What to Do
Up until a few years ago, Valbona was still the dangerous ‘back of beyond’ and real Malësori (highlanders) still think it’s kind of funny that people even want to come here (and even funnier that they will pay to do so!). For now, tourism in Valbona is still operates very much as an extension of the age-old rules of hospitality, so although wherever you stay there will be people who are bustling around doing things, they may be shocked at the idea of letting you “join in” – although if you insist, they’ll be really happy (who doesn’t like to find out they’re interesting?). Likewise, it’s not at all uncommon for hikers to find ‘helpful’ locals attaching themselves as guides, since the idea of rambling around for the hell of it seems weird to people here, and they worry that maybe you’ll get lost. On top of that, they’ll assume that your point is to GET somewhere, as quick as possible, so you may find yourself being dragged along faster than you meant to. If you want to cut out the “no really, yes please” stage (and uncertainty about what to offer as recompense or gratitude), we are working with people here to develop ideas for a variety of activities. Please do take advantage of our help in arranging whatever you’d like to do!
What to Do with a Day
- The Great Outdoors: Hiking and Scrambling and Messing About
- Malësori for a Day: Cooking, Farming and Goofing Off
- There and Back Again: Circuits involving camping or sleeping rough
- Passing Through : Whole Trips and Tours
Day (or possibly longer) Trips on Foot:
Here is an absolutely historic first-ever: A listing of lots and lots of (but certainly not all) the walks you can do in Valbona. In general, we are only recommending a guide if we really think you’ll probably get lost, not be able to find water, and/or fall off a cliff if left to your own devices. If you’re going to try it on your own, though, please watch the time, and don’t go further than you can expect to return in a reasonable amount of time. Most of the paths are not marked, and there’s no rescue service, and limestone mountains crumble and shift all the time. The thumbnail maps are general – please don’t print these out and try to use them! We are working on the trails and on making good hiking maps, so please contact us, or visit Catherine when in Valbona to get thorough details of any walk before you head off. Unless you’re happy just sort of wandering around of course! Walks are listed from East to West.
Zalli i Motinës (The Sands of Motina)
The start of the 14 hour path to the “Lost Village of Curraj i Epërm,” this is a nice 4 hours going, along the Motina River from Dragobi. You begin by crossing old farmland, then into beech forest, where after a bit you can find spots where you can get most of your body into the icy cold water, then emerge into sunshine at the slightly spooky Sands of Motina. On the way back, you can stop for coffee or lunch or dinner in Dragobi, at the beautiful old farmhouse of our dear friends, Kled and Kujtim Ismalaj. They also rent horses (including Luli, an equally dear old friend!)
Time: 4 hours going, return same way. Markings: Not marked. Dangers: None. Wildlife: The lack of human traffic going up the valley to the largely abandoned Curraj i Epërm makes it a refuge for animals, but there seems to be a particularly healthy population of Macë e Egër or Wild Cats (Felix sylvestris) Guide: Not necessary. The path can be hard to find in spots and you may have to poke around, but you should be able to follow the river. Connects with: Meets the the Bregu i Lumit Poshtëm path to Quku i Valbonës in Dragobi, or the path continues on to Curraj i Epërm to the South (but there’s really no path after Qafa e Ndroqës) Best for: a long but gentle day rambling, or families with older children who won’t get tired (and start complaining!).
A great walk, one of our favorites, but challenging mainly because of its length. The first part goes up the car’s road to Çerem, then turns off east to follow a little access road to the mobile phone antennas. This little road passes through abandoned orchards which are full of plums (and bears, who love the plums) in late summer. At stans near the antennas you turn north, and after a bit of steep hair-pinning emerge in the wide and windy meadows of the stans. Here you can stop and visit the Doçi or Mulosmanli families (and their sheep). Past that, after a bit of meandering you pick up the maze of logging roads to arrive in Çerem. From Çerem you can take the car’s road back down to Valbona valley. For people coming from Valbona, there is an unmarked short cut to the the car road, so you don’t have to walk all the way to Dragobi. This trail is notable for being almost entirely open and sunny, with fabulous views the whole time. Also, except for about 45 minutes of STEEP hairpins, it’s mainly a pretty easy walk. Just long.
Time: From Dragobi, you can get to Çerem in 10 hours. From Valbona, taking the short cut will save you an hour or more of the most boring part. Walking back down on the car road takes about 2 hours. Markings: This path is not marked, and in places you will not find your way without a good map and GPS, though much of it is easy to find, and people in the stans will help you (and even put you up for the night), but you should be prepared to get lost, and allow extra time for it. We are hoping to at least sign post the important turnings soon and we have almost finished a good Trail Map. Dangers: There’s not water after the antennas until you get to the logging trails. Hanging around the plum orchards at night could run you into bears, although they’ll only attack you if you frighten them. Guide: A good idea, if you’re not comfortable getting lost and spending the night. Connects with: Çerem, from where you can meet the car’s road, or carry on higher to the stans of Markofshe, or eventually pick up the “Peaks of the Balkans” trail to Kosovo, when it’s done. Best for: Strong walkers who are confident when lost, great views and open spaces, and for the opportunity to visit the old stans. Also Bear-spotting in August & September, for the stout of heart.
This path goes up the western bank of the Çeremit River, and is planned for marking as part of a UNDP-funded project. It’s also planned to be included in GIZ’s “Peaks of the Balkans” trail project. While it’s better than walking on the car road, and shorter than the Stanet e Gjarpërit path, it hasn’t been fixed yet and so is both overgrown and involves crossing one of the worst scree landslides in the whole valley. They have some plan for building a bridge across the scree, but how you fix anything to scree, we don’t know.
Time: 3 hours, one way. Markings: Not yet, but supposed to be this summer, either by UNDP or by Peaks of the Balkans. Dangers: Plummeting to your death on the scree. [Catherine writes: I haven't done this. Naim always tries to talk people out of going, Alfred says it's not that bad. NB: Alfred has almost killed me several times.] Guide: Definitely not, after it’s marked. Connects with: Paths leaving from Çerem including the planned Peaks of the Balkans route to Kosovo. You could always come back down the Stanet e Gjarpërit route. Best for: A good stiff walk for people who like scrambling, and want to explore Çerem.
From Quku i Valbonës, you can easily spend a day rambling along the southern banks of the Valbona River, heading east back towards Bajram Curri and ending up in Dragobi (where, if you time it right, you could even pick up the daily minibus at 3pm to get back to Valbona proper). You’ll pass an abandoned farmstead in Mas Kollate, and further on fabulous fields of wild strawberries in July, then pass through fairy tale old growth Beech forest. If you hear something big snuffling in the woods, it’s probably wild boar. If it’s raining, you’re likely to find many fire salamanders.
Time: 2 hours, one way. Markings: Yellow hashes, as far as Prroni i Picimalit Dangers: Horned Vipers like to sleep on the stones of old walls when it’s sunny, and the river banks sometimes erode after heavy rains. Guide: Not needed Connects with: in Dragobi the Zalli i Motinës trail, the Picimalit Trail, the Shpella e Dragobisë Trail, the paths to Gjarpëri if you cross the river and the cars’ road in Mas Kollate , Quku i Llabudave, Hotel Rilindja, Liqeni i Xhemës, Quku i Valbonës, the Rruga e Puntorve and the Footpath for Valbona Qender (whew!) Wildlife: Lovely Fire Salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) when it’s raining. Boars in the forest and Brown Bears. Not so many wolves, but some. Should be otters in the river. Best for: Wild Strawberries in July.
From Hotel Rilindja, or from the Quku i Valbones Guesthouses, OR from the road (there’s a little sign), walkers can follow the single yellow hashes to Liqeni i Xhemës. More of a small pond really, the lake is spring-fed, still and beautiful and strange pure blue. It’s also colder than Dante’s hell – so swimmers beware! Evening is a particularly beautiful time to watch the little trout come out and play. There are tadpoles, too – or “Bisht i Fulterë” as the kids call ‘em here – “frying pan handles”!
Time: It’s only about 200 meters from anywhere, so not more than 15 minutes to get there. Markings: single yellow hashes. Dangers: Disappointment. In August it dries up a bit and can look depressingly more like a puddle. Guide: Only if you want company. Connects with: Bregu i Lumit Poshtëm at Rilindja and Rrugë Kembësore te Valbonë at Quku i Valbonës Guesthouses. Wildlife: Tadpoles! Best for: A nice little walk before dinner, if you’ve been lazy all day.
The Prroni i Picimalit path begins in the strawberry fields of Mas Kollate, where a trail head sign will (as soon as we stick it in the ground) alert you to the start of red & yellow trail markings. This path uphill along the Picimalit river explores gorgeous old growth beech forest, which is still, silent and uniform in a way that might give walkers new respect for how Hansel & Gretel got so lost. Following the red & yellow markings all the way will end walkers up by the eastern end of the Shpella e Dragobisë path. To be honest, the entirety of this path serves better as a way from getting down from the Shpella e Dragobisë — it’s an annoyingly tiring slog uphill the whole way, but if you don’t walk the whole thing it’s a beautiful exploration of ancient woodland. About a third of the way up a side trail takes you on a nice scramble to the source of the Picimalit, three bizarre plumes of water springing out from under a wall of black rock.
Time: 3 hours, one way Markings: Red & Yellow Dangers: Getting lost. The forest is very disorienting. Or being shot (but only in early winter) by the hunters out looking for Wild Boar. Guide: Only if you really really have NO sense of direction. Connects with: With the Bregu i Lumit Poshtëm path at the bottom, or with the Shpella e Dragobisë and Zhari i Bjezhz Trails at the top. Wildlife: Salamanders and Wild Boar. Best for: Coming down from the Shpella path a different way, or running around wearing your fanciest little red riding hood.
From the Bregu i Lumit Poshtëm Footpaths along the river, a trail head sign marks the beginning of the Shpella path. Shpella e Dragobisë was the last known hideout of the Kosovar rebel Bajram Curri. After helping throw the Ottomans out of Northern Albania, Bajram Curri turned his attention to fixing the recent splitting off of Kosovo (1919), which put him foul of King Zog. Throughout the winter of 1925, Bajram Curri was hidden by various families in the highlands. Finally, he and his men took to the woods. In March, hunting dogs sniffed them out in the cave. Formal history says Bajram Curri and his men shot themselves when they realized escape was impossible. Local lore and almost-official history says they were killed. Not so much of a cave, as a natural rock fortress, the place hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Spooky and weird this is old, moss-covered beech forest. The path is not clear – that’s why Bajram could hide there, but walkers can follow yellow hashes through the densest forest.
Time: 2 hours one way. Markings: Red & Yellow, with a Yellow side trail to the cave itself. Dangers: There is an extremely healthy (and prolific!) family of Brown Bears here, and we have the pictures to prove it! Being that we KNOW they’re having babies, they may be more aggressive than usual. Guide: Not necessary, though we recommend a trail map. Connects with: the Bregu i Lumit Poshtëm trail at the bottom, and the Prroni i Picimalit and Zhari i Bjezhz trails at the eastern end. We recommend the Prroni i Picimalit trail if you don’t want to come back the same way. Wildlife: Beech forest harbors brown bears, and nature lovers will be interested to see a “Bear Tree” – the territorial markings of the Ursus arctos which abound here. There is also much evidence of Wild Boar. Also good for Qukupiku (Woodpeckers!) and some sort of Falcon has often been seen. Best for: As we grade this trail “easy” (which it IS compared to other things here) it’s a good trail to start with.
The truly stout of heart and limb will enjoy exploring the highlands of Pecmarra – it’s a beautiful far-away forgotten land up there. We only did it once, and it almost killed us. But it still remains one of the places Catherine would most like to return to. From Lugu i Silkut (which you can either get to from Quku i Llabudave – ‘fast’ but exhausting, or from the Rruga e Puntorve – slow but exhausting), you can begin to explore this open, airy region. You’ll pass two sets of abandoned stans on the way down, which should afford even the least imaginative plenty of fodder for musing about the life that was once lived here. After that, the last few hours are a twisty windy path down through the Zhari – forest – of Bjezhz, where at some point you will pass the biggest tree we’ve ever seen here. NOT a place to get lost at night (in the rain, like we did).
Time: 9 hours one way. NB: this does not include the 3 or 4 hours needed to get to the beginning in Lugu i Silkut (west) or the 2 or 3 hours to return from the other end (east). Plan on camping! Markings: Not marked. And not even a ghost of a path in most places. Dangers: Hypothermia, no water, getting totally lost, and the fact that in at least one place the only way through is by clambering up a sort of ladder made out of a log with notches cut in it which seems to have been jammed into a crevice about 100 years ago. Guide: Absolutely. Don’t even think about it otherwise. Connects with: Quku i Llabudave trail to the west, and the Shpella e Dragobisë and Prroni i Picimalit trails to the east Wildlife: Dhia e Egër or wild mountain goats – Chamois – roam around here in huge herds. God knows what else, because no one ever goes up there Best for: Hard core adventurers who like shlepping 30 kilos on their backs
Catherine loves this path. It’s a horrible uphill scramble, where you will have your hands on the ground (which will be in front of your face) most of the time. But if you always wanted to be a mountain goat, this is the path for you. It’s actually not that difficult, except that the things you have to step on seem ridiculous. But if you stick to the path, you’ll be fine. By far the most direct way, straight up the side of the mountain, it gets you above the forest fast, and from there you’re impressing yourself the whole way. Of course, there are fabulous views the whole time. It is also, perhaps oddly, full of the most amazing plants. At the top, you have the joy of arriving in Lugu i Silkut, a small cirque which will seem blissfully level.
Time: 3 hours up Markings: Marked Red & Yellow about halfway up, as of Spring 2012. After that, it’s either come down the way you came, or GPS all the way Dangers: Many, many chances to fall off of sheer drops. At the top is a scramble up scree boulders which are full of horned vipers Guide: Not necessary at the lower (marked) reaches. After about halfway up, yes, unless you’re very confident with map & GPS Connects with: in Lugi i Silkut you can pick up the Rruga e Puntorve to come back down, IF you have a GPS (or really, really, REALLY specific directions from us. We do NOT recommend trying to come back down the Quku i Llabudave path – it’s really too steep. Wildlife: Plants really. But really – they’re amazing! Once you get near the top, you have to watch out for mountain goats (chamois) Best for: People who not only aren’t afraid of heights, but glory in them. Also very very stubborn people.
From an ‘oterg’ (landslide/avalanche) to the west of the Quku i Valbonës Guesthouses (east of Valbona Qender) begins by far the gentlest way to get near the top of Pecmarra. After passing through the woods (whether you come from Quku i Valbonës or Valbona Qender) and a bit of a scramble up the oterg, you pick up the path that the miners used to take horses and equipment (by horse), so the grade is quite gentle. Of course, there’s still a sheer drop to your left, which will make the walk unpleasant for those who fear heights. Still: Sheer drops make for stunning views, so this is a great walk for drama, without too much actual danger (unless you’re prone to suddenly staggering, of course). Unless you’re planning on camping, bear in mind that you will have to come down the way you came, and plan your time accordingly.
Time: 5 hours to Lugu i Silkut Markings: Marked Red & Yellow from the trail head sign in Quku i Llabudave to the top of the Oterg, after which it’s pretty obvious Dangers: Falling would kill you. Don’t do it. We’ve found bear, um, poop on the trail. I can’t imagine what you’d do on that trail if you met a bear – someone would have to get out of the way. But where? Guide: Not necessary, unless you’re carrying on to somewhere else Connects with: the Rrugë Kembësore te Valbonë trail at the oterg, and the Bregu i Lumit Poshtëm trail in Quku i Valbonës. In Lugu i Silkut you might be able to find the connection to the Quku i Llabudave trail – though we strongly advise against going down that one, or the Zhari i Bjezhz trail if you have a guide. Wildlife: You might spot wild goats (Chamois). It’s the only place we’ve EVER seen squirrels, which might sound undramatic, but you should have SEEN what they were doing – sheer acrobatics from tree to tree! Best for: Solid hikers who will not be frightened and enjoy the view, but don’t want too much scrambling.
Rruge Kembsore te Valbones
Maja e Kollatës
Bregu i Lumit Ciper:
Kollata Rruga Puntorve
This is another of the great “starter” walks to test yourself against and get a sense of where you rank on the “highlander” scale. Starting from the school in Valbona village, you cross the river on a series of cleverly placed stepping stones and make-shift bridges, then pick up the trail. Half an hour will get you to the little hamlet of Kukaj (where you might want to buy some honey from Tahir on the way back down). After THAT you pick up the path again and then you begin really heading up into the Bjeshket, or mountain meadows. Here is where you’ll spot your first, super-rare Albanian Lily. A bit further up and it’s endless fields of flowers in June, the most we’ve seen anywhere. Finish off at the Stans of Plan, where Sami’s family will happily make you a picnic lunch you can eat sprawling on the wide grassy hillside, staring up at Jezerca, which begins to loom over you.
Time: Give yourself 3 hours up, and 2 hours down. Markings: Not marked. JtoV has a basic but good trail map with orientation points noted. Dangers: I really can’t think of any. Tahir’s a bit grumpy if you take liberties with his women folk, and storms (real ones, not Tahir) do blow up suddenly – but there you can take shelter in Kukaj or Plan Guide: Not necessary, especially if you have that little map we made, but nice if you want to ask questions, or for a translator with the people Connects with: to the west you can pick up trails for the peak of Jezerca (you’d definitely need a guide) or to Jezerca Lakes (which you can do with the “Hiking Thethi & Kelmend” map and bit of confidence) To the east you can pick up the Rrethi i Bardhë trail to Kollata (not marked). From the northern end, you can do the following two options. Wildlife: This is another great one for Botanists the wildflowers in June are stunning - in a literal sense! Best for: A good walk to test yourself against, ’cause we call this ‘easy.’ Along with Gjarpërit the best walk for visiting stans.
Once you get to the Stans at Plan, you have two choices of passes that peep over into Mal i Zi (Montenegro), with views of what appears to be a receding ocean of mountains below you . The NE pass at Pirimida 18 (TET-em-thyet, you say, if you have to ask for directions) is the easiest to get to. Qafa e Shelegut is a bit more of a slog, and has you crossing some scree and quite possibly some rather scary snow (poles and sensible shoes, which Catherine did not have, would remedy this nicely), but it’s quite a bit more dramatic. It’s above Plan that the flowers in June switch from more modest wildflowers, to truly bizarre endemics, and flowers that you may only have seen in gardening catalogues before.
Time: Count on adding another hour or two to get to either pass from Plan Markings: Not marked Dangers: While you might be able to fall on the scree and scrape yourself up rather badly, there isn’t much to fall off of, until you get very near the Qafas Guide: Probably a good idea, but not really necessary, especially if you get GPS tracks from us. Connects with: You could carry on to the peak of Rosi, but maybe not all in the same day. Wildlife: Goats probably, and the wolves that love them. Otherwise it’s a bit open for anything else. All the crazy flowers too. Best for: A challenging but not frightening hike to great views of Montenegro. And the lilies in June.
In addition to all the nice things about the other walks on Rosi, this is probably the easiest mountain to get to the top of.
Time: From Valbona, call it 7 hours up Markings: Not marked. Dangers: All the usual ones of climbing to the top of anything very pointy Guide: For all but the most independent and capable hikers, Yes Connects with: Paths to the Qafas, or from Plan, the path for Jezerca Lakes (and Thethi) Wildlife: Mountain Goats, wolves. Maybe eagles? Best for: People who like to climb to the top of things
Maja e Jezercës
Maja e Jezercës
Burimi i Valbonës
Qafa e Valbonës:
If you don’t have time or inclination to go to Theth, you can still walk up to the pass and peer over. It makes a nice day walk, and then of course you can say you did the hardest part of the most famous hike! Here is a map with some information about how to do it.
To be honest, we’ve never done this before, but we’ve had some luck telling other people where to sit, and they’ve seen bears! (We keep an eye on the tracks, and so know where they’ve been active recently!) In August, when the old plum orchards on Gjarpëri are heaving with fruit, the little dirt road is full of the funny ‘barefoot” prints of bears, and sightings are frequent. The area is accessible by car, and we have tents and a pair of night vision binoculars, and it seems like it’s worth a try to camp out and wait for the bears. Of course, this may not be the safest thing to do, though in general the bears have excellent senses of smell, hearing and eyesight, and will probably spot us first and scarper. But it’s an excuse for a beautiful night out of doors, with a car handy if you want to give up and go home.
The great Malësori House Tour
As I found myself saying to the British Ambassador: Time goes so fast, when there’s so much to EAT!
In July, the tiny ruby strawberries burst into ripeness. When you hit the right spots, they are everywhere so at the peak of the season it can be literally dizzying to pick ‘em – As Anne Sexton wrote (admittedly in a different context) “They are too many to eat.” But oh, it’s glorious to try. One little berry packs in more scent and flavor than a bushel of those gross fat things we get in America . . . .
In August, the Hazelnuts come into season. They’re actually bizarrely hard to spot to the untrained eye(!), but the ‘Lajthi’ bushes grow in profusion and once you have eyes to see it’s not hard to fill your pockets, as the boys here all do. For a few glorious weeks, every time anyone sits down to drink a coffee, out comes a handful of hazelnuts, pale green tinged with a rich and rusty brown, and much banging and cracking and spitting of shells ensues. Delicious!
Malësori for a Day
Here in Valbona, we still raise the sheep, shear ‘em, wash the wool, card the wool, spin the wool, dye the wool and knit ‘em up. Warm socks and vests made of thick white “lesh” keep Malësori warm in winter, and women still knit up closets full of fancy socks and papuce (little slippers) which they’ll probably be happy to give you (but 10 euro would be a great price, if you like to pay)! If you’re a handicrafts nut you can easily spend the day with a real Malësore, who’ll think it’s hilarious and be tremendously flattered that you want to learn any stage of this process, whether you want to play with the sheep, learn to spin, or pick up a new knitting style (hint: It’s quite different). We also think this is a great and fun way to subtly reinforce respect for ‘womens’ work’!
Building a Mullar
Music and Dancing
Circuits involving Camping or Sleeping Rough
Qafa e Ndroqës
Around Maja e Gjarperit
Maja e Pecmarrës
Maja e Kollatës
Kukaj & Maja e Rosit
Passing Through – Whole Trips
The first and most popular trek in the area is the 6 hour hike from Thethi to Valbona, through the Qafa e Valbonës (Valbona Pass). If you’re one of the people thinking of travelling to the Malësi solely to make this trek, you probably have a few questions. As it’s what we’re most often asked about: Here is our Best Plan for how to get from Tirana (or Shkodra), to Valbona, from Valbona to Theth, and from Theth back to where you started, with times and prices if we arrange it for you (of course you’re welcome to organize your own trip based on all this!). We can also help you tailor the plan to best suit you, but please take a moment to look at our plan this first. And of course if what you’re looking for is a complete tour, you should contact Outdoor Albania since they’re the masters of guided adventure travel in Albania.
Jezerces Peak via the Lakes
For the “Just Because It’s There” (and there’s a there there!), George Mallory/Gertrude Stein school of travel . . . . What trip to Albania would be complete without a jaunt to the peak of the highest mountain wholly within Albania? Here is our Plan for how to do it from Tirana and back again in 4 days, starting from and returning to Valbona via Kukaj, and involving one day camping at the Jezerces Lakes, with a reasonable budget per person. Of course as ever we’re happy to help tailor this to your own ideas, or you can just use it for ideas of what to do while you’re here.
The Lost Village of Curraj i Eperm
Jezerca Lakes to Thethi
Maja e Jezercës