Peaks Of The Balkans: Walking Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.
I’d woken up early to catch the only bus from Shkoder to the isolated village of Teth in Northern Albania, the location of a trailhead that follows a 192-kilometer loop connecting Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro known as ‘The Peaks of The Balkans’.
Me and two French Canadians, William and Felix, hopped aboard an old soviet-style bus and headed north. The driver was clearly in a rush as he refused to lift his foot from the accelerator even before narrow blind corners. After several hours of driving and close calls, we arrived.
I slumped off the bus doing my best to calm my nerves and stomach as I stood in the middle of the desolate road surrounded by nothing more than an old church and a few farmhouses.
With the help of some locals, my new companions and I found a place to rest and planned our route for the next day.
Teth to The Valbone Pass
The next morning, with our stomachs full of spinach, yogurt, and cheese Byrek, we headed towards the outskirts of Teth as William and Felix tried to teach me French phrases.
The plan was to make it over the Valbone pass at 1750 meters by mid-day and enjoy a comfortable walk into the village where we’d hopefully find a guesthouse.
The French lesson was cut short abruptly. The moment we’d left Teth, we faced what looked like an impossible incline through an overgrown forest. For the next hour, there were no jokes about my terrible French pronunciation; instead, the only sound along the forgotten dirt trail was our deep breathing and occasional yelp as we lost our footing.
The temperature was rising by the minute as the powerful sun broke through the gaps in the trees, adding to our collective discomfort. We pushed on and eventually emerged from the thick forest.
We stood in the middle of a clearing, surrounded by mountains, rolling fields of colorful plants, and the sound of narrow streams of glacial water running down the hill.
We snapped pictures, glugged water, and then pushed on. Making it through the forest felt like an achievement, but we knew there would be little rest before crossing the pass located 1800 meters above sea level.
The slow incline towards the pass was pleasant, we resumed French class, and Will, a sommelier, educated us about the ins and outs of the world’s finest wines.
As we climbed, the green pastures slowly gave way to barren gravel paths crisscrossing towards the pass flanked by mount Maja Jezerc which ominously towers over the valley.
We all fell silent once again as the climb sapped our energy, the loose gravel only complicated matters, and we were now regularly being forced to make way for local farmers transporting their donkeys and cows along the narrow pass.
The wind picked up. We knew we were close. The peak of the pass was now visible in the distance. Ignoring the pain in our legs and shoulders, we picked up the pace knowing the sooner we made it, the colder the three beers we’d stuffed into Felix’s bag would be.
Standing at the top of the pass, we dropped our bags and stood in awe at the snow-capped peaks around us. We slumped to the ground and enjoyed our lukewarm beers as the wind whipped across the narrow mountain pass.
The rest of the day went to plan. We descended the pass with ease, letting gravity take the weight off our shoulders. We arrived in Valbone. The first day was behind us, and we found a guesthouse with a hot shower at the far end of the village.
As the sun began to set, it dawned on me that Will and Felix would be jumping on a bus the next day and heading back to Tirana, leaving me alone to head further into the unknown.
Going It Alone
My lack of planning became apparent as I sipped my Turkish coffee and realized I could be short on cash. I’d taken out €200 in Shkodre, and with no cash machines on the horizon, this needed to last the whole walk.
The solution to my self-induced financial crisis was obvious but painful: I’d have to cover two days’ worth of the route in one day to save money on accommodation.
I waved goodbye to Will and Felix and set out to cover 50 kilometers before sundown. I planned to skip past the village of Cerem and head directly to Dobredol – a tiny hamlet located on a three-way border between Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo.
Facing a seemingly endless 10-kilometer asphalt road that led out of the hamlet and to the trailhead, I decided to hitchhike.
To my surprise, a black Audi with a Dutch number plate pulled up within minutes and waved me down. I jumped in the back and asked the couple where they were heading.
It turned out they were heading to the same village. The day had got off to a great start. Or so I thought. After 10 minutes in the car, I had an uneasy feeling that despite our heading to the same village; I was going in the wrong direction.
The driver pulled over, and we again repeated the impossible-to-pronounce name of the village. However, this time the final syllables didn’t match. The couple was heading to a village with a similar name, not the same name, located in the opposite direction of the trailhead.
They looked awkwardly at me, and to my surprise; they said they had no time to drive me back. I dragged myself and my bag out of the air-conditioned car into the blazing sunlight.
I estimated I’d lost at least an hour with my ‘shortcut.’ My plan to skip passed Cerem was falling apart, so I plugged in my earphones and headed for the trailhead at full tilt.
I’d made it to the starting point within an hour or so. As I stood alone next to the yellow sign that read ‘Cerem 20 kilometers,’ I felt relieved and foolish. On my first morning alone on the trek, I’d already wasted hours going backward and forward without making any progress.
Thankfully the first 20 kilometers passed by quicker than expected. The walk was stunning. Surrounded by forest, and the high mountains of the Valbone pass behind me.
I made it to Cerem, where I spoke to the owner of the only guesthouse. He offered me a place to stay for the night; I summoned all my self-control to turn down a comfortable bed determined to cover the next 15 kilometers to Dobredol before sundown.
Leaving Cerem, I waded through a deeper river than I expected and began climbing. The first hour involved a scramble up the overgrown trail in the dense woods. I couldn’t help but think a story about Will’s favorite wine or a short French lesson from Felix would have helped take my mind off my burning legs.
As the trees began to thin out, I awaited liberation from the bug-infested and increasingly humid forest. With a final push, I left behind the trees bursting into the open.
The terrain flattened out after the clearing, and I spent the next few hours following a narrow but relatively clear trail through fields of tall grass dotted with deep purple flowers where the only sound breaking through the silence was the buzz of thousands of bees.
I took a short break to examine my map and drink some water. The rest of the day would be flat, and I still had a few hours till sundown; I felt relief. Despite the painfully poor start to the day, I was now more than halfway to Doberdol.
I picked up the pace along the path that had turned into a narrow pass running alongside a steep hill on one side and a deep trench on the other. Just as I lost the sun and the temperature began to plummet, I noticed a small farm and two triangular wooden shacks. It had to be Doberdol.
The night in Doberdol was cold. The temperatures dropped below freezing, and the triangular wooden hut provided no insulation.
The First Border Crossing: Albania-Kosovo
Following a cold shower and breakfast, I left Doberdol and headed for the Kosovan border. I would cover around 35 kilometers, heading for the small village of Milishevc and then onto Reka Allages.
Doberdol is surrounded by a steep ridge that peaks at around 2100 meters; climbing the hill was the most formidable milestone of the entire route. At times it felt like I needed an ice pick and crampons as I scrambled up the ridge, constantly slipping on the wet grass.
However, the hour or so of struggling paid off. At the top of the ridge, you get a view of three countries, Albania on your right, Montenegro on your left, and, straight ahead, there’s Kosovo. I took a moment to appreciate the scenery and the bizarre border crossing; I had made it to Kosovo.
The rest of the day involved following a neatly cut path across various mountain ridges. The morning ascent was brutal, but the rest of the day was a breeze. The track was flat and easy to follow. The Lumbardhi ridge was the day’s highlight; at over 2000 meters, it offers insane views of a string of mountain peaks.
I spent the night, as planned, in a small shack in Reka Allages. My feet were starting to blister, and my legs felt that much heavier every morning. But I had no time, or cash, to take a break. It was time to head for Montenegro, where I had repeatedly been told that isolated lakes litter the mountains with crystal-clear waters and unparalleled levels of tranquility.
The Lakes of Montenegro
I made my way from the Kosovan border to the village of Kucishte, and from there, I began the journey to Babino Polje, Montenegro.
The day began with a 700-meter ascent towards the Jelenak pass, followed by a descent, during which I crossed into Montenegro without realizing it.
An hour after entering Montenegro, I was standing on the shores of the most pristine lake I’d ever seen.
The blue glacial waters reflect the tree high-tree line, with the occasional fish rising to the surface, sending gentle ripples across the shallows. I dropped my bag, stripped, and jumped headfirst into the freezing water.
I spent a while floating around in blissful silence, thinking about how far I’d come in the past few days, feeling that I’d do every painful morning ascent and humid woodland walk over again a hundred times to spend 10 minutes in this lake.
Little did I know that for the rest of the next two days, Montenegro would surprise me countless times with its remote glacial lakes.
The descent towards Babino followed an old 4×4 route for several hours after the lake, only to end abruptly and split into three small paths leading into a forest. Luckily, my phone had somehow latched onto some signal for the first time in days, and I could navigate through the forest without relying on my appalling map-reading skills.
Located alongside a small river in a lush valley Babino Polje is a collection of half a dozen houses, with a couple still being built.
As I made my way towards what I prayed would turn out to be a guesthouse, a local drover passed and said, ‘Plav?’. With my cash running low and the odds of me sleeping rough in Babino increasing by the minute, I took him up on the offer.
Arriving in Plav was a shock to the system. Although it has a population of under 10,000, it may as well have been Tokyo. Cars everywhere, people shouting, and waiters that spoke English. I found a place to spend the night and prepared for my penultimate day of walking.
Vusanje: Back To The Albanian Border
I set off estimating that the 30-kilometer hike from the edge of lake Plav to the village of Vusanje near the Albanian border would take me around eight hours.
Slowly I left lake Plav behind, and the sound of people and cars was drowned out by silence. The first leg of the route was a constant incline that slowly got more extreme as I approached Bor peak; I scrambled up an exposed hill with no path and intense gusts of wind.
I stopped halfway up, holding onto a charred tree stump, to catch my breath and take a final look at lake Plav. From Bor Peak, the views were astounding; the Albanian alps were towering over me, lake Plav was nothing but a speck in the distance, and an ominous blanket of low-lying clouds rain clouds gathered in the distance.
The clouds erupted into life just minutes after begging the slow descent from Bor Peak. The cold rain froze my hands within seconds. I stuffed my hands in my pockets, pulled out my raincoat, and focused on the path ahead.
Just as I started to worry about my hands, the rain ended abruptly, and the sun broke the clouds apart. However, the rain had left me with an unpleasant surprise; my damp clothes had begun to chafe my thighs.
I’d been walking for around eight hours, crossed dozens of fields, and still, Vusanje was nowhere to be seen. The two shepherds I passed looked confused when I asked them, ‘Vusanje?’. Doubt began to consume my mind, but I pushed on.
After an hour of walking and trying to move my shorts to stop the increasingly brutal chaffing, the trail led me to a gap between two massive rock formations. It felt like a natural passageway, and just in the distance, I saw a house and an old Soviet car – Vusanje.
With my spirits high and my inner thighs on the cusp of bleeding, I made my way through the pass and down toward the village. A boulder field halted my progress optimism. The field of giant grey rocks covered the valley leading to Vusanje, leaving no way around.
I spent the next hour jumping from rock to rock; my bag slammed into me every time I landed and occasionally slipped to the side, threatening to pull me into the jagged crevices below.
11 hours after I left Plav, I made it to Vusajne.
The End Of The Loop: Back To Albania
At 8.00 am, I ate and prepared to return to Teth. However, before I left, the host insisted that I drink a shot of his homebrew ‘Rakyia’ for good luck – one shot quickly turned to three, and as he prepared the fourth, his wife luckily came out and snatched the old coke bottle.
Feeling a little drunk, I grabbed my bag and headed for Albania. The day began with a walk along a small river that led to a nature reserve surrounded on both sides by the Prokletje and Namuna mountains. This was the most inspiring stretch of the trip; the valley was completely untouched, surrounded by mountains with fields of dark-green grass and lakes crushed between them.
I knew I had crossed the Albanian border when I walked passed an old machine gun bunker beside a small glacial lake; it was the first of dozens.
The machine gun posts that litter the border are a reminder that even though today Albania is an open country planning its ascension into the European Union, just a few decades ago, it was a hermit state ruled by Enver Hoxha, a communist dictator.
Under Hoxha, any Albanian caught trying to flee the starving country would be gunned down from the same outposts that are now crumbling into the Balkan landscape. The Peaks of the Balkans route symbolizes the newly found peace and freedom pushing the region toward a brighter future.
Reflecting on how the region has changed in the last few decades and how its tragic past still puts people off visiting, I made it back to Teth, feeling determined to encourage more people to hike the Peaks of the Balkans.