ValboneAugust 15, 2017 in Albania
One of the few things that I was determined to do on this trip was the Valbone-Theth hike in the Albanian accursed mountains. I can't remember how I first heard about it, but the idea of taking a ferry way up into the mountains and then hiking between two otherwise unconnected villages in a region of the world that until very recently was cut off from the outside world and still observes its own laws and customs, including blood feuds immediately grabbed me. However, I was also completely unsure if my foot would physically allow it and, after almost crippling myself in the first couple of weeks of the trip, I had almost given up on it. As I had travelled through Albania I had met more and more people who had done the hike, without exception talking about it in reverence and awe, so despite my concerns I became more determined than ever. Little did I know at the time that I would end up walk the track twice in two days.
My plan to head to Kosovo was proving to be incredibly tricky. My first planned route through Montenegro proved to be a dead end and, back in Northern Albania I quickly realised that I'd backed myself into another corner. My naive thought of getting a direct bus from Shkoder to Kosovo at the end of the hike proved to be a hopeless dream, meaning that it was going to take me at least 3 days to get from Theth to Kosovo via Shkoder, with most of the travel frustratingly being in completely the wrong direction. Ironically Valbone is almost on the Kosovo border, which gave me the idea of walking from Theth to Valbone, but this would have required me to miss out on the Lake Koman Ferry (something I was not willing to do) and carry my big pack with me (I only found out later that you could hire a horse for this exact purpose). So in the end the best option turned out to be backtracking from Theth to Valbone and heading onto Kosovo from there.
We were met at the Ferry by another mini bus that took us on the 2 hour drive up into the mountains to Valbone. The drive was fantastic as we followed aqua blue streams raging down the centre of dramatic mountain valleys, but what was most amazing was the clarity of the air. Throughout the entire mountains, the air must be incredibly clear as the mountains look unreal in the truest sense taking on the appearance of set backdrops or CGI. It was like looking at a landscape in 4K Ultra High Definition. Unfortunately photos don't do it justice, but it was truely surreal.
Valbone is still a sleepy little village, literally at the end of the road. However, there is currently quite the construction boom occurring as the hike makes more and more a name for itself and in preparation for the hike being published in this years edition of the lonely planet, which means, no doubt, that the best of it is already over. Checking into the guesthouse it suddenly dawned on me as I was searching for my passport that, in my sleep deprived state that morning I had neglected to collect my passport from reception at checkout and they had neglected to hand it over, which meant my entire plan was in tatters unless I could somehow get the hostel to get the passport to Valbone within the next 48 hours. To make matters worse the wifi was down which meant that I had to rely on a three way translated conversation between the owner of the guesthouse who rang the hostel and hope that the nodding heads and smiles were confirmation that my request had been received, understood and I was going to not have walked all the way back to Valbone in two days time for nothing.
The hike from Valbone to Theth is 20km, the first 10 or so km are fairly flat as it follows the asphalt road to its end at the end of the village and then follows a very wide and dry river bed at the base of the valley, this is all fairly easy apart from the ankle twisting rocks. At the start of the ascent there's a sign that says the next 9km will take 6 hours, which we sniggered at. However, it proved to be pretty accurate as you tackle the Valbone pass, ascending and descending over 1.2km in the process. It was pretty gruelling, but luckily I was in the company of a gay couple from New York, who were entertaining and diverting and the most incredible views I have ever seen in my life. Even better the views weren't static, but were constantly changing. Around every bend the vegetation and landscape dramatically altered meaning that you were always surprised and engaged and distracted from the insane gradient we were climbing. An added bonus of hiking at this time of year was the berries that were all in abundant fruit and constantly changing, from the blackberries at the start of the ascent to the wild strawberries about half way up and eventually wild raspberries, all incredibly sweet and delicious.
Eventually we reached the pass, which opened up spectacularly clear views down both valleys and after a last scramble up a close by peak a perfect lunch spot to rest, eat and prepare fro the descent. The descent to Theth is less steep than to Valbone and was completely different again as the path snaked through lush forests and grassy meadows. Eventually we arrived in Theth exhausted, but happy and I left my companions who had smartly booked a guest house near the trail head and walked the last 2.5 km to the village and my guest house.
Like Valbone, Theth is located at the base of a dramatic valley with a beautifully clear mountain stream running through it. Unlike Valbone, Theth has one of the few remaining blood feud towers remaining in Albania. After the towers I saw in Georgia, Theth's single 3 story tower looked decidedly dinky and cute, but it was well worth the effort to go see it and it provided a nice backdrop as I had a beer and put my feet up. My guest house in Theth was really good, run by a mother who spoke no english and her two teenage daughters who did, they gave me a comfortable bed, fantastic home cooked meals and fruit and copious amounts of tea that got foisted on me every time I coughed (which was a lot).
With no one to join me on the way out the next morning and not new scenery to see, I was worried I wouldn't have any distractions from my aches and pains and the seemingly endless trail ahead. However, I lucked out and was met at the trail head by a dog I had seen on the hike yesterday accompanying another group of hikers, and toady it was my turn. I found out later that White Walker (as he was called for the day) lives in Theth, but walks with a group of hikers one way one day and then back with another group the next. I couldn't have asked for a better companion for the day to keep my spirits up and all he asked in return was the occasional pat and for me to share some of my lunch with him, which seemed like a good deal to me. Sure enough, as soon as I hit the river bad on the Valbone side, White Walker made it very clear that that is as far as he would escort me and after a final and emotional farewell he watched me from his vantage point until I was out of view and went off to do whatever it is he does until he could find another hiker feel special and happy the next day.
I arrived back to the Valbone guesthouse and much to my relief was reunited with my passport that had just arrived less than an hour beforehand meaning that after an early night I was free to cross into Kosovo the next day.
You are going to have to excuse the multiple posts and photo spam, but I took over 500 photos on the hike and can't whittle it down any further. If any Find Penguin developers are listening - GET RID of the artificial limitation on photos per post!Read more