Walking in Northern Albania: We’re back!

Well, we survived Northern Albania’s Accursed Mountains, although lingering – and unexpected for us – snow patches made life a little ‘exciting’ at times.

Snow ledge crossing on the approach to the Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018)
Snow ledge crossing on the approach to the Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018) … what you can’t see is the steep drop below the snow just went on, and on, and on.

We walked through wonderful wildflower meadows – buttercups and daisies, vetch and valerian, orchids and lilies, gentians and geraniums, campion and columbine and many, many more. Beautiful both to see, and to smell as we strolled through patches of sage and mint, chamomile and marjoram. Wild strawberries lined the path in places, and butterflies and moths fluttered by.

Undulating forests full of ancient beech and oak, lime and chestnut, rowan and pine, provided cover for us from the sun, and protection for giant snails and one spooked salamander.

Wildflower meadow, and the Accursed Mountains (Prokletije / Albanian Alps) above. En route to Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018)
Wildflower meadow, and the Accursed Mountains (Prokletije / Albanian Alps) above. En route to Qafa e Valbonës / Valbona Pass, Albania (June 2018)

Our days also featured crystal clear mountain streams, freezing cold turquoise pools, river crossings, waterfalls and gorges; and a three hour cruise up Lake Koman, a reservoir in one of the Drin River’s many gorges, to reach the Albanian Highlands.

Cold water, shade and cool breezes were always welcome as it was hot and sticky most days, with a regular afternoon downpour around 2-3pm. Bledi, our excellent local guide, and Max, our Wild Frontiers group leader ensured early starts to avoid the rain, and the heat. They also took great care of us on those trickier sections of the trail, and numerous river crossings – most were plank bridges, but not all.

Walks ranged from a 7km stroll around the cultural sights, waterfalls and waterways of Thethi to the 1300 m ascent up to the Qafa e Thorës / Thore Pass.

Me, cooling off at Ujëvara e Grunasit / Grunas waterfall / Thethi waterfall, Albania (June 2018)
Me, cooling off at Ujëvara e Grunasit / Grunas waterfall / Thethi waterfall, Albania (June 2018)

Alpine chalet-style guesthouses in Valbonë and Thethi provided comfy beds and en suite bathrooms. Our last night’s accommodation at the aptly named Hotel Panorama in Krujë came with this super view of the old town, bazaar and castle.

Krujë old town, bazaar and castle, from the Hotel Panorama, Albania (June 2018)
Krujë old town, bazaar and castle, from the Hotel Panorama, Albania (June 2018)

Tomato, cucumber and feta cheese were staple foods for breakfast and lunch, together with boiled eggs, local bread and jams, and occasionally honey and tasty fried pancakes. To drink, gallons of water, thimblefuls of Turkish coffee and glasses of mountain tea during the day, beer and wine available with dinners which ranged from myriad mezzes to four course meals.

Best treat of the trip – afternoon tea at Bledi’s parent’s place, complete with jugs of mountain tea and scrumptious orange and walnut cake made by his aunt. Although cold beers and crisps on the balcony of our Hotel Panorama room in Krujë came a very close second.

All in all, a great way to spend a week (cheap too!), and I’ve added Albania to my list of places to return to (soon).

Walking in Northern Albania: Mini Update

I’ve been busy sorting out some of the final logistics for June’s Walking in Northern Albania – Into The Accursed Mountains with Wild Frontiers.

Flights bought

We’re flying direct from Gatwick with BA – out on the Thursday before the Wild Frontiers tour starts on the Friday, back on the group flight a week later.

Hotel booked

We’ve booked a twin room at the Hotel Tafaj, which is where a WF group will be staying at the end of their Southern Albania tour.

Transfers sorted

We’ve booked a taxi to meet us when we land through Hotel Tafaj, and we’ll get the Rinas Express airport bus back out to the airport to meet the group flight. We got taxi estimates and airport bus info from Lonely Planet > Tirana in Detail > Flights & getting there.

Tirana plans

We land late on the Thursday and need to be back at the airport to meet the group flight that lands at 12.10pm on the Friday, so we’ve only really got Friday morning to go sightseeing in Tirana. The hotel is 15 mins walk from Sheshi Skënderbej aka Skanderbeg Square, which is where most of the main sights are. Perfect!

Where next: Walking in Northern Albania

Trip No. 2 of 2018 is now booked, and Hazel and I are off to Albania rather than the French Pyrenees.

Destination: Albania.

When: June 2018.

What: A week’s walking in Northern Albania, with Hazel.

How: On Wild Frontiers’ recce trip, Walking in Northern Albania – Into The Accursed Mountains

Why: I find the Balkans fascinating – the history and the culture, the legacy of the Ottomans – and I’ve looked at various Albania trips over the years – winter ones, summer ones – but never quite found the right thing at the right time.

This time, serendipitously, once Hazel and I had decided against the GR10, a Wild Frontiers email newsletter popped up in both our inboxes flagging this recce trip. For one week off work we get 5 days trekking plus time in historic towns and a lake ferry. We’ll be up in the Albanian Alps – aka The Accursed Mountains – most of the time, doing day hikes in the Parku Kombëtar Lugina e Valbonës (Valbonë Valley National Park) and Parku Kombëtar i Thethit (Theth National Park). We’re going a day early, to give us some time to explore Tirana and because BA’s flights are cheaper on a Thursday.

Although it’s been a while since we’ve done a trip with Wild Frontiers (the last one was Turkey in 2012 on their Wild Walk in the Taurus Mountains), they have always been great at getting to places that are a little more off the beaten track, plus the trips are all inclusive, right down to drinking water.

I still want to walk in the Pyrenees. Whilst waiting for Exodus to run an offer for their 10 day Highlights of the GR10 trip, which had been our planned trek, I came across Mountain Bug’s Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP) offering – 3 x 1 week sections, which you can do individually or together, and which includes an ascent of the Pic d’Aneto (3404 m), the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. The HRP take the highest walkable route through the mountains, whereas the GR10 and GR11 are lower down.  Tick, tick, tick. Plus I really like the idea of going with a smaller, local business too. Other than the HRP being a less well trodden (and slightly trickier) trail, the main snag was that you have to carry all your kit, and I was happier than Hazel to do that.

So, Albania, here we come!

Itinerary:

Day 0: London – Tiranë (Tirana)
Day 1: Tirana – Shkodër
Day 2: Shkodër – Liqeni i Komanit (Lake Koman) – Fierzë – Grykat e Hapta – Valbonë
Day 3: Valbonë: Kukaj, below Maja Jezercë (2695 m)
Day 4: Valbonë: Çerem – Bori Pass – Sqapit Peak
Day 5: Valbonë: Qafa e Valbonës / Valbonë Pass (1860 m) – Thethi
Day 6: Thethi:  Kanioni i Grunasit / Grunasi Canyon – Ndërlysaj
Day 7: Thethi – Kaprea Creek – Qafa e Thorës / Thore Pass (1685 m) – Krujë
Day 8: Krujë – Tirana – London

Now all we have to do is book flights, sort out a hotel for our night in Tirana and decide how to spend our Friday morning there – and getting from/to the airport.