In Europe we are lucky enough to be surrounded by a variety of landscapes; lush, dry, rugged, coastal – all carry their own natural beauty and enticing features for adventurers alike. Most are familiar with the sights of the Alps through Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland – the Fjords along Norway's western coastline and the more arid terrain found in the south of France leading into Spain and Portugal. Hidden behind the vast crowds of tourists in Western Europe, is the widely undiscovered and underestimated peaks that reside across Eastern Europe, previously inaccessible for a number of reasons - though now opening its arms to the more intrepid adventurers.
Between Italy and Greece, are the cluster of newly formed countries, following the end of the Yugoslav wars. Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro are all countries that are beginning to see the increase of tourism and the benefits it brings its economies, but the hidden gem lies just south, still spanning along the same coastline, blessed with the northern tip of the Mediterranean Sea.
Albania is a country with an incredibly rich history, and a population who are proud of their culture. Lying next to Greece on the map, you feel the similarities in the two cultures. It’s borders hold a population of three million people, spread between its small cities, with the rural portions being covered by vast mountainous regions. In the north of the country, the Albanian Alps, part of the Balkans region, boast natural unspoilt beauty that is becoming increasingly hard to find. Strong ties with Germany has brought its tourists to the area, something in which you notice along your travels in Albania.
It's western most city Shkoder, holds an incredibly vibrant and thriving atmosphere, sits on the eastern edge of Skadarsko Jezero lake which borders Montenegro. From the ruins of Rosafa Castle on the south of the Shkoder, we caught a sunset like no other glistening on the vast expanse of water - which felt more like a sea. A warm deep red sun fell out the sky, disappearing behind the endless peaks in the distance, and this is where Albania's best kept secrets lie.
Although having a number of National Parks, its most famous sits in the Northwest of the country, just above Shkoder. Reaching Theth and Valbona Valley National Park, can be done in one of two ways, the latter being the more breathtaking. A main road takes you from Shkoder, directly north – a fast route till you reach the winding mountainous road just outside of Theth, crudely connected in the later stages. The alternative, takes you on a snaking road shoulder to shoulder with lakes, met only by small rest stops and vast untouched terrain. The end of the road stops at Komani Lake, and by ferry you’re guided through towering cliffs and mountains either side, cruising through the vibrant water. The more rugged route, but by far the most adventurous way to reach the heart of Albania’s favourite National Park, Valbona.
Valbona sits and the centre of the park, a rural village, tended to and worked by locals farming and cultivating their land, absent of any branded supermarkets or shops – which makes for a pleasant anti climax to the busier bustle of the city. The village has several guest houses, restaurants and guides, fittingly taking care of your basic needs in a rustic fashion. The food throughout the region is all homegrown and you can certainly tell. The local menu’s take you to the heart of the rural culture, homegrown salads complimented by hand reared lamb and local cheese’s – hearty stews and seasoned potatoes, combining sustenance with refined tastes, perfect after a hard days hiking. The food alone is enough to entice you to the region, only to be topped of by the breathtaking views.
Famous routes take you from Valbona, across the mountain pass to Theth, or vice versa. Theth, although better connected feels like a smaller settlement, self sustained and in touch with their landscape, the village isolated by peaks spanning almost three hundred and sixty degrees. Famous for its church and the sheer climax between the valley floor and the surrounding rugged heights, its a very unique place. Staying in guest houses, the evenings bring together many a different journey, but all exploring the depths of the Albanian Alps. Backpackers, photographers, 4x4 expeditions and motorbike tourers all congregate back at the restaurants and guest houses to witness one of the purest night sky’s, unpolluted by any human activity.
Although being a popular attraction in Albania, the area isn’t congested with tacky tourism, or over priced restaurants. Meals come at an incredibly reasonable price, so much so that it is easy to over order. Drinks and other food for travels are purchased from the guest houses, although slightly pricier than usual, they serve as the last place between civilisation and the wilderness of Albania. It’s refreshing to find a place so basic and self sufficient. Here imported food and products are kept to a minimum, while the land and its produce are used as efficiently as possible with everything serving a purpose to the local community.
The Valbona National Park covers eighty square kilometres, encompassing the Valbona river, which drains the entirety of the east side of the park. The area, along with Theth National Park was created in 1996 to preserve the incredibly rich eco system that survives in this region of Albania. The National Parks are part of a larger plan to create the Balkan Peace Park along with Kosovo and Montenegro – an ongoing project to promote eco tourism and conservation. The highest peak within this proposed area sits in Albania, Maja Jezerce at 2,694m (8,839ft) closely followed by Deravica in Kosovo at 2,656m (8,714ft). Valbona and Theth National parks, along with others across Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro are home to a diverse eco system. Flora and Fauna are in abundance and variety – brown bears, grey wolves and lynx roam the park allowing this eco system to be so diverse and sustaining. 90% of the park is covered by forests with beech, pine, oak and Norwegian spruce dominating the area. The species of animal and diversity in greenery create such a wild place, and is the reason why Albania is so keen to protect the area, focusing on eco tourism as a way of creating funding to sustain the environment.
With the western parts of Europe becoming so crowded and popular among tourists, the attraction of the reserves of eastern Europe are growing on many adventurers that are looking to escape to wilder parts, uncorrupted by the human footprint, and northern Albania is such a place. Limited populations, industry and construction has allowed this area to hold its natural beauty, aided with the status of National Parks and Reserves, has let nature continue with its balanced cycle. We are running out of such places, and it’s an inspiring and eye opening experience to watch humans and nature co exist in such harmony as it does in the Albanian Alps.
“We woke early at around five, hoping that the storm had passed from last night. Yesterday ended listening to the thuds of heaving rain beating the roof, hoping for the turbulent weather to clear for the next part of our hike, and luckily it had. Peering out the window across the vast plains of the valley floor, we could see clusters of cloud wrapped around the distant peaks, but the sun was now shining. Hastily our bags were packed; camera, lens, filters, drone, batteries – check. At this point the village was yet to begin waking, and with the gentle rise of the sun behind the backdrop we were keen to catch the icon of Theth, the church. Pictured on the front of most ‘Visit Albania’ guide books, it was on my list to get to the famed church to capture its vast surroundings.
The roads and paths are basic, mud and picket fences lining the way with the odd stream crossing your path after the previous days heavy downfall. A crystal clear stream imitates the main road, flowing over the light grey rocky bottom washed down from the mountains. Following these features we reached the church, standing at a distance to admire the sight. The formations around provide an impressive back ground for the rather humble building. The colours and textures from the lush green floors to the grey and white mottled mountains are pleasing the eye, and the scale of the two takes your breath away. By the time we sat down for breakfast at around eight, we had already been inspired by the landscape and we knew the following hike would be nothing short.
Bags prepped and food packed we were met by our guide who was to help navigate us through the mountain pass and across the border to the small town of Plav, just inside Montenegro. He dressed in leather shoes, suit trousers and a shirt which left me wondering just where we were going – surely not through the mountains? Accompanied by his mule, we strapped on our bags, distributed it evenly and made way through the fields towards the entrance of the zig zagging staircase. Looking between the mule and the sheer path we were about to take, it was hard to believe the mule would make it. The two of them surged onwards, putting us to shame, reassuring me of their ability to climb these great cliffs. The local guide, speaking broken English told us of stories from these ‘accursed mountains’. Culture, history and knowledge gained from years of working and living in this rugged environment.
We snaked our way up the mountainside, accompanied by our mule who surprisingly led the way, only to be pushed on by a tap from our guide. The path was steep and sculpted by those who had passed before us. Backpackers, guides and locals – some days and some generations before.
The hike was to link some 24km between Theth and Plav, forging its way between steep cliffs, rocky outcrops and pleasant meadows - a change in scenery at every turn. We stopped on the crest of the pass, sitting there to take on some energy and admire the valley floor below, now distant. A well earned stop for ourselves and the mule, we sat until the weather began to close in. Starting our decent towards the border, we made our way through emplacements once occupied by Albanian troops minding the border. We came across a small outcrop of buildings owned by sheep herders, accompanied by a rather protective dog but friendlier owners. As we pushed on down the path the heavens began to open, with this bringing the vibrant greenery to life as we descended. You seem to find yourself constantly being shadowed by these great walls. The climax between the floor and peaks are immense, which is hard to take in fully without stopping to analyse every part of your surroundings.
As we reached the border, our guide begins to unpack the mule. Still with five plus kilometres to go, the guide explains that altercations between local police monitoring the border have stopped them from guiding tourists the whole way. This left us with a very wet, and slow trudge to our finish point. Soaked and weary at the end of this incredible hike, it was a rather mixed feeling. Tired, wet and sore. The next morning is when you really reflect and soak it all in.”