Peaks of the Balkan
The Peaks of the Balkan is a mountain range spreading through Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania, and the home of century’s old blood feuds, which luckily for us, faded into the history books by now. Part of the reason for this was the making of well-established trails around the area, which intended to boost tourism, and carefully planned to have an even amount in all three countries, avoiding any conflicts.
This led to having some boring parts if you only follow the official route, but of course you don’t have to, since there are many smaller paths spreading around from the connecting towns. You also have to be prepared with food, because up in the summer villages there is only sheepherders, and in the towns there are just a few restaurants with close to none vegetarian options, with kiosks selling chips and soft drinks.
Getting to the starting point
Our plan was to get to Teth first, which is a small little resort village up in the Albanian mountains and part of the trail. Most blogs or websites we checked recommended starting from here, but we were not sure how easily we will get a ride, since you needed a 4wheeler and 3-4 hours even from Boga (which is already quite far up) to get there.
On the day we left Çanj, we managed to get so far through sheer luck and the friendliness of the locals, that we almost couldn’t believe it. We arrived to a bigger town in Albania in the afternoon not so far from the border of Montenegro, where we restocked supplies and was hoping to get just a bit out of town in the right direction to find a camping spot.
We were walking on the roadside when a small pickup truck pulled up, and a guy asked us if we’re going to Teth by any chance (two backpackers around here stand out a lot). He only took us until the middle of nowhere before the next village, where he worked as a prison guard, but as this was the only road up to the mountains, we were not worried about our next ride. Sure enough, a car came 5 minutes later and of course they picked us up.
After learning about our destination, they called a friend, who explained me on the phone that when we get out, we should just wait for him, because he is 15 minutes behind and lives higher up in Boga. It turns out he was the owner of a newly opened campsite, and let us stay even free there, seeing that it would be hard to find a place in the dark.
And our luck didn’t stop there, what was happening in the period of just a few days was mindblowing. In the morning we took our time and got out of the camping a bit late, worrying that maybe all the tourists who would stop for us already left. 15 minutes later there it was, and old fixed up van occupied by a Czech couple, travelling around Europe.
Although at times we were not sure the van would make it through the rocky gravel road, it hold its ground, most probably because our driver knew what he was doing. It was an amazing ride among the mountains, and we already got a glimpse of whats to come, the peaks all around us reminding us a bit of the Dolomites, yet so different.
In the mountains
Since we arrived early afternoon and there was plenty of daylight left, we decided to cut the distance to Valbona in half, and find a meadow somewhere in between. With plenty of springs and fresh streams along the way, getting water was super easy, which meant not having to carry 3 liters all along the way. It really is quite annoying on your back, compared to the bikes, and we had plenty of fresh vegetables and other stuff weighing us down, as we prepared to have food for a few days, not knowing what to expect in the mountain villages.
Although there was a small shop in Teth, the prices reflected the remote location, but you could buy enough food to get you through. Nevertheless, I advise to get everything down in the bigger towns, after Valbona (where the small shop meant a kiosk really, with chips and ice cream to choose from) we went down to Bajram Curri, where there are plenty of green grocers and supermarkets to choose from, and it’s easy to get a ride back up.
The mountain trails and peaks around us were beautiful even with the cloudy, misty weather and intermittent raining, not so hard and a bit crowded in some parts, but there were a few open areas suitable to put up a tent. Up high the land was barren and rocky, and my running shoes were not the perfect match for rolling gravel, but we survived. I can’t really describe the view with words, so let the pictures speak. 🙂
As a lot of richer tourers come here, flying in with luggage wanting to do the trail the leisurely way, donkeys and horses carrying three suitcases or huge backpacks on them is a frequent site, and you can see their marks everywhere. The official trail is marked so well it would be a miracle to get lost, and there are tons of guest houses and several cafés, so if you are looking for a nice through hike place with affordable prices, this is the area to look for.
We spent 4 days trekking and peaked into the Montenegran side on one trail, and although we heard there can be border patrols asking for your permit on the official route, as this was a side track, we didn’t run into any trouble. The terrain is ragged and rocky, and poses just enough challenge to feel alive (climbing more than 1100meter in 7km for example), which we enjoyed immensely. The last night we slept next to a shepherd’s refuge hut above 2000 meters, and watched a huge herd of sheeps being guided down in the evening – we were a tiny bit worried that we get another sleeping with herd experience, but we escaped it this time.
On the way down I intended to buy some local sheep cheese directly from the mountain houses, and once we found a family, we got a treatment like we were café guests, as they served herbal tea, fresh bread with yoghurt and even a taste of the cheese without wanting anything in return. For almost half a kilo of cheese, and a bottle of yoghurt and another warm bread I payed 2 euro, which was not a price set in stone, but rather they gave a range they thought was ok for it.
Back to the bikes
To leave the area and get back to Bajram Curri, we had to walk a long way on a gravel road, which was also part of the official trail and had some nice parts (sometimes you felt like you were walking on a riverbed), but not too exciting. Before going back to Macedonia, I was curious about one more thing, namely the lake of Koman, which is part of a river in a supposedly beautiful valley startig around Fierza, and there is a famous ferry ride you can take. But we didn’t want to pay for the ferry and it was a dead end road, so we decided to skip it. Fate thought otherwise.
There were no cars for quite a while when we wanted to get south, so after half an hour when someone finally stopped, we took the chance, not checking the map too much but agreeing to get in as he said he was going in that direction. Guess where he took us 🙂 We slept at the bank of the river admiring the view and got in the right direction in the morning.
From Tirana it was smooth sailing back with multiple rides, friendly taxi and truck drivers and just a bit of walking; and all in all it only took us two days. First we went to Ohrid though, where we spent another three days at our favourite camping spot, because we knew it would be impossible to get there again with bikes.
Once we got back to Bitola, Goce welcomed us warmly with tons of fresh fruit, cheese and stories of his own, and we were glad of the company and to play a bit with their dogs before we jumped on the bikes again in a few days. As we knew that Greece would be more expensive (especially north, in the mountains), we bought a ton bulk nuts and grains in the city, and set out to a country, where, looking back, we found the most varied landscape and beauty in the tour so far.