there and back, and these beasts turned out to be a common feature of all the woodland paths we took in the Valbonë Valley National Park.

After a wash and brush up back at base, it was short walk down the road to Villa Dini where we had our evening meals each night. More fab food, and wine, beers and spirits for those who wanted them. And wifi.

Sunday 03 June 2018: Valbonë: Kukaj valley

Early to breakfast in the summer house after a 5am wake up call from our upstairs neighbours – forever unknown.

A great breakfast helped ease our entry into the rest of the day – “turkish” coffee or fresh tisane (mountain herb tea), fresh bread, cheese, home made jams, boiled eggs, and the highlight – petulla: an Albanian speciality, a flat doughnut that you can have sweet or savoury. Delicious….

Into the minibus around 7.30am, and off a short way up the road to a bridge across the Valbona river, and the Maja e Kollatës trailhead – the start of our walking trail into the Kukaj valley. A relatively early start to beat the heat of the day.

Valbonë river, Kujaj valley walk, Valbonë
Valbonë river, Kujaj valley walk, Valbonë

We followed a stream, passing small family farm houses as the path took us further up into the valley. Lots of lovely wild flowers lined our route, exploding across the high alpine meadows once we emerged above the tree line.

Great views of more of the Accursed Mountains’ highest limestone peaks, including Maja Jezercë (2695m) and Maja e Rosit (Rosni Peak) (2524m).

An early lunch by a summer shepherds’ hut, looking back down over meadows, forests and valleys. Beautiful. We all enjoyed the cooler climate that the altitude brought.

It was a race against time to get back to Kukaj, making it to the al fresco Kafe Kukaj just as the heavens opened for a downpour. These “monsoon afternoons” were to be a daily feature of our week in the Albanian Alps. The family that have set up Kafe Kukaj in their farmhouse provided a menu offering hot and cold drinks – the Albanian equivalent of Lemon Fanta proved popular, as did beer and tisane. A lovely spot to wait for the rain to ease off.

Back on the trail, Bledi led us along the eastern side of the Valbonë valley before dropping down to the river bed – the water disappears underground for stretches in the summer – and to his parent’s place. Bledi has converted the old family farmhouse into Guesthouse “Kol Gjoni” – stay there, it’s gorgeous!  His father brought out refreshments for us as we waited for the minibus – bottomless jugs of mountain tea and scrumptious orange and walnut cake made by his aunt. Definitely the treat of the trip for me.

Back to base for a shower and snooze before heading back to the Villa Dini for another slap up dinner.

Monday 04 June 2018: Valbonë: Çerem & Bori Pass / Qafa e Borit circuit

Our Valbonë days soon settled into a pattern. Early morning call from up above, al fresco breakfast in the summer house then into the minibus to get to the start of the day’s walk.

Today we drove back down the main valley before crossing the river and heading north into the mountains that form the border with Montenegro, starting our circular hike from the small village of Çerem under blue skies and sunshine.

Our route led us up into a side valley through more wonderful meadows and beautiful beech forest, out across the grazing grasslands that merge into limestone peaks . JtV’s notes on their 8 Day* “Peaks of Valbona (N)” Tour tell me that we were “Near the stans of Derzhane you emerge into the “Bjeshk” or alpine meadows above the tree line. “

Not long after, we got our first taste of the sizeable snow patches, which linger on into early summer. We’d encounter more tomorrow….

We had elevenses at the border, aka the Bori Pass (Qafa e Borit) whose trig point provided a great photo op. Refuelled we continued on, contouring through forests, until stopping for our picnic lunch on a hillock with views of the Kolata massif and out across the surrounding valleys.

A doubly lucky lunch stop – the rain held off, and the local shepherd family recalled their dogs. Ferocious around us, friendlier with them. According to the tip notes, we were on the “winding slopes of Mount Sqapit”.

Wildflower meadows, on the return route to Çerem
Wildflower meadows, on the return route to Çerem

A day of so many gorgeous greens, with light grey limestone with veneers of dirty white snow in the sheltered shadows. A glimpse of a salamander as we crossed a stream in a forest gully, giant snails in shady stretches, orchids and wildflowers galore on the hillsides, and fields full of wildflowers when we dropped back down to Çerem. Colours galore. Wonderful.

Back in Valbonë for afternoon tea in the summerhouse, chatting with the family’s two girls as their proud mum and aunt looked on. The girls learn English as school, and were very happy to try out their vocabulary and grammar, to show us their drawings (Frozen is obviously as popular in Albania as elsewhere), and to present us with a beautiful red-pink rose from the garden. A leisurely couple of hours before dinner back at Vila Dini allowed for lots of photos of the guesthouse, the bee hives, the fields and the market gardens.

After dinner drinks were deferred when Bledi spotted thunder clouds had gathered – looking up at the ridges and peaks that loom above the Valbonë valley, with their thunder cloud shroud of sinister greys and midnight blues, we could see how the Accursed Mountains earn their name. We got back to Guesthouse Besim Selimaj just in time, running down the last stretch of drive as the heavens opened.

As an aside, on the wall of the dining room at Villa Dini they display a copy of the excellent Valbona Hiking Trails map produced by Journey to Valbona. If you are going to this part of the world, I would highly recommend you buy a copy. I wish I had!

Tuesday 05 June 2018: Valbonë – Valbona Pass / Qafa e Valbonës (1860 m) – Thethi

The day of the pass!

…. which on the trip notes sounded like it would be the most challenging walk of the trip; and it was but only because there was a stretch of snow we had to cross. There were a couple, actually, but the first one was on a gentle slope when we emerged above the tree line. The second one was the tricky one – shaded by a high rock face above, the remnants of the winter snowfall lingering in the gully below. We had a narrow trail tramped into the snow slope, with a steeper section down to a scree scramble back up to the trail.  That in itself wasn’t too off-putting – but what was, was the nasty terrain just below the snow slope, a steep drop back down into the valley.

The pack horses and their handlers went first, packing down the snow more firmly. Bledi helped us across, one at a time. Quite a bottle neck, with lines forming behind us and an impatient group of young Americans coming in the other direction. We were one of the early groups to reach the snow.

Our day had started as usual, and we said a fond farewell to the ladies from the Guesthouse Besim Selimaj. The pass marks the boundary of the valleys of Valbonë and Theth, and we’d be spending the rest of our walking time in and around the Theth National Park / Parku Kombëtar i Thethit.

The minibus drove us up the valley until the road ran out …. and we continued on over the limestone rocks and pebbles that serve as the river bed in snowmelt season. Pine trees thriving all over the braided river valley. Dropped us off at a green opening, a few minutes later our horses and pack men arrived. Our kit bags were efficiently loaded onto the horses, wooden saddles protecting them from the luggage, ornaments and amulets glinting in the early summer sun.

It was a beautiful morning, with gorgeous blue skies and a pale ghostly moon overhead, light grey limestone mountain ranges on either side, trees and bushes providing greens galore all around us.

Journey to Valbona (JtV) trailhead information board, for the Valbonë - Valbona Pass / Qafa e Valbonës (1860 m) - Thethi route
Journey to Valbona (JtV) trailhead information board, for the Valbonë – Valbona Pass / Qafa e Valbonës (1860 m) – Thethi route

The trail commenced with a gentle section over the river bed and a slow climb up the valley sides that wound through farms, fields and meadows. It’s an ancient route connecting the two valleys. Hot work, slow and steady, with sections through trees providing welcome shade. Occasional stops revealed how high we were getting above the valley – the river weaving its way through the the limestone stones far down below.

Emerging from the trees for the final time, we came to the Simoni Cafe – a temporary refreshment stop created around a clear, cold stream. Wooden branches formed a corral around the cafe itself, which sported wooden tables and chairs hewn out of tree trunks, protected from the elements by a tarp roof.

We elected not to stop, in spite of the coffee and cold drinks on offer, preferring instead to press on as the trail emerged into the more open uplands. Soon after we came to the first stretch of snow, lying amidst pines alongside the stream in this upper part of the valley. The path switchbacked up the steeper slopes, passing erratic glacial boulders and patches of royal blue gentians. Great views back down into Valbonë and across to the mountain ranges that line the valley and meet at the pass.

Crossing the first snowy stretch on the trail to the Valbona Pass / Qafa e Valbonës
Crossing the first snowy stretch on the trail to the Valbona Pass / Qafa e Valbonës

This is when we encountered our tricky traverse. The JtV trailhead information board had warned that the route was closed between November and May due to snow. So we were definitely at the start of the season as far as walking this route goes.

Snow successfully crossed, it was a short, relatively flat, walk to reach the Qafa e Valbonës. A few of us chose to climb up to the peak on our left to take a final look at the view back down the Valbonë valley. The peak came with a steep ascent / descent, on a dusty path – poles were welcome on the way back down. The descent from the Pass itself into the Theth valley was similarly steep, but wider and rockier, so easier going. From then on we crossed paths with several groups making the crossing in the other direction, starting with an American couple and their gregarious small dog – great!!

The trail soon returned to woodland, soft leaves underfoot and tree trunks curving, striving up to reach the light above the canopy. Lovely going, but limited views until we emerged above the high meadows, where nestled the second enterprising refreshments operation – where we did stop. Kafe Krojnat is a rather more substantial place than Kafe Simoni. There are sturdy wooden verandas, plenty of tree trunk stools and tables together with a fireplace, and a counter offering hot apple cake, fresh out of the oven. Thelma treated herself to a slice, as dessert for our picnic lunch which we were allowed to eat there. Even better – a toilet block sporting two loos, both spic and span, complete with small bin, loo roll, liquid soap and a hand towel in each. Quite incredible when you emerged and realised that you were still perched on a a steep hillside, high above the Thethi / Shalë river and the strung out settlements of Theth still waaaaaay down in the valley blow.

The next couple of hours saw us make a slow steady descent down towards Theth, some sections steeper than others, reaching the river around 12.30pm. Soon after the rocky trail morphed into an unpaved road that brought us into Theth by the concrete bridge over the Shalë.

Villa Gurra, our guesthouse for the night, was close by.  Another traditional house with wooden floors, wooden walls, wooden verandas and wood shingle roof – but the ensuite in our triple rooms proved that tourism in Thethi is definitely more evolved than in Valbonë.

After a welcome pot of tea or three sat in the garden gazebos, we had a leisurely afternoon. Hazel and I strolled back across the concrete bridge and along the rough road / track running along the right hand side of the river. Plenty of trees provided shade, and we got occasional views of the river and Theth’s main settlement, but no bridge to complete the circuit. Well, unless you count the two rusty pipes that span the start of the rapids below the Lock-in Tower…. We did encounter a small snake on our walk back – Bledi blanched a bit when I showed him the photo. Yep – poisonous!

Back at the guesthouse, we continued on along the road towards Theth, turning back before we reached the church – we’d be visiting that and the other attractions tomorrow, and also we weren’t too keen on sharing to road with the jeeps taking day trippers and other groups “home”. Lots of dust. We made full use of the en suite’s shower back at the guesthouse.

Clean and fresh, we chilled out on one of the sofas on the veranda, and celebrated our successful Qafa crossing, which entailed a rare relaxation of our “no booze on trek” rule, treating ourselves to a Tirana beer from the guesthouse accompanied by a packet of oregano crisps from the shop a short way back up the road.

The couple who run Villa Gurra served up a feast for dinner, the table heaving with plates of local produce.

We all slept well that night.

Wednesday 06 June 2018: Thethi – Grunas waterfall / Ujëvara e Grunasit – Grunasi Canyon – Ndërlysaj

A super day, providing a completely different perspective on Northern Albania from yesterday’s pass crossing.

We spent the morning slowly making our way down the valley via Thethi’s cultural landmarks: The church (restored in 2006) where we coincided with the Raid 2CV Team’s Balade Albanaise, its graveyard (fenced off from the sheep and goats in adjacent fields), the Kulla e Ngujimit – the Blood Feud Tower / Lock-in Tower where villagers would escape from blood feuding neighbours where we received an explanation of how babies in cradles helped speed the peace making process, on past farm houses and fields, following the Thethi river and crossing and recrossing tributaries as the day progressed.

View back up the Theth valley from Kulla e Ngujimit, the Blood Feud Tower / Lock-in Tower, Theth
View back up the Theth valley from Kulla e Ngujimit, the Blood Feud Tower / Lock-in Tower, Theth

The trail took us up to the splendid Grunas waterfall (Ujëvara e Grunasit), which provided perfect photo setting and slippery stepping stones. A little further on, after another stream’s set of stepping stones we reached Grunasi Canyon (Kanioni i Grunasit) where a short wooden bridge crosses the main river thundering between the narrow canyon walls, far below.

As rain clouds gathered, we continued on through shrubs and trees towards the junction of the Thethi /Shalë river and Kaprea creek (Lumi i Zi), before picnicing amidst the large riverside rocks as the threatened rain held off.

A “road” bridge crossing of the river brought us to a water mill, the leat running off towards the fields of Ndërlysaj, a hamlet formed by a handful of farm houses, one of which – now Guesthouse Prek Bjeshka – we stayed at. A warm welcome awaited us, complete with tea and diamond-cut cake enjoyed at the al fresco dining table, sat under mulberry and walnut trees. Here in the old farmhouse the rooms were simpler but spacious – plenty of room to unpack and repack – and an en suite for a (cold) shower in rusty, orange, iron-enriched water.

Refreshed, we followed Bledi along footpaths trodden through wild flower-filled meadows, between wooden-fenced fields where vegetables grew and the farm houses of Ndërlysaj, passing hayricks, mulberry and walnut trees and more free range sheep, to Kaprea Pool. A wooden plank footbridge over crystal clear waters brought us to the rustic cafe where we enjoyed a drink or two (no beers for us today) whilst watching the braver members of the group take a dip in the icy waters. A paddle sufficed for me – the cold took your breath away.

Back at the guesthouse we had time for a wash and brush up before reconvening for an aperitif followed by another feast for dinner. iPad Scrabble in teams of three rounded off another great day. Couldn’t quite believe tomorrow would be our last day in walking boots.

Thursday 07 June 2018: Ndërlysaj – Kaprea Creek / Lumi i Zi / Kaprreja – Thore Pass / Qafe e Terthores / Qafe e T’thores (1685 m) – Krujë / Kruja

Only a half day’s walk today but I’d rate it as the toughest of the trip – definitely harder work than the Valbone Pass. Thelma, Emma and Selena opted out, taking the minibus to Thore Pass where we met them after a super morning’s hike – back to the Kaprea Creek swimming pool, on up the canyon (home to some short but forceful waterfalls), narrowing alongside the creek to the beautiful turquoise pool known as Kaprre e Gimajve / Pusi i Zi.

Then it was up, up, up through the forest, occasional glimpses of the surrounding mountains where the tree cover thinned, and thankfully a final section across close cropped meadows to reach the road and the cafe at the pass, and to rendezvous with Thelma, Emma and Selena.

View from the Qafa e Thorës / Qafe e Terthores / Qafe e T’thores / Thore Pass
View from the Qafa e Thorës / Qafe e Terthores / Qafe e T’thores / Thore Pass

Hazel and I celebrated with an Albanian beer, and our picnic lunch, and took lots of photos – the view stretched all the way back down to the river at Ndërlysaj, and acrossways provided a panorama of peaks and pastures, ridges and the zig zagging road.

Sadly, I missed out on the Edith Durham memorial that sits at the pass itself. Should have read that bit of the guide book in advance! I had borrowed the Bradt Albania travel guide from Barbican Library – a good guide, although it must be a challenge keeping it up to date as Albania’s cities, towns and villages, and tourism, develop apace.

All aboard the minibus for the switchback run down from the Albanian Highlands and back out towards the coast, where the road ran past lavender fields and Communist-era pill box bunkers.

The destination for our last night in Albania was the old town of Krujë, where we stayed at the swanky Hotel Panorama, well named for its superb views out over the bazaar, across to the castle and down to the coastal plains – the runway at TIA clear to see. Our super rooms came complete with spacious balconies where we could take in the views, and the afternoon sun. And Wifi 🙂

Krujë Castle and Bazaar, from the Hotel Panorama
Krujë Castle and Bazaar, from the Hotel Panorama

Hazel, Thelma and I headed down to explore the bazaar (too pushy, and predominantly tourist tat) and the castle (where we picked up a would-be guide who proved hard to shake), returning via a nearby minimart where we stocked up on beers and nibbles, and having made good use of the power shower, we convened for a final aperitif and to enjoy the lovely late afternoon light on the old town and castle ridge.

A very relaxing way to end the trip.

We dined at the hotel’s windowless restaurant. Another excellent meal – the mezze board starter would have been enough!! – accompanied by the gorgeous view.

A great place to say our heart felt thank yous to Bledi and Max.

Friday 08 June 2018: Krujë / Kruja – Tirana Airport – London

We didn’t fly until 1pm which allowed for a leisurely start – plenty of time for photos of Krujë in the morning light and for repeat visits to the breakfast buffet, before the short drive back to tiny TIA.

H and I treated ourselves to a bottle of London gin each at duty free, and smaller cousins with tonic on the flight back to LGW. No delays this way.

Overall – Albania was a great place to spend a week: good walking and good food, fascinating history and hospitable folks. And if you booked with a local agent, or DIY, it’s still an incredibly cheap place to travel. Well worth a visit.