The Accursed Mountains, a mountain group shared by Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the Balkans. And one of the best ways to experience them is by hiking from Valbonë to Theth, two scenic villages in a remote part of northeast Albania.
It’s one of the most popular hikes in the Balkans, and for good reason. Not only is the scenery stunning, but the hike is relatively easy. To top it off, you can begin your adventure with a cruise along the gorgeous Komani Lake.
Having thoroughly traveled through several Balkan countries and hiking in most of them, this easily stands out as one of my most memorable experiences. If you’re coming to Albania, don’t miss it.
In the following guide, we’ll be going over the basics of preparing for and arranging the trip, as well as a summary of the hike itself. Also be sure to check the end of the article for tips on booking accommodation.
Hiking from Valbonë to Theth or from Theth to Valbonë?
The popular hike can be done in either direction. However, having done it, I’d say that hiking from Valbonë to Theth is more ideal for a number of reasons.
One is the hike itself. Starting in Valbonë, you’ll largely be walking in a shaded, forested area during the hottest part of the day. Coming the other way, you’ll be completely exposed to the sun once it reaches its zenith in the sky.
Furthermore, there’s really not much to do in Valbonë. Theth, in contrast, has plenty to keep you busy for an extra day or two, so it’s a nice place to linger for awhile after the strenuous main hike.
Those who prefer to do warm-up hikes, however, may prefer to visit Theth first.
About this Hike
THE BASICS: As mentioned above, you have the option of either hiking from Valbonë to Theth or from Theth to Valbonë. To avoid confusion, all of the info from here on presumes you’re starting from Valbonë.
But first, you’ll need to get to the northern Albanian city of Shkodër, where you should spend at least a night before your journey.
Pretty much all hotels in Shkodër can easily arrange transport to Valbonë via the Komani Lake Ferry, so there’s very little you need to plan or worry about in that regard.
I paid a total of 18 euro (6 for the bus to the ferry departure point, 6 for the ferry itself, and 6 for the bus to Valbonë). The buses from Shkodër will pick you up at your hotel at 6:00 or 6:30.
After a night in Valbonë, it’s time to get an early morning start for Theth. From the beginning of the trail until arrival in Theth, the distance of the trail is about 12.4 km.
All in all, aside from a few uphill portions, it’s a relatively easy and straightforward hike that’s well-signed.
However, understand that the location of your accommodation in both towns will greatly influence the length of your hike, potentially increasing it by several kilometers or more.
If you’re too far away from the starting point, you may even need to arrange transport to the start of the trail. (See more about accommodation suggestions below).
Generally speaking, most people complete the hike in 6-9 hours.
You will then need to spend at least a night in Theth. But two is recommended so you can try an additional hike to the unique Blue Eye.
Leaving Theth, you can arrange a direct bus (about 10 euro) to Shkodër through your accommodation.
The ride lasts a couple of hours, but departure time varies from hotel to hotel. It could be as early as 7:00 or as late as 11:00.
RECOMMENDED APPS: The best app to use for this hike is Maps.me. Not only are its trails very accurate, but so are its estimated times for hiking.
The app is free and is fully functional offline.
WHAT TO BRING: Be sure to wear decent shoes. Hiking boots are recommended, but a sturdy pair of tennis shoes should also be fine. If you have them, trekking poles would also be helpful, though they’re not totally necessary.
Bring a decent-sized water bottle, but know that you’ll be able to refill at various springs along the way. You’ll also pass by a few cafes throughout the hike.
Buy lots of snacks in Shkodër, as markets in the villages are hard to come by. And note that restaurants in both Valbonë and Theth can be quite expensive – double or triple the prices in the cities.
Also, bring warm clothes. Even in summer, it can get quite chilly at night. But don’t overpack, as you’ll need to carry everything with you during the long hike.
As for money, there are no ATMs in the villages, and nobody takes card. Be sure to bring enough for your accommodation, meals at restaurants, and transport back to the city – plus extra cash in case of emergency.
The Komani Lake Ferry
What better way to reach the starting point of Albania’s most scenic hike than with a spectacular boat journey?
Lake Koman is a reservoir constructed in the ’80s, and the ferry has since provided transportation between the villages of Koman and Fierzë.
While it was never intended as a tourist attraction, it quickly grew in popularity thanks to the stunning views it offers of the gorge’s rocky green hills.
While there’s all sorts of information online about how to go about booking a spot on the Komani Lake Ferry, put your mind at ease and simply arrange it with your hotel in Shkodër the day before. All you have to worry about this day is waking up in time for the 6:00 bus.
The bus ride to Komani takes a couple of hours, with the ferry departing sometime after 9:00. The ferry ride itself lasts nearly three hours, so you’ll have plenty of time to relax and take in the scenery.
On board, you’ll find public bathrooms and even a bar selling water and beer. You’ll also find plenty of seating room, both indoors and out. This is a good chance to mingle with some other passengers who you may end up running into while hiking from Valbonë to Theth.
As many use the ferry to get their vehicles across the reservoir, it features a large ramp at its edge. And sitting here is one of the best ways to appreciate the views.
Though I’d brought a book, I could hardly get any reading down. Every time I looked up, the scenery was so mesmerizing that it was hard to look away.
Arriving in Fierzë in the afternoon, you’ll immediately be led into a Valbonë-bound van. And from there, it’s an additional hour-long journey to central Valbonë, or wherever it is you may be staying.
Hiking from Valbonë to Theth
A Night in Valbonë
Valbonë is not really a village in the traditional sense. Rather, with much of it existing solely for the tourist trade, it’s more like a long stretch of guest houses spread out along the main road.
Some of them can be up to several kilometers apart. Therefore, it’s best to do your homework on where exactly you want to stay if you’re planning to do the entire hike on foot.
If you find yourself too far away from the start of the trail, most hotels will be able to arrange transport for you. But confusingly, the prices can vary tremendously.
I’ve heard of people being charged 20-30 euro for the lift (more than the nightly price of many rooms). But I’ve also heard of people getting lifts for free!
In my case, I stayed at a place called Izet Selimaj. I chose it precisely because it seemed walkable (about 45 minutes) to the start of the trail.
Later on, after arriving in Theth, I met a girl who’d stayed at Izet Selimaj as well. She told me that they gave her a free lift, while they never even mentioned the option to me. It was strange, considering I had a friendly chat with the staff about the hike the previous evening.
Anyway, I was fully prepared and ready to walk the full 3 km to the trailhead (much closer than many other guest houses in Valbonë). Beginning the journey before 7:00, I was about 15 minutes into the walk along the road before a van pulled over next to me.
It turned out to be the same driver who picked everyone up the day before in Fierzë. And inside were two Spanish girls who I recognized from the ferry. Their hotel was so far away that they hired the driver to pick them up the next morning, and they kindly offered me a ride to the trailhead.
Be sure to check the end of this guide for more tips on choosing accommodation.
Starting the Trek
While, overall, hiking from Valbonë to Theth is a pretty straightforward journey, the beginning portion of the hike is among the most confusing sections.
You’ll find yourself walking over a stone riverbed for awhile, and the trail can be somewhat difficult to make out. Furthermore, the path splits into two at some points, so it’s best to consult with the Maps.me app just to be sure.
Finally reaching the end of the riverbed, the trail will diverge into two yet again. My companions and I went with the southern trail, which eventually took us to Cafe Emanuel.
And upon reaching the cafe, you have two options: head northwest in the direction of Theth, or head straight west to reach the Valbonë Waterfall. We chose the latter option.
The Valbonë Waterfall (Optional)
The detour to the waterfall takes about 20 minutes one-way. As it’s a dead end, you’ll have to return exactly the way you came. While not part of my original plan, I was open to the spontaneous detour after having saved time thanks to the free lift.
The waterfall is indeed gorgeous, and you can walk up the rocks for a closer view. But if you’re not willing to add an extra 40 minutes onto your hike, don’t feel like you’re missing out on too much.
There’s an even more impressive waterfall that you can go see in Theth, provided you book an additional night there.
The Uphill Hike to the Valbonë Pass
Returning to (or continuing along the main trail), you’ll soon encounter one of the most difficult and tiring parts of the hike. The trek between Cafe Emanuel and the next cafe called Simoni takes a little over an hour. And it’s almost entirely uphill.
While you may find yourself out of breath at some points and needing to take a few breaks, it’s not too terribly steep overall. And conveniently, clear signage and trail markers will point you in the right direction throughout the journey.
Eventually, you’ll reach Simoni Cafe, which features a few small huts and an outdoor seating area. There’s even a natural stream and miniature waterfall you can check out nearby.
The Amazing Valbonë Pass
Moving on, you’ll soon reach the Valbonë Pass – easily the most impressive part of hiking from Valbonë to Theth. In fact, this is arguably one of the most scenic areas in all of the Balkans.
The trail will gradually take you up to the other side in a zig-zag fashion, and you’ll pass by numerous large boulders along the way.
The higher you get, the clearer the views of Albania’s imposing Accursed Mountains become. Even in the peak of summer, they remain partially covered in snow.
This is yet another steep portion of the hike, and you’ll likely need to stop several times to catch your breath. But with views like these, you’ll want to take it slow regardless. And you can also take solace in the fact that this is the final uphill portion of the hike.
But just when you think you’ve reached the end, you’ll encounter an optional climb up a small peak that offers even more tremendous views. In my opinion, the extra detour is absolutely worth it.
Standing at the top, you’ll get clear views of both the Valbonë and Theth valleys. Out of all the hikes I’ve experienced throughout the world, this easily ranks up there as one of the most beautiful vantage points I’ve ever encountered.
If you’re still good on time, you might want to linger around here for awhile to soak it all in. And then when ready, it’s time to begin the descent into Theth.
The Long Descent into Theth
From the Valbonë Pass, it’s another few hours before you reach Theth. But the good news is that it’s all downhill from here. Additionally, much of the path is forested as well.
While overall, the descent into Theth is a pretty easy section of the hike, as we’ll go over shortly, there’s one final challenge before making your arrival in the village.
Before entering the forest, you’ll pass by some more beautiful mountain views on your lefthand side. And before long, you’ll finally get to escape the sun for awhile.
Coming out of the forest, you’ll get your first glimpse of Theth – or at least its outskirts – in the distance. But you still have a little while to get there.
While the views on this portion of the hike aren’t particularly noteworthy, the main thing on your mind by this point will likely be a hot shower and a soft bed.
As mentioned, there’s one major obstacle before reaching the village. The final descent is not only steep but incredibly slippery. The trail here is entirely covered in small rocks and loose gravel.
If I had to guess, the percentage of people who manage to make it down without slipping at least once is probably around 5%.
Just when I started to think, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad,’ I’d immediately slip on some pebbles, even falling on my butt a couple of times. Though I had trekking poles, they weren’t of much use here.
Taking things slow and steady, I finally made it. After crossing a small bridge, I strolled into Theth. But it was still too early to celebrate.
As is the case with Valbonë, Theth lacks a distinct village center, and I still had another 40 minutes or so of walking before reaching my guest house (some guest houses are indeed nearby the trailhead, however).
Whether or not you decide to stay a second (or third) night in Theth to try some additional hikes, there are a few noteworthy landmarks in town that are worth seeking out.
Even if you only stay one night, you should have time to see them either after your hike or early the next morning before the bus ride back to Shkodër.
In the southern part of town is the Kulla, a 400-year-old tower that’s become symbolic of the deadly blood feuds that were long common in this region.
According to the traditional Albanian code of honor known as Kanun, if a male family member was murdered, someone from his family would have to avenge the death by killing a man from the rival clan.
But the score could never be settled, resulting in an endless cycle of tit-for-tat killings – or at least until all the males of a particular family were ultimately killed off!
But what role did this tower play in the tradition? It was considered a safe refuge in which a man, who knew he was the target of the next killing, could hide out for awhile.
Some men would wait here for weeks or months to simply prolong the inevitable. Others, meanwhile, did so in hopes that another male family member would eventually be killed in their place.
For 200 lek, you can enter the tower and hear an explanation about the brutal tradition from a local. While I have yet to get ahold of a copy myself, blood feuds are a major theme of Albanian novelist Ismael Qadare’s book Broken April.
Just a few minutes on foot from the Kulla is the Church of Theth, another popular landmark in the region. It’s a recent reconstruction of a late-19th century church. But at the time of my visit, it was locked.
That didn’t stop large groups from gathering outside to pose for selfies, however.
But a big appeal of Theth is simply its scenery. Even if you don’t have the energy to try out the Blue Eye hike the next day, it’s worth at least walking around to enjoy what’s arguably Albania’s – if not the entire Balkans’ – most beautiful village.
As mentioned above, both Valbonë and Theth are incredibly spread out. If your accommodation is too far from either trailhead, it could add a huge amount of time and distance to your hike. And if it’s simply too far out, you may have to spend extra money on transport.
That’s why it’s important to choose somewhere relatively close to the trail. A good way to figure this out is to examine the Maps.me app.
When looking at the different options on Booking.com (or whichever site you prefer), search for each place in Maps.me and check how far it is from the main trail. The app’s time estimations for walking are quite accurate.
Taking both price and location into consideration, I went with Guest House Izet Selimaj in Valbonë. While I reserved a shared room to save money, I ended up having a spacious room all to myself. And the place runs a restaurant, so I didn’t have to go far to find food.
The major downside, however, was that I was on the first floor directly beneath a large family of at least 6 or 7 people (I’m still not sure if they were guests or living there). As Albania is not a country in which people remove their shoes inside the home, the noise from the stomping above was tremendous!
To make matters worse, it seemed like none of them went to bed. It went on literally all night, and I couldn’t have slept more than 2 or 3 hours! This was the last thing I needed before such a long hike.
I can, at least, tell you that Izet Selimaj’s location was good, but I wouldn’t recommend staying there. Therefore, try looking for something within your budget around there or even closer to the trailhead if possible.
In Theth, I deliberately chose to stay somewhere far from the end of the trail. In fact, after arriving in the village, I still had to walk a whole 45 minutes to reach my accommodation.
The reason was that I knew I wanted to hike to the Blue Eye the next day, and staying at Shpella Guest House would give me a big head start, not to mention a shorter hike back. Furthermore, it’s located right near the Kulla tower and Theth Church. But location, unfortunately, was the only positive thing about Shpella.
To save money, I stayed in a shared dorm room. But in pricey Theth, even a shared room cost me about 2000 lek per night. While I always avoid shared dorm rooms in cities, the hostel experience is usually fine in national parks.
At such places, from my experience, most people hike in the day and are dead tired by evening. As such, I’ve rarely had issues with noise at a dorm room in a national park. But Shpella was different.
The guest house has an attached restaurant located right next to the dorm, and it’s supposed to close at 22:00 or 22:30 (still too late for such an environment, in my opinion). But management is very flexible with their guests as long as they keep spending money at their overpriced restaurant (which serves mediocre food, I might add).
I really got the impression that they couldn’t care less about the other guests who simply came to hike and not blow loads of cash on drinks. As such, hikers staying at Shpella have to put up with loud music past 1 am and the hollering and shouting from drunk guests partying right outside the rooms.
To make matters worse, the owners had a terrible attitude and never apologized or took any sort of responsibility. I’d have to say that not only was Shpella my worst accommodation experience in Albania, but probably in all of the Balkans!
It turns out that hikers actually make up a small percentage of all those staying in Theth. Loads of Tirana residents and international tourists flock to the village in the summer and use guesthouses like Shpella as their personal party spaces.
Now that you know where NOT to stay, where should one stay in Theth? If you’re planning on doing the Blue Eye hike, I’d look for somewhere relatively near Shpella.
The high-rated Bujtina Polia seems like a good option. While it does have an attached restaurant/bar, there don’t seem to be any mentions in the reviews about noise and sleep issues. Guesthouse Marashi is another high-rated place nearby, though numerous guests have complained about noise in the reviews.
If you’re only hiking from Valbonë to Theth and want to put your bags down as soon as you reach the village, look for somewhere near the trailhead. The village’s only market happens to be around here as well. Guest House Flodisa seems like a good option in this area.