All the Details for Hiking the Albanian Alps

In Greece, for a few minutes between hangovers, we started to flip through our Lonely Planet Eastern Europe book (worst Lonely Planet ever, by the way) to get ideas of where we wanted to go. I saw a little snippet about a hike from Theth to Valbone, and thought, “Huh, Theth is a funny name. Sounds cool, let’s do that hike!”

That turned out to be one of the best whims ever. We were a bit stressed about how to organize it all, because these towns are quite remote and there’s not a lot of information online. However,the Wanderers Hostel in Shkoder was an absolute godsend and made it SO easy. I wanted to write this post to make it a little clearer what actually goes into the trip, because I was anxious about everything working out.

Another benefit of staying at Wanderers Hostel for a night before you begin the actual hike is that Shkoder is a surprisingly cool town. We loved our two nights here. The day before we left for the hike, we went to the local castle just like we had in Gjirokaster and Berat. This one was much less developed and totally in the middle of nowhere. We originally tried to climb up through some brambles because we were lost, but once we made it we were greeted by these views of the surrounding countryside. The night that we got back from the hike was Karaoke night at the hostel, so we participated under duress after being given many free shots of raki (barf) and made some great friends. I’d definitely go back here to explore the surroundings for a few more days.

Back to the hike – here’s a breakdown of everything that goes into this 2-night trip.

Early morning minibus to Lake Koman

Terrible photo of a not terrible bus ride

A bus departs directly from outside the hostel around 6AM, and you get breakfast super early before it leaves. A lot of people from the hostel tend to be travelling to the hike together if you are there in peak season, so on our departure day there were actually two minibuses. The views on the drive are an incredible start to the trip, and as usual Haley and I popped on our big headphones and travel playlists and proceeded to completely ignore eachother. We could NOT ignore, however, the group of obnoxious American girls on our bus who just would NOT stop talking and flirting with the boys at the back of the bus. Irrelevant to this blog post, but I just remembered it as I was writing and I physically groaned at the memory.

Three hour ferry across the lake

Now, the ferry. OH MY GOD THE VIEWS. It’s a really uncomfortable boat to sit on for three hours, but it is worth it, and you should definitely sit on the top even if it is raining. There is also a little shop on board where you can get coffee and snacks. If you wanted to book this by yourself, I remember the company is called Berisha Ferry. I have nothing else to say about the ferry except that you will be blown away. I felt like I was in Norway or Newfoundland, gaping up at the fjords

Short minibus ride to homestay in Valbone

Once you get off the ferry, there is a bit of a confusing mess in the parking lot but eventually we found the minibus associated with our hostel that would take us to Valbone. It didn’t have enough seats, so someone literally had to sit on a stool in the aisle, and I think one person on the floor for a while, but we had seats! I think this ride was around two hours. One of the most disorienting parts of this trip was that we got onto every bus or boat without any idea of how long it was going to take. We had a vague idea where we were going on the map, so we’d try to look occasionally, but we didn’t have data and really just had no idea what was happening. It was kind of refreshing to be so unsure of how long we’d be sitting there.

They also stopped at a grocery store just before we got to Valbone, so we could stock up on snacks, water, and of course, beer.

Stay one night (or more!) in Valbone

The most beautiful setting

I had no idea what the name of our guesthouse was until I just looked at pictures of every single guesthouse on Tripadvisor, and I found it! We stayed at Guesthouse Arben Selimaj. There is no wifi, which we loved – being disconnected on my travels is one of my favorite things.  We taught new friends cribbage, and they showed us videos of hikes they had done in the area. It had been raining heavily, so they had some crazy stories, but I think if I went back I’d definitely spend more time here to do some day hikes. I also embarrassed myself in front of everyone here during the evening, by trying to run to the dining room (from outside) to avoid the pouring rain as best as possible, and completely wiping out on the floor. Good times.

All your meals are included here – the lunch they give you to pack is pretty subpar but it was definitely adequate and nutritious. Dinner was amazing, and the communal feel was really welcoming for conversation. We also watched some great Albanian Phineas and Ferb, which was confusing.

Full day hike Valbone-Theth

What a hard day, and what a life-altering day. We were constantly too cold and constantly too hot, my legs were burning within an hour, and I wondered if we were going to make it on this hike for which we did NOT have a map. We also didn’t know how long it was. We prepare so well!

Hiker chic

Anyway, at the beginning of the hike we were a bit frustrated by (again) the loud Americans. We immediately distanced ourselves from them and thank God, we never saw them again. We got turned around by misleading arrows a few times, but they always led to a cafe so we would have been okay anyway. Climbing across this mountain pass, between towns we never even knew existed, was absolutely exhilarating. Even when I was exhausted, I couldn’t help but marvel at the 360 views, and they just kept getting better.

The indubitable highlight was the actual ‘summit.’ You can’t miss it, you just have to climb a little further at a point that veers right off the trail, and you can see clearly where it leads. It was so windy we worried about our stuff blowing away, and we were absolutely freezing, but we stood up there for as long as we could stand the cold. This was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life.

The summit of the mountain pass

Stay a night in Theth

We walked into Theth and decided we needed to stay at the very first guesthouse we came across to rest our legs. I would have been willing to pay a lot of money to crash, but luckily we picked a good spot – Bujtina Harusha. (I saved this one in Google Maps – smart me)

As seems to be a trend in the mountains of Albania, this guesthouse was family-owned and absolutely delightful. We had a seven course dinner that was unquestionably the best food I’ve ever eaten, a couple celebratory beers, and then went to bed at 8pm. In the morning, one of the owners’ sons (who I think took a liking to Haley) took us next door for a coffee, showed us several puppies (see one below, we squealed pathetically) and told us what it was like living in this remote town as a young Albanian while we waited for our bus back to Shkoder.

Minibus back to Shkoder

I would never have thought that this final, very long bus ride would be a highlight of the whole trip, but it absolutely was. I credit that mostly to how chilled out we were after soaking up all the nature and disconnecting from the outside world. The bus randomly stopped several times, which normally would have annoyed us, but on this day we wandered around, finding more puppies (!!!) and just living in the moment.

The TINIEST PUPPY.

The bus driver was also a delight. He only spoke about five words of English but he tried to include us in all the Albanian conversations, and took this cute photo for us at a random stopping point.

We still talk about this bus ride, which is funny because it was bumpy, nauseating, and took FOREVER. Everything just felt right, and we felt happy, and that’s all I ever really look for in a trip.

And I certainly got it on our little excursion to the Albanian mountains.

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