Albania,  Hiking

Hiking in the Albanian Alps: Day Hikes from Theth

Last year we visited Theth, a valley in the Albanian Alps, for several days with friends. We fell so in love with it that we went back for another 3 weeks! We were struck by the fact most people only visited for 1-2 days. As this seemed a shame, given the fantastic hiking possibilities available, I put this guide together to inspire other hikers.

Contents

About the Albanian Alps

The Albanian Alps is a region in the North of Albania, known for it’s beautiful, dramatic mountain scenery. The valleys of Theth and Valbona (Valbonë) are the most well-known in the region, connected by a now popular hiking route.

Historically, the remoteness of the region has both isolated and sheltered the peoples of the Albanian Alps. Accordingly, the traditional Northern Albanian culture was preserved. Although the area has now modernised and is increasingly touristic, the traditional style of the villages is charming for visitors. Theth Ethnographic Museum is a great place to go if you want to understand more about the history of the Upper Shala Valley.

“Such backwaters of life exist in many corners of Europe – but most of all in the Near East. For folk in such lands time has almost stood still. The wanderer from the West stands awestruck amongst them, filled with vague memories of the cradle of his race, saying, ‘This did I do some thousands of years ago; thus did I lie in wait for mine enemy; so thought I and so acted I in the beginning of Time.'”

Mary Edith Durham (a traveler and lover of Albania in the early 1900s), High Albania (1909)

Hiking in the Albanian Alps

For those prepared to venture off the beaten track, these mountains offer the most awestriking, challenging routes a hiker could wish for. The more remote reaches of the Albanian Alps have absolutely retained their “untouched” feel. A huge variety of fauna and flora call the Upper Shala Valley home. You can literally see the air quality in the amount of fungi and lichen species that grow here. The mountains are not for the faint-hearted though. Here there be monsters…

Hazards of the Albanian Alps

Like most wild places in the world, there are dangers to be aware of. Like most dangers, if you know how to deal with them, then you’ll most likely be fine.

Bears and Wolves and things

There are bears in Albania but nowhere near as many as in Romania… It’s estimated there are only around 180-200 in the country. Encountering a bear would be extremely unlikely! However, if you do come across one, behaving in the correct way will reduce the likelihood of an attack. The Carpathian Brown Bear Project has some great information on how to behave in areas where bears can be found.

“You can whistle, talk or sing, everything in order to not surprise the animal. They have a good sense of smell and hearing and will avoid humans whenever possible. Experience shows that surprise is the most common cause of the attacks.”

Carpathian Brown Bear Project

There are a small number of wolves in Albania but wolf attacks on humans are almost unheard of anywhere. However, sheep dogs can be aggressive. If you come across a flock of sheep guarded by sheep dogs, look for the shepherd. Wave, shout (in a language of your choice) and get his attention. Once he waves back, the sheep dogs will chill out. They won’t attack unless threatened and are just doing their job of protecting the sheep.

The potentially harmful animal you’re most likely to encounter is a snake. We didn’t see any snakes until a Dutch girl we met said she’d seen loads… and then we started seeing a lot! Some are poisonous. Which ones? I can’t tell you. We just kept our eyes open to avoid stepping on them. Snakes are much more afraid of you than you are of them. Unless you aggravate them in some way, they won’t attack.

Be Prepared

I once read in a book that, when travelling through these mountains, the Albanians took only a pocket knife and a bottle of Raki with them. They drank water from the springs and were given board and lodge along the way, thanks to the tradition of hospitality, codified into their historical book of law.

I probably wouldn’t recommend trying this however the mountain springs are totally drinkable and possibly have magical restorative powers. Our favourite guesthouse owner, Gjon, said his father asked for the water from the spring in Theth on his deathbed (I’m sure he lived to a ripe old age). Anyway, bring plenty of water just in case as springs can dry up in summer.

The biggest hazard whilst hiking in the summer is almost certainly that big old ball of proton soup in the sky e.g. the sun. A lot of hiking paths in the Albanian Alps are exposed with little tree cover. Therefore, sunscreen and cover up, as always (maybe if I keep telling people this, I’ll remember to do it too).

This is not really a hiking guide so much as an enthusiastic list of suggestions, based on routes we walked. Some are “off the beaten track” routes where you’re highly unlikely to encounter other hikers. The paths can be treacherous and poorly marked, particularly in bad weather. We ended up in some sticky situations from time-to-time; if you lose the path, backtrack instead of trying to take a shortcut (we learnt this the hard way). Enjoy…

Hiking Routes in the Albanian Alps

Abandoned village in the Albanian Alps consisting of animal pens made with branches, the remains of wooden houses and crumbling stone walls

Theth ➡️ Denellit abandoned village

Overview

Gjon, our fantastic host, suggested this route on our first day staying at Shpella Guesthouse. To begin with, the path leads south-eastwards out of Theth, offering great views of the village from above. You cross a beautiful stream over an old, rickety bridge. After that, there is a section through the woods before reaching the rockier part of the mountain. The abandoned village itself consists of the wooden remains of houses and animal pens. The area is wonderfully peaceful – a great place to make a break before the return trip.

This is a straightforward out-and-back route suitable for a morning or afternoon hike. The incline is relatively steady throughout. There is moderate tree cover with exposed sections. Water is available from springs at various points along the route.

Theth ➡️ Nanreth Loop

A straightforward hike which crosses a few small streams. We completed this one just after the rain which meant it was interesting to get across the rivers. Also there were hundreds of mushrooms!

Theth ➡️ Valbona Circular Day Hike

A very challenging hike that incorporates the most beautiful part of the Theth-Valbona route.

The first part of the hike follows the Theth valley northwards. The incline gradually increases in steepness, following the “Qafa e Pejes” route.

At around 6.5km in, there is a crossroads. At this point, the route becomes a little more challenging as it’s not a well-trodden path. There’s a steep climb and the footpath is easy to lose (we lost it). There’s also a section to traverse across shale on a relatively steep hillside. The descent from here into Valbona valley is also steep and covered in sharp rocks of various different sizes. The views, however, make it all worthwhile…

Once you reach the valley floor in Valbona, it becomes much more straightforward. Simply follow the main footpath leading back into Theth. We were worried about the sun setting before we arrived back in Theth but the footpath is so easy to follow, it’s not really an issue (with head torches).

Theth ➡️ Blue Eye Extended Circular Day Hike

A challenging hike that incorporates the most beautiful part of the Theth-Valbona route.

The walk down to the Blue Eye is lovely and easy – a great one to do in just a couple of hours. However, if you are looking for something that feels like a hike – or simply you avoid out-and-back routes like me – this is a fantastic alternative.

After reaching the Blue Eye, there is a tough section of 5km just going uphill. The path is under the cover of forest however which is ideal when it’s hot! Near the top, you cross the main road and there is now a restaurant (Buni i Bajraktarit) which would make a convenient lunch stop.

For the final section, pay attention to the map as we got lost and spent a long time trying to find a way down the mountain. This part of the mountain is very steep and you can only descend at certain points. It’s a challenging descent involving a lot of scrambling down rocks which can be difficult when you’re tired! The final 7 km is back on the road into Theth.

Mary Edith Durham

My new favourite travel heroine! Mary Edith Durham was a British artist and anthropologist in the early 1900s. One of the places she visited, and fell in love with, was Albania. She travelled through the Albanian Alps documenting the lives and customs of its people in great detail. As a result, she became something of a national hero in Albania and we came across some places named in her honor. I highly recommend her book “High Albania” for a deep dive into the history of Northern Albania.

Theth Ethnographic Museum

If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the people of the Upper Shala Valley, this small ethnographic museum is a good place to go. The museum consists of a traditional house, furnished as it would have been. It’s run by a local woman who lives next door. She doesn’t speak really any English but somehow manages to explain quite a lot using hand gestures! If you look interested in going inside, she’ll probably appear (this is what happened to us). Bring some cash to make a contribution after.

The owner of Theth Ethnographic Museum

Preserving the Albanian Alps

Spending three weeks in Theth was honestly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Writing this piece and going back over my photos has made me want to go straight back to Albania!

This is the section that I don’t really want to write but I feel I have to. Whilst tourism is absolutely vital for the economy and, ultimately, the survival of this region, I fear that damage is already being done. You can see signs of humanity leaving it’s ugly mark on things – trash in the river where there was none before, excessive development of unfitting, modern hotels in Valbona.

The road into Theth was only upgraded a few years ago and it’s starting to bring in tourists in much higher numbers. This is great news for the residents of the valley, I just hope that greed doesn’t get the better of people.

We met a local hiking guide in a pub in Kosovo who had been in Theth at the same time as us. He was very unhappy at the negative changes he has seen take place in the last few years. Whilst his words were no consolation, the very fact that he (and undoubtably others, too) was upset, will perhaps inspire a collective move towards ensuring preservation of this unique valley.

What I’m trying to say is – please be a good tourist. Theth is such a special place and valuable in so many ways. Do what you can to ensure it remains that way – take your trash out with you if you’re camping. Don’t bother bringing bottled water.. there’s water everywhere. Take care to stick to the trails. Keep it safe so others can enjoy it in the future 🙂

Thanks for taking part in this digital journey through the Albanian Alps! For more information on hiking in the Balkans, see my hiking guide for the region! Questions, comments, love – in touch via the comments below or write to me on Facebook (Hopelessly Nomantic), Instagram (Hopelessly_Nomantic) or Twitter (HopelesNomantic).

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